The real Loop problem
While reading Matthew Curtis’s column in Monday’s paper, “The need for self-defense on [sic] the Loop,” I was stirred with quite a bit of emotion. I was happy that the column was published because it caused me to reflect on why I felt so strongly about what it was saying. What I concluded was that this column typified the furtive racism that persists on our campus, in our city and in our society.
Let me be absolutely clear before I continue that I am not accusing Curtis of being a racist or of any overt racism. I have read a number of his columns in the past, and I believe that he is making a well-reasoned response to a situation in which he finds himself. Rather, what I would like to do is to take a step back from the specific situation of crime in the Loop and examine the racially charged components of our daily conversations that we may not always consider.
What does it mean when we say that the area north of the Loop is “undeniably dangerous,” so much so that “all students who live north of the Loop should [equip themselves with a stun gun]”? Curtis would argue that an examination of crime statistics for the neighborhoods north of the Loop would reveal elevated documentations of crime. This, as Curtis claims, is undeniably true. There is more at play in these statements, however, than crime statistics.
When we discuss the “area north of the Loop” we are talking about North St. Louis, an informal neologism that refers to an area of the city that is 98 percent black, that makes up the bottom half of the city’s $33,652 median household income (compared to $83,000 in Clayton), and where unemployment is between 15 and 20 percent, more than double the city’s average of 8.6 percent. We probably are not thinking about these statistics when we talk about North St. Louis. In all likelihood, we are also excluding from our image of the area places that are rich in history, culture and architecture such as Crown Square, O’Fallon and Penrose Parks, the site of the former Pruitt-Igoe housing development, and The Ville Neighborhood, to name a few.
What is it, then, about this area north of the Loop that is so terrifying to us? Perhaps a better question in the context of Curtis’s column is: what makes us—the affluent college students—the innocent victims of crime in this context? What gives us the right to claim ground as ours on which to stand and protect?
The responses that any of us are able to give to these questions would include a series of complex racial, cultural and economic undertones and considerations. The problem is that as a collective we fail to acknowledge those thoughts and experiences that inform our perspective and our situation.
Which brings us back to the main question that Curtis is asking: how can we feel safer in St. Louis? One response is for all of us to buy stun guns. Another would be to work with Wash. U. to reconcile the loss of the property taxes used to fund local public school districts that occur when the University buys real estate in the area. Or preemptively engaging, as students, with block units and neighborhood organizations, not just when they complain about our parties, but when they host events aimed to strengthen the bonds of the neighborhood. Or perhaps even taking an active role in the local politics that function to address the very problems in our surroundings that we see as a student body. Rather than focusing on protecting ourselves from individual and sporadic acts of violence, we should be working toward addressing the structural inequalities that create the situations and the places in which we live.