"Witnesses Described Him as Brown": The Racial Insecurity of Watching the News

12/27/2008 09:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I've heard that suicides go up and crime goes down around the holidays. I have no idea if this is true or not (although I suspect urban myths are at play). Of course, I would delight in a downturn in criminal activity, but for more than the obvious, intrinsic reason that crime is, well, bad.

My self-conscious, rather shallow interest in crime relates to something Chris Rock once said. He mentioned that whenever he hears about a horrible offense on the news, he braces himself for the revelation of the criminal's race. To paraphrase him, Rock said, "I say to myself, 'Don't be black, don't be black,' and if the guy turns out to be black, I'm like, 'Damn it!'"

It works the same way with me. Whenever I hear about a murder, rape, or anything more severe than a hubcap getting swiped, I listen to find out if the guy is called Gonzalez or Sanchez or Espinoza. If he is, I'm like, "Damn it!"

There is palpable relief on my part (and probably with other Hispanics) if the guy is black or, even better, white. At least then we don't have one more dark-skinned person confirming negative stereotypes.

It's important to point out, of course, that with the notable exception of the Virginia Tech shooter, the bad guy never seems to be Asian. At least this is true in America, because plenty of Asians in the governments of China and Myanmar and North Korea are absolute bastards. But that's another story.

Regardless, I doubt that white people ever steel themselves for the description of a criminal's race. It simply doesn't enter their minds to do so, and for this, I envy them. As the dominant culture, they don't have to worry about one sick individual stigmatizing them.

The association between race and crime, of course, goes back to our cultural foundations, and it is hard-wired even within minorities. It leads to a million miscommunications, faulty assumptions, and outright attacks. It can even lead to situations where people are not consciously aware of the dangerous conclusions that they are drawing. The phenomenon of racial microaggression has been identified to pinpoint these assumptions, although this theory is either groundbreaking psychology or another urban myth (ala the holiday-suicide rate), depending on whom you talk to.

Flinching at someone's name on the news is just one of the minuscule ways in which people of different races perceive the world in different ways. It is yet another reason why the plea to not see race, which usually comes from well-established white people, is little more than code for "let's just not talk about race." The plea is either self-serving or naïve, and it rests on the faulty assumption that our differences are so minor, or so quirky, that they can be shunted aside. I'm sorry, but I don't see this happening for at least another generation.

In any case, wish me luck. After posting this missive, I'm going to gamble by reading the newspaper. You'll find me there, flipping through the pages, holding my breath, hoping that Jose or Pedro or Julio hasn't messed it up today for the rest of us.