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Racial Matters

Maybe the Answer to Police Lynchings Is Non-Racist Cops

I know the heading of this post sounds impractical - racism after all, infects all whites (and blacks) to some degree or another. Try as we might in all our roles (parents, teachers, politicians, job supervisors, etc.) racism is so heavily conditioned in our society that there is no way to fully escape its taint. And we certainly have tried as a society, from emphasizing racial diversity in business and government hiring, too.


But having allowed for conditioning, along with the efforts of big-city police forces to hire more blacks and install black police supervisors, it is clear that more needs to be done. The murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer is yet another outrage in a seemingly endless series of such outrages going back many decades. Heck, the plot of my novel, "Gouster Girl," which is set nearly 60 years ago, revolves significantly around a case of racial abuse by Chicago police. And even at that point, in the early 1960s, our nation had a long history of abuse by white cops against black men and women.

Each time these outrages occur, there is all kinds of hand-wringing about what can be done to stop them. There are calls for whites to become more racially sensitive and aware of "white privilege." There are calls for more effective prosecution of the police perpetrators.


But I recently heard a suggestion on a radio call-in program that made more sense than any of it. A guest on the program pointed out that the Minneapolis cop who killed Floyd, Derek Chauvin, had 18 complaints against him over his 20 year career, at least some related to his aggressive and racist policing behavior. The caller pointed out that major airlines wouldn't keep on a pilot with even a few complaints about drunkenness or reckless flying. In fact, the airlines try hard to weed out such problem pilots before they even get the opportunity to go into the cockpit.


Isn't policing at least as demanding as flying a jet plane? After all, a screw-up in the cockpit can easily lead to needless death and destruction.

The airlines' success at screening out and policing against unstable pilots is clear: airline crashes are quite rare. If the airlines won't tolerate unstable pilots, so should big-city police forces not tolerate racist cops. 


The pervasiveness of social media makes it easier than ever to spot racist police applicants. Any hint of racism in terms of the organizations an applicant has been involved with or statements made on Twitter or Facebook should work against hiring a particular individual. Once an individual is hired, possible racism should be monitored early on; many police forces have a probationary period of up to a year for new recruits, when they can be let go without possible intervention by police unions. Beyond that, even a small number of complaints, such as for racial profiling in police stops of people of color, should prompt serious investigation, well before 18 complaints.


Before any of this can happen, the white power structure in each city needs to make the commitment to taking racist police behavior seriously. This is a big shift, because up till now, even with diversity programs, the power structure, including powerful police unions, has remained committed to backing its police no matter what. That's why it is so difficult to gain convictions in cases like that in Minneapolis where police misbehavior is clearly demonstrated.


The power structure in each city needs to make the commitment to policing standards of excellence, with adequate oversight, that includes zero tolerance of racist behavior. It's not rocket science, and it's been done to combat police corruption, with most forces having internal police groups that monitor their brethren for hints of payoffs. Demands for excellence and accountability, with threats of losing a job that in most cities provides excellent benefits and guarantees a generous pension, counts for a lot. It's all a matter of commitment.

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The Sensitive Subject of Violent Crime in Black Urban Neighborhoods

A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a major article about a large exodus of black residents from Chicago—some 200,000 have left over the last twenty years, 50,000 since 2015, the paper reported.
The article  focused mainly on three generations of a black family that had originally settled on Chicago's West Side during the 1950s.  The first generation settled in well, bought a home, but the second and third generations began questioning whether Chicago was the best place to raise children, according to the article.  By the early 2000s, Dora White, a member of the second generation of the White family, "had grown concerned about their surroundings. By 2003, no other city in the country had as many homicides as Chicago. Their neighborhood of Austin, a community of aging brick houses, greystones and apartment buildings that occupies a large swath of Chicago's West Side, had become notorious for its violence."

Dora White had become somewhat accepting of street drug sales because it was pretty much out of sight. But "the young guys, they just started blocking streets, blocking traffic. They didn't care."

Ms. White worried about her teenage daughter. "who was bright and ambitious," and decided she "wanted to get her out of that environment." Her solution was to buy a house in the suburb of Hillside, ten miles west of Chicago.

The New York Times reporter kind of dances around the notion of crime being the major force in pushing blacks out of Chicago. Instead, he summarizes the reasons for why blacks are exiting Chicago as follows: "They have been driven out of the city by segregation, gun violence, discriminatory policing, racial disparities in employment, the uneven quality of public schools and frustration at life in neighborhoods whose once-humming commercial districts have gone quiet…."
Actually, "gun violence," "discriminatory policing," and "once-humming commercial districts have gone quiet" are all part of urban crime. "Discriminatory policing" means the cops aren't around when you need them. And commercial districts "go quiet" when the middle class departs, leaving poor people who can't afford to support serious commerce.
Urban crime is a difficult subject to discuss for what it is in a political climate inclined to blame police for unequal law enforcement. But in the departure of middle class blacks from Chicago, we begin to get a sense of the challenge: violent crime in black urban areas tends to be carried out by poor kids. The victims tend to be middle-class blacks simply trying to lives their lives and go to work and school. In Chicago, middle-class blacks are voting with their feet, and increasingly they are outta there. 

