On Sunday, August 12, the front page of the Washington Post brought us yet another story about white suburban youth, who, to the amazement of their parents, friends, and the media, turn out to be stone cold criminals. This time the headlines emanate from "nice neighborhoods," in Northern Virginia: places where sinister crimes aren't supposed to happen.
But, as authorities have discovered, one of the most significant drug operations in the region's history was being run from this "nice, safe" place. And not by dark-skinned street-hustlers preying on vulnerable teens and getting them hooked; but rather, by the former soccer-playing little leaguers who this nation grooms to run major corporations, hold political office, or merely typifies as normal, all-American boys.
In the instant case, the accused, from the Prince William County hamlets of Chantilly and Centreville are youths who reporter Josh White describes as "good kids," who "went bad." When was the last time a black or Latino drug dealer or gang-banger was described this way? To those who study media, implicit in most news coverage when they do it is the suggestion that it's because they were congenital criminals; it was their IQ or pathological underclass families. They don't "go" bad, they just "are" bad.
But when stories are written about pale-faced killers or dealers, or in this case both, sympathetic adjectives fill the pages. Crime becomes human interest -- a cautionary tale. We are encouraged to identify with the instigators of the mayhem in ways we never would be were they dark or poor.
Listen to those quoted in White's story. First there is Prince William Detective Greg Pass who explains, "None of this happened in bad neighborhoods... It bothers everyone involved that in many ways these kids are mirror images of the detectives working the case, except they have chosen to go the wrong way." Sympathy, recognition, identification, and all of it, by the officer's admission, due to the fact that these kids are "mirror images" of the detectives themselves. And what does one see in the mirror after all? One's face: one's white, middle class suburban face, to be precise.
Just as the media generally "deracializes" incidents of white deviance, portraying them as the aberrant, inexplicable acts of aberrant, inexplicable individuals, (unlike the same from the dark and poor which are often portrayed as group tendencies), so too did Josh White in his piece on Wolfe, Barber and Petrole. Instead of pointing out the fallacies of white suburban denial and the blindness that besets so many of the residents in these "nice," places, White and the Post offered up a quixotic melodrama: good kids gone wrong; sympathetic, misguided youths posing as hardened criminals and coming to a tragic end.