One of several stereotypes about African Americans is that they are criminals.  Because I’m black, I have been followed in stores, singled out by security to have my bag checked before exiting a store, had women run for the purses they left in their shopping carts when I approached, had Caucasians served before me even though I was first in line, etc.  Does it make me angry?  You bet.  And it makes me talk about it a lot.

A young African American scholar visiting a foreign country was asked how many people he had killed and how many guns did he own.  Sadly, for the inquirer, this scholar had not killed anyone, and he did not own any guns. 

I say “sadly” because the inquirer was disappointed. 

How could this be? An African American male who is not a criminal?  Unbelievable. 

If seeing is believing, maybe this encounter with an African American that was not a criminal chipped away at the stereotype.

The majority of African Americans pictured in newspapers and on TV are African Americans involved in criminal activity.  Seeing is believing, so many people conclude that all African Americans are criminals.  One believes what one wants to believe especially if one wants to believe the stereotype or has not interacted with or seen much coverage of African Americans who are not criminals.

In the last issue of the RoundTable, there was an editorial and two articles about gang activity in Evanston.  One of the articles covered efforts to attract young males away from gangs while the other covered a meeting sponsored by the Police Department in the Fifth Ward.  According to coverage of the Fifth Ward meeting, there were complaints about the presentation being “racially motivated” (see RoundTable, September 25, 2014, “Fifth Ward Residents React to Police Presentation on Gangs”) and criticisms and lamentations (my words) about people not giving the police department information about criminal activity. 

Why don’t people give information to the police department? 

Is it because of apathy, the assumption that someone else will do it, fear of retaliation, or negative experiences with police officers? 

Several women (who are not gangbangers) told me recently that they had been intimidated by several police officers who treated them rudely and that they would never call the police again. 

I urged them to reconsider and call the police and their alderperson for emergency situations (like gunshots). 

They said communicating with the police or City officials was futile.  I then suggested that they contact the Cook County Sheriff’s Department or the F.B.I. 

Black residents on Evanston’s west side reported the beginning of gang activity years ago.  Their observations were dismissed.

So now what? Not only is gang activity now recognized as a problem in Evanston, gang activity and efforts to curb it are the focus of the editorial “Even in the Fifth-Best City, Thorny Problems Persist.”  Of course, gang activity is not the only problem in Evanston, but when people are treated unfairly, under-educated, not hired or promoted and excluded in other ways, a class of outsiders is produced.  Outsiders can become insiders by finding camaraderie and self-importance in gangs (not my original thought). 

Unfortunately, criminal behavior makes headlines.  A mug shot and coverage of someone who robbed a bank or shot someone is frequently treated more newsworthy than some natural catastrophe that has killed hundreds.

Gangbangers can become idols. 

All of us need to do all we can to discourage that. 

Peggy Tarr has been a columnist for the Evanston RoundTable since its founding in 1998. Born in Bruce Springsteen's hometown of Freehold, New Jersey, she graduated from Rutgers University with a degree...