When race isn't mentioned 

When crime struck, Chicago's papers didn't focus on race, but neither have Mayor Emanuel's neighbors

The crime wave on the near north side made headlines and the one in my neighborhood didn't. But that will change. When Mayor Rahm Emanuel moves back into his house on Hermitage this summer, either crime will go way down (our preference) or the press will be all over it.

Columnists at the dailies have made it clear that by the lights of, say, Englewood, the "flash mobs," "wilding," or "mob violence" (headline crime demands vivid language) recently besetting the genteel streets in and near Streeterville doesn't amount to much. That's just as true of our neck of Lakeview. We've seen a series of garage break-ins, and there have been sporadic reports of menacing behavior by groups of teens. The night of May 26, a young man walking east on Berteau at Hermitage was robbed at gunpoint. Police say the two robbers, traveling by car, pulled off three more robberies on nearby streets in the next half hour.

Emanuel's house is a few doors north. But he won't be living in it again until July. It's not the mayor everyone's waiting for; it's his home's round-the-clock security detail.

Our neighborhood has responded to the rash of crime by pulling together and pooling information by e-mail. Two days before the robberies, a woman on Emanuel's block wrote this:

"Our garage was also broken into on Saturday night. My unlocked car was parked on the street and they took my garage door opener to get into the garage. There were 4 males in their early 20's. We filed a police report and let the police officer know we have the security camera and have it all on tape. He said we'd hear from a detective."

A couple of weeks later I called her and asked if she'd ever heard from a detective. No, she said, and it was more than a little frustrating because the video showed not only the intruders but also the gold Saturn they traveled in.

She said she'd mentioned the lack of follow-up to a beat cop who advised hanging on until the mayor arrives. "He said, 'Oh well, things will be changing.' I said, 'Yeah, for this block. But what about all the other blocks?'"

Her video isn't the only one a curious detective can review. A security camera a block south of her house captured a man on a bicycle entering a garage, putting his bike in the trunk of the car he found there, and driving off. The car was found a couple of weeks later abandoned at Northwestern University.

The woman's e-mail announcing the garage break-in intrigued me for what it didn't say. Though she wrote to put her neighbors on notice, she said nothing about the race or ethnicity of the four males in the video.

She told me they looked Hispanic—and so did the car-swiping bicyclist. Yet in all the neighborhood e-mails I read sharing information on the various incidents, no one raised the subject. (The armed robber on Berteau was described by his victim as Hispanic, but I had to go to the police to find that out.) Aside from someone's mention that according to her kids a "dark-skinned male" had tried to open their back gate, race was a topic avoided just as much by my neighbors as it was by the Chicago media in their first wave of reports of flash mobs terrorizing the near north.

"Teen mobs prowl downtown Chicago," announced the below-the-fold page-one headline of the June 6 Tribune. The story identified the miscreants in a series of recent attacks as a "group of about 15 to 20 youths in their mid- to late teens." There was no hint of their race. Well, actually there was. If the youths had been white, I bet that would have been reported, to douse the flames of racial tension; if they'd been Asian the story would have run above the fold.

Why were the papers so reticent? Two theories by no means mutually exclusive come to mind. The first is that the papers didn't want any responsibility for the vile commentary sure to erupt from a noxious element of the readership. Better to be accused by those readers of gutless PC liberalism than be accused by more high-minded citizens of enabling the rabble-rousers. (An example of the rabble-rousers' commentary, on chicagonewsreport.com: "Why are the major news sources afraid to say these animals are black? If whites were attacking blacks on the street it would be national news!")

The second theory invokes what I'll call the Robert Frost school of news management: "Provide. Provide." Any journalist who thought about it for more than two seconds had to realize there was no way to keep race out of the flash mob story. But holding this information at bay for a day or two ensured a rich harvest of follow-up stories. As soon as the press started writing about race it could then write about itself not writing about race. (Navel-gazing is the basis of many a Sunday think piece.)

In the June 8 Tribune, columnist Mary Schmich got the show on the road. Under the headline "When news omits race, do we know less?" she wrestled with the question "Why would a news organization avoid a fact? This fact?" Journalism is the business of dishing out facts and letting chips fall where they may, yet Schmich admitted, "I think I would have decided to leave it out too." Race, Schmich seemed to think, is the kind of fast-growing tumor that takes over stories even when it doesn't actually tell us much about them. Or as the headline to Dawn Turner Trice's column, which was right below Schmich's, put it, "Race can be easy—and wrong—answer."

In the same edition, John Kass pulled off a two-fer. He hopped on the Red Line south and had a conversation with a black man, James Chalmers. "He's a hardworking guy, and I liked him immediately," Kass wrote. Kass got to tell us what he told Chalmers, which is that black-on-white crime makes the media uncomfortable. It "creates headaches." And then he got to tell us what Chalmers told him back, which is that "all that PC stuff don't mean anything. . . . And that 'flash mob' thing?. . . Well, let me tell you. It happens on this side of town all the time."

Once the race angle was up and running, this point got made repeatedly. The Sun-Times's Mary Mitchell, like Trice an African-American, told us the flash mobs were giving Chicagoans in "the city's wealthiest ZIP codes . . . a taste of what residents in poor areas have lived with for years." Mitchell's colleague Stella Foster, also black, said the same thing, though curiously not on her own authority: "I heard from a reader who informed this columnist that the flash mob incidents have been going on for the longest time on the South Side with virtually no media mentions nor any real action on the part of our Chicago Police Department."

Foster objected to the media's appropriation of the term "flash mob"—she suggested "flash thugs"—and that was yet another topic now open to the papers. "It has been a rough string of days for fans of flash mobs," brooded the Tribune's Rex Huppke. Flash mobs are "largely innocuous, secretly organized events in which fun-loving people gather en masse to dance or say the same thing at once or engage in pillow fights."

Last Sunday found the Tribune still dealing with not dealing with race. Editor Gerould Kern, responding to "a number of readers" who wondered what gives, posted a statement explaining that the race-free tack was taken "after serious consideration" and because "we do not reference race unless it is a fact central to telling the story." Said Kern, "By all indications, these attacks were motivated by theft, not race."

Kern was on page two. Dawn Turner Trice dominated page one with a story headlined "'I love my city'—Young people endure the pressure of being seen as a threat but say they're not out to cause trouble."

To my two earlier theories about the race-blind coverage and the Tribune's explanation that race wasn't mentioned because it didn't seem to figure in, let me offer a third theory: the press was simply a little ahead of the curve. Truth is, most people truly don't seem as preoccupied with race as they used to be. I asked the woman who lives a few doors from Rahm Emanuel's house why she hadn't mentioned race in her e-mail about the garage break-in.

"I don't know," she said. "It's a good question. Whenever I tell people we were broken into, they ask the question, 'What were they?' But I just wanted people to know it was four guys in a car."

If race is disappearing from written communications, that, to me, doesn't signal an epidemic of PC cravenness. It signals race not mattering the way it used to. Viewed at a certain angle, and maybe only with great strain, the initial race-free coverage of the flash mob outbreak can almost look like progress. 

E-mail Michael Miner at mminer@chicagoreader.com.

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