Multiethnic fear

I’m sorry, but this story was just too good to pass up. It was reported a week ago in the Los Angeles Times.

And speaking of the times, they are a-changing:

Nameless so far, he is considered the most wanted bank robber in California. Eyewitnesses describe him in detail, and bank cameras have captured images of him, yet he remains elusive. Part of the problem is that when people look at him, they don’t agree on what they see. It is a strange meeting of two Southern California phenomena: There are more bank robberies here than anywhere else in the nation; the population is so multiethnic that race can often be a meaningless descriptor.

The elusive bank robber defies racial categorization. He is that prototype of the future: Multiethnic Man. An amalgam. A little of this, a little of that.

“We’ve had him described as a dark-skinned white male, as a light-skinned African-American, as Puerto Rican, as Brazilian and I think we had Middle Eastern,” sighed agent Joseph T. White of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Santa Ana. “You know they all can’t be right.” Or could they?

“Well, this is California,” White said.

The FBI calls him the “Kangaroo Bandit” for the knapsack he hangs on his front side. He has robbed 24 banks in 19 months, grabbing cash in Calabasas, Brentwood, Marina del Rey, Mission Viejo and elsewhere.

His racial mutability is not the sole reason he has eluded capture — the bandit does his homework, casing banks carefully before robbing them. But the myriad and inconsistent racial descriptions of him add an intriguing complication to the hunt.

Please excuse me for laughing. I mean, I know bank robbery is serious, and as a general rule I don’t believe in conferring hero status on most criminals. This guy’s no different. He’s got no business robbing banks, and I won’t be crying when he gets caught — if they catch him.

But in the meantime, as the hunt continues, I’ve got to admit it strikes me as comical that in a nation where race probably matters more than it does anywhere else on the face of the earth, one lone crook is escaping capture partly because nobody knows what box to put him in. See, in these here United States, everybody’s supposed to be able to fit comfortably into nice, neat, tidy little boxes and categories. That way it’s much easier to discriminate. It’s kinda hard to discriminate against someone when you’re not quite sure whether or not that person is in the “to-be-discriminated-against” category.

Apparently, Multiethnic Man has that all figured out. This guy’s playing the race card in a whole different way, and nobody knows how to handle it. After all, stereotypes often dictate the way we perceive one another long before we get to know one another. Stereotypical thinking says that if this guy’s a black bank robber then that probably means he’s a thug from the hood acting just like most white folks — and more black folks than want to admit it — figure “those folks” act anyway. Then again, maybe he’s an angry black man, vintage ‘60s model, who’s determined to wreak havoc on the system.

But what if he’s a white man wearing dark makeup? Or a dark-skinned Asian man? How are we supposed to respond to that? Or what if he’s ... O God, please don’t let him be from the Middle East because we all know how bomb-crazy those folks are, right? Of course, there was Timothy McVeigh, who so many suspected was probably a Middle-Eastern terrorist before they saw his whiter-than-white self splashed across the front pages.

Never mind.

But wait! What if he’s Hispanic? Gosh, what would that mean? Or if he’s a Hispanic/African-American/Middle Eastern mix?

Could he be Samoan?

Oh, no ...

In a way, this all takes me back to the early discussions about golf phenomenon Tiger Woods, who is the product of an African-American father with distinct American-Indian facial features, and an Asian mother from Thailand. For the longest time it seemed like everyone was trying to decide for Tiger what Tiger should be, as if racial identification were some sort of gang affiliation.

Better call out what colors you claimin’, homes, or you could wind up with no backup in No Man’s Land.

Some big-name black leaders were trying to urge Tiger into the black camp because, naturally, that would make everybody’s job easier. I even heard some of my friends using the logic that Tiger might as well “come on home” and own up to his true self because, after all, everybody knows one drop is all it takes. Black blood is some powerful stuff, man.

But the real truth is that it’s getting harder and harder to simply force-fit folks into convenient, easy-to-define categories. That’s because humanity has never been convenient and it hasn’t ever been easy to define.

In California, a Los Angeles Times analysis of birth certificates conducted during the summer of 2000 discovered that one in six births in 1998 was to parents of mixed race or ethnicity, up from one in seven in 1989. The trend is picking up speed. Also, multiracial births are now third, ranked behind white and Latino births. Although California accounted for only 13 percent of all newborn babies nationwide in 1998, it accounted for almost one-quarter of all births to parents of mixed race and ethnicity.

According to a front page story in the New York Times that ran last week, “Nearly 7 million people say they belong to more than one race” on the 2000 census, the first census ever to allow people to check more than one race. “The four most common interracial categories were white and black, white and Asian, white and American Indian or Alaskan native, and white and ‘some other race.’”

Hello? Multiethnic Man? Look, we need to know what colors you claimin’, OK? That bank robbery thