A Note on Street Smarts

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an absorbing post on the racialized anxieties surrounding street crime, and Megan McArdle offered a very thoughtful comment in reply.

Without commenting on whether my skin color makes me a mark, saying it’s just a matter of being street smart is a little too cute. I grew up on the Upper West Side pre-gentrification; I’ve lived in West Philadelphia and on the South Side of Chicago (safest place I’ve ever lived); and I now live a few blocks from that shooting. I know what to look for and I’m aware of my surroundings, and luckily, I managed to foil a mugging six months ago because I’m street smart enough to have known something was wrong.

But I was also lucky. Lucky that a mugger picked me up on a busy and well lighted street that gave me somewhere to pause and wait for him to go away (presumably to mug someone else). Lucky that he was, even for a mugger, incredibly stupid.

I’ve been mugged twice — I wrote about it on The American Scene a million years ago, and it is hovering in our hidden archives somewhere. The first time happened when I was 19 or 20. I’ve no doubt described the experience at great length. What I remember now, though, is that I knew it was going to happen. That is, I sensed that I was being followed, I turned a corner to wait for the would-be mugger to pass me. And then I proceeded down my street. He rushed behind me and held a knife to my throat, and I figured I was better off letting him have my $11, my library card, and my copy of Granta 65, the London issue.

There was something very strange about this experience. I buy that there is something to the “ice-grill” that Coates describes, in large part because I really believe it’s gotten me out of a few potentially bad situations. But it should go without saying that the ice-grill is yet another psychic cost of urban crime. I’m actually a pretty friendly person, and I’d probably wave hello to everyone I passed if it were socially acceptable and not suicidal in certain contexts. This is not to say I’m Ned Flanders, exactly. But I’m a firm believer in openness to new experiences and new people, and the fear of street crime has definitely kept me more cloistered and cautious than I’d like to be. This is an interesting urban trade-off — the density means that I’m more likely to find people to talk to, to see a different friend every day of the week, just about. At the same time, I’m forced to draw on an enclave community of people who are sufficiently familiar to make me feel comfortable and not too vulnerable in their presence. It’s not ethnicity that drives this perception, but a series of other indicators that guarantee a depressing level of sameness.

Recent blog conversations concerning street crime were prompted, as most of you know, but the mugging of a very well-regarded, very smart D.C.-based blogger. What I wonder about, particularly in light of my second mugging experience, which occurred in D.C., is — what gives? What is the thought process? I am an empathy-obsessive, and I’m always curious as to what is motivating any kind of behavior, criminal behavior included. Is it a rite of passage? It’s not entirely about money, I have to assume. And I can see how one might find it daring and adrenaline-pumping. My second mugging experience involved a lot of running and my friend getting pistol-whipped after physically confronting two of four gun-wielding kids. I mean, they had guns, yes, but they must have been slightly terrified — the mugging didn’t go as planned. And no one wants to be put away for a gun crime, certainly not for a pittance. Who is doing the mugging — is it the cool kids or kids who are totally marginalized and excluded? Obviously it’s not just kids from one camp or another, though you do wonder about how this maps onto cliques and peer groups, and whether you ever have, say, student athletes in the mix, or school-leavers who spend part of the day working square jobs.

I sense that this is all very fluid, that there is some extent to which mugging is a game, and that stigmatizing mugging is both essential and not easy. I imagine there are some anthropologists and sociologists and criminologists who’ve offered good answers to these questions. I’d be eager to learn more.