I'm hesitant to say much about John Conroy's account of getting beaten up by a group of thugs, and his attempt to figure out why. It's worth stating, at the outset, that my opinions on hate-crime laws are on the record (I'm not a fan.) It's also worth stating that I've spent my share of time on the bruised end of a few beat-downs. I've only been to the West Side of Chicago, twice in my life. But there is a hazy body of wisdom which, I think, extends from West Baltimore to West Chicago to West Harlem (though the neighborhood is changing.)
I was struck by Conroy's quest to find a deeper meaning in what happened to him. This may be more about me than him--but my sense of what always makes the hood so dangerous is the actual lack of real meaning, the random nature of violence, and how it pervades everything. The first time I got jumped, it was by some fools from Murphey Homes, who caught me and my older brother, downtown, at night. They ran his pockets--but robbery wasn't the motive. Through violence the kids who jumped me and my brother were able to say, "We are kings. And your skin is our doormat." There are a large number of boys who want to be kings, and those with either no other outlet to express that, or with a propensity to express it through violence regardless of outlets, are responsible of a lot of senseless crime.
Conroy thinks he was picked out for his whiteness. I would not be shocked at all if this were true, but not for the reasons he thinks. It's possible his assailants were laying in wait for the next white person who crossed their path. That's a lengthy wait, though. More likely they were looking for an easy target--someone who was alone, someone who didn't "know the rules," and someone who wasn't from the neighborhood, and thus unlikely to have local recourse. I'd argue that Conroy's whiteness, and his bike, probably accomplished the last two. But I'd also argue that every day, black boys get marked in almost exactly the same way--for looking like they "don't know the rules," and for not "being from the neighborhood."
When I was coming up, I quickly learned not to, say, roll through Walbrook Junction if I didn't know anyone down there. And if I were going to do that, I'd better roll deep, and be prepared to knuckle up. You certainly better not ride through there solo on your bike. I think this, if anything, is what Conroy is missing--the fact that exactly what happened to him, happens to black people with shocking regularity. He concedes that there isn't any proof that he was the victim of a racist attack. But he suspects that his whiteness was significant. I'd suggest that its actual insignificance is what's really interesting.
Put bluntly, it's not that they treated him like a honky--it's that they treated him like one of their own, like a nigger.