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Books About Chicago's South Shore Neighborhood Are All the Rage

Over the last 15 months, three other books besides Gouster Girl have come out about  the South Side Chicago neighborhood of South Shore and its longstanding racial and economic difficulties, i


There is a novel about police brutality and gangs by a young black man, Gabriel Bump (Everywhere You Don't Belong). It officially goes on sale next week, but initial readers at Goodreads and other places have given it pretty good reviews.


There's a kind of memoir and economic assessment of South Shore as a community by a man who grew up in South Shore, Carlo Rotella. Published by the University of Chicago Press, it came out last spring, and is an intriguing read about his conversations and meanderings around the neighborhood trying to make sense of the wide economic disparities he observes. 


And then there is the hugely popular bestseller by MichelIe Obama (Becoming), which devotes its opening 60 pages or so to her growing-up years in South Shore.  She laments, at times, the exodus of whites and middle class blacks from the neighborhood, and the doom that has meant..


Each author has a different story to tell, a different time frame, and a different perspective to offer, based on their life experiences and/or research. The volume of literature is testimony to the big impact South Shore has on the people who grow up there. Indeed, there's a Facebook page as well: "I grew up in Chicago (South Shore), which has more than 2,000 members. 


By the way, each of the authors I mentioned here, including myself, now lives somewhere other than South Shore. Bump lives in Buffalo, Rotella and I live in the Boston area, and Michelle Obama is mainly in Washington. 

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Here Is What Some Initial Readers Are Saying About Gouster Girl

If you grew up in Chicago, you'll find Gouster Girl enchanting, evocative, and difficult to put down. Here's what some initial readers are saying on Amazon:
-For me, reading this book was like meeting up with an old friend from fifty years ago…. It's a must for anyone who grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s.
-I so enjoyed all of the descriptions of places I of course remembered as a South Sider!
-One of those difficult to put down books even though you know it's time to go to sleep.
-Gumpert is unflinchingly honest in his description of a lost world, which makes this novel not only a moving personal story, but a portrait of a bygone age with lessons for today.
It's available in digital at a ridiculously low introductory price, and in paperback, all via the home page of this site. 

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Can Gouster Girl Be Appreciated by non-Chicagoans?

Gouster Girl is a historical novel set on the South Side of Chicago in the early 1960s, a time of incredible racial tension in Chicago and around the country.  One concern I had about the novel from early on was whether it would be of interest to people who had little knowledge or connection to Chicago.
Yesterday, I received two comments that shed light on that question. The first was a comment on Amazon from a reader who wonders about that exact question--if Gouster Girl has appeal outside of Chicago:
For me, reading this book was like meeting up with an old friend from fifty years ago. Like Jeff, the book's protagonist, I too grew up in South Shore in the 1960s and lived through the racial tensions and violence. Much of what Jeff experienced I also experienced a few years later at South Shore High School.
My experiences growing up were instrumental in shaping who I am today, and it was interesting to see my feelings corroborated in this book.


Nevertheless, I wonder whether this book will appeal to those who did not grow up in South Shore in the 1960s. Dear readers, I challenge you to find out.
So I took the challenge, or shall I say, by coincidence I received a second comment yesterday from a psychologist I know, who grew up in Pennsylvania in the 1950s and 1960s, and was captivated by Gouster Girl:
Our divisions growing up were very much related to social class - blue collar vs. white collar. But we didn't have the intense racial and religious divides you describe  in Gouster Girl. For me, the story brought back some of the angst and general visceral discomfort about identity and social connections of those year and multiplied it by 100!
The intense stress and confusion and hatred described in your book is so painfully moving. Somehow the general context of the age group plus the racial and religious divides that existed — and which were actually enhanced by the government, police, cultural, real estate practices, etc.-- felt almost unbearable to me. You did a wonderful job of fostering this strong emotional experience that I had in the reading of the book.
So the initial feedback is encouraging. Gouster Girl may well have life beyond Chicago.

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Only Eddie Murphy Could Make Inner-City Racial Conflict So Funny

Black comedian Eddie Murphy made a triumphal return to Saturday Night Live a few weeks ago and revived some of the characters he played when he was last on 35 years ago, including Buckwheat and Gumby.
But it was his reincarnation of "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood," the takeoff on Mr. Rogers, that probably drew the most laughs, especially this monolog within the sketch: 

Mister Robinson (Eddie Murphy) tying his shoes: "My neighborhood has gone through so much. It's going through something called 'gentrification.' Can you say, 'gentrification,' boys and girls?  
"It's like a magic trick. White people pay a lot of money and, poof, all the black people are gone." 
"You know where the black people go?" Pause, as Murphy looks wide-eyed, and prepares to deliver his punch line. 
"They all go to Atlanta!!!"
The crowd loved it, in large part because the joke is over in less than 30 seconds, which is about as much time as most whites want to think about such unpleasantness as poor blacks being displaced by well-to-do whites in old city areas of New York, Baltimore, San Diego, Washington, DC, and others. 
Back in the early 1980s, when Murphy launched his takeoff on Mr. Rogers, he was doing jokes about "white flight," which in a sense is the flip side of gentrification. Instead of whites moving back into the city to displace blacks, back then blacks were crowding into white neighborhoods, and whites were fleeing, often to the suburbs. 
It all began in the 1950s and 1960s, when blacks who were part of the Second Great Migration from the South, were pouring into northern big cities. Whites felt threatened with the prospect of not just living among blacks, but living among poor blacks. While the whites feared crime, they also feared their property values would decline. The South Shore neighborhood of Chicago, where Michelle Obama grew up, saw some two-thirds of its white folks flee during the decade 1960-70.
In Chicago, the mass exodus of whites, and eventually of middle-class blacks, led to the rise of mostly black street gangs that to this day continue to raise havoc via shootouts that claim young blacks kids and teens as victims. 
My novel, Gouster Girl, is about the trauma of racial conflict and the white flight that took place in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago in the early 1960s. It's told through the eyes of an interracial teenage couple in love, and when you read it, you'll begin to understand why so many whites and blacks don't want to spend much longer than the few seconds Eddie Murphy devoted to the subject of inner-city racial turnover in "Mister Robinson's neighborhood." 

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A Different Sort of Writing--My First Novel Is Born

I've been spending lots of time over the last few years on a very different sort of writing project for me: my first novel. A lot different than writing about real food or starting a business, or the Holocaust. Now, at long last, after many stops and starts, hopeful progress and difficult frustration, it's finally going prime time.


With launch day finally at hand, I feel a little like I did as a reporter having his first bylined article published—proud and more than a little nervous. Like a lot of what I've written over the years, the novel is controversial—it's about race, and it's almost impossible to write about race these days without being seen as controversial, even if you didn't mean to be.


Anyway, the novel's title is Gouster Girl. To understand the meaning of the title, I'm afraid you're going to have to read the novel. I can tell you that it's a historical novel about an especially dark period in Chicago's racial history that foretells many of the difficulties burdening the city today. 


The good news is that Gouster Girl is available in digital formats at a very low introductory price. The book is also available in paperback at a somewhat higher price (though still quite affordable).


The story is set in the early 1960s in the Chicago neighborhood of South Shore, made famous by Michelle Obama in her recent book "Becoming." She spends the opening 60 or so pages recalling her fond memories of this lakefront neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. She refers in passing to the "white flight" still ongoing when her family moved in during the late 1960s.


"Gouster Girl" is a love story. Nerdy white Jeff Stark falls in love with cute black Valerie Davis, except that on Chicago's South Side in 1963, that is a risky affair. At first, Valerie and Jeff help each other out of tough racial fixes—he saves her from attack at an all-white amusement park and she saves him from injury in a racial brawl at school. But as their romance becomes more serious, so do the racial dangers.


I've long appreciated that growing up on Chicago's South Side was an unusual experience. People would move out from one day to the next, without telling friends or neighbors, or sometimes even their own kids till the movers showed up. The white flight from South Shore was pretty much over and done in the 1960s, when Gouster Girl takes place; an astounding two-thirds of South Shore's 65,000 whites fled during that decade. During the 1970s and 1980s, many middle-class blacks departed as well, leaving much of South Shore and neighboring areas to the very tough black street gangs that rule today.


As the South Side of Chicago has evolved into something of a gang-dominated community on the order of Honduras or El Salvador , I decided to write "Gouster Girl" as a way of explaining how it all began going bad.


Part of what I wanted to get across is that the travails of the South Side are much more nuanced than either liberal or conservative political dogma would have us believe. Liberals tend to see it as an outgrowth mainly of systemic racism and police brutality. Conservatives often use it to "prove" their point that gun control laws can't work, since all the gang violence is happening despite tough Chicago gun-control laws.


If you decide to read it, please comment on Amazon. And thanks for your ongoing support.

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