Why are so many people so afraid today of so much? As a peace educator remarked recently in a blog discussing guns, “The U.S. seems to have become a culture constrained by fear: fear of some threatening other invading our homes, schools, and even places of worship, not to mention crossing our borders to inflict harm to us as a nation; fear of a tyrannical government coming to confiscate all the guns of ‘law-abiding citizens.’”
In a recent post here I talked about my first encounters with guns way back “then,” soon after World War II. My family moved into a cottage in rural Illinois where it was normal to own rifles and shotguns that were used for hunting. This time let me look back at circumstances when I learned to fear “outsiders” and then how that has receded.
Growing up in rural Illinois, I don’t recall adults being worried about needing a gun to use against thieves or marauding strangers of any kind. In fact, we never even locked our doors. When I moved as an adult to New York City I had to be continually reminded to lock the door behind me when I left home. It just did not seem necessary, and I was even a little contemptuous of people who feared that somebody was going to violate their homes.
I did learn to lock my door in New York City and, in the 1980s particularly, to fear for my safety on the street. There was a lot of crime and gun violence in the city; we read about it in the newspapers every day. The neighborhood where I lived was changing. Black and Latino people were moving in, white people like me moving out. There was a lot of interracial tension, some of it based on real events. A few black youngsters snatched the handbags of elderly women. I was mugged by a black man in the elevator in my building one night, which I patched up by attending a women’s self defense class. White neighbors stood on the street and talked loudly about how they were going to leave because of the low-bred kind of people who were moving in, comments that black people could easily overhear.
By the late 90s most of the white people in my neighborhood had departed and there was less fear of violence in the city as a whole. Once they were familiar, I felt safe among my black and Latin neighbors and comfortable walking in the street except late at night. No interracial tension any more because no inter-race to speak of. I have to say that dialogue groups I have participated in have helped me as well to feel more at ease with all kinds of people.
The secret to our sense of security in rural Illinois was probably that nobody was either rich or destitute and there were not that many of us in the community. We enjoyed low population density and not much income disparity. Where there were racist or anti-semitic feelings, they were focused on people who lived miles away, in or near Chicago.
Obviously the situation in a densely populated city filled with people of many different ethnic backgrounds is different from rural Illinois, but surely there are things that can be done to produce a more harmonious environment. What can we do to make sure that no one is destitute? What can we do assure people that “different” is not the same as “dangerous?”
What has your experience been with fear of “outsiders.” What can we learn from it?