Is there reverse privilege?

Ta-Nehisi Coates had a typically thoughtful post last week on crime and race:

I was just reading this entry from Ezra Klein where he notes that fully half of his friends have been mugged. That is just a shocking number to me. I got to thinking back on my days in the District, and I couldn't even think of more than three or four people who I knew that had been mugged. As I reflected more on it, I came to a very uncomfortable--if obvious conclusion--if you're a mugger in D.C., a young, white, bookish blogger probably looks like the perfect mark.

For most of my tenure in D.C., I was going to Howard University. This was before the advent of gentrification, and it was generally thought that Howard students, themselves, were easy marks. But me and most my friends knew that to be a simplification. It's true that if you walked through, say, Clifton Terrace star-gazing, if you're roaming the streets acting like it can't happen (as us ancient hip-hop heads say), you were very likely to get stuck. But as anyone whose spent some time in the city knows, if you moved through the streets with purpose, if you kept the ice-grill on and looked like you were all business, if you kept that sixth sense of yours buzzing, the chances of you actually falling prey were pretty low. I may have had one encounter my whole time in D.C. You may attribuite that to me being 6'4, but the same was true of virtually all of my friends because they tended to be, like me, kids who didn't have a thuggish bone in their bodies but were still intimately acquainted with, as Dre would say, the Strength of Street Knowledge.

In reading all of these blog postings about crime in the District, I am beginning to understand--to some extent--the fear that white folks must have of black crime, as something different than the fear that black folks have. I live in Harlem, still a relatively unsafe section of New York, but having lived in Harlems all my life, I acutally feel almost as safe there as I do here in Aspen. I know that violent crime most often happens in situations in which people know each other, or in situations in which someone looks like a target. I tend to not hang with criminals, and I do what I can to not make myself a target.

But how would I feel if I knew my skin color alone made me an easy mark for the most degenerate elements of a community? Heh, probably the exact same way I'd feel driving through the small towns of Texas. That's not entirely fair--random street crime is still more common than hate crime. What I'm driving at is this: For the first time in my life, I have some sense of what the white guy who is ignorant of all things about black people is thinking when he drives through certain parts of town and rolls up his window. Because his very whiteness makes him an easy mark, he has to fear things in a way that I never do.

Presented by

Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.


Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise


A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.


Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Business

Just In