Monday, October 20, 2014
Suburbia Is America's Fear Factory
I've been writing a lot about fear these last weeks because the panic over Ebola has demonstrated fear's massive and destructive power in this country. Fear is what got the PATRIOT Act passed after 9/11. Fear makes the people of this country accept unprecedented intrusions into their privacy. Fear has long been one of the most potent factors in the continuation of white supremacy.
Fear's roots run deep and are evident in the most mundane structures of our daily lives. Nowhere is this more visible than in the vast, endless sprawl of American suburbia, America's fear factory. Of course, suburban America is hardly monochromatic today, and many suburbs (like the one where I reside) can be racially diverse and relatively open-minded. However, this is not the case with broad swaths of the sprawl, either here in New Jersey or elsewhere. For example, I've heard tell of multiple denizens of sprawlville saying that they were putting off trips to New York City because they were afraid of ISIS attacks. In the very safe and quiet suburb where she works there are people who live in fortress-like gated communities with the belief that the leafy suburban streets are too mean for their tastes. Back when I lived in Newark and encountered people who lived in sprawlville their faces would scrunch in barely disguised disgust when I told them I lived in Newark. When I told them I liked it there, they looked like they thought I was deranged.
Those anecdotes are hardly surprising, since suburbia was founded in fear. Fear of the "other," fear of "them," fear of urban ways of living. In some cases, like on Eight Mile Road in Detroit, suburbia meant the building of literal walls to keep out the people of color whom whites had taken flight from. On streets that border Newark in my current town of Maplewood, residents blocked them off, ostensibly to prevent speeding cars taking them as a shortcut, but I wonder. There's a suburban town where some of my wife's relatives live that's overwhelmingly white, but most of the times I see the cops pulling someone over, the drivers of the cars are African American.
American suburbanites are experts in finding new things to be afraid of. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was the idea that going to the city meant risking having your ankle tendons slashed by gang members hiding beneath your car. (This one was widespread in Nebraska when I was young, supposedly it was a common gang initiation.) Nowadays I hear residents of sprawlville speak fearfully of the much hyped "knockout game." In the 1970s and 1980s it was the bogus fear of strangers tampering with Halloween candy. In suburbia no one can be trusted, everything outside of everyone's little castle is a potential threat to fear. The fear is pervasive and never-ending, built into the very DNA of the place.
A majority of Americans live in suburbs. While not all of those people live in suburbs according to the stereotype of them as white, middle-class autotopias a la Nassau County, a very large contingent do. Is it any surprise that we are a country ruled by fear when such a large number of its citizens live in communities whose very raison d'etre is fear itself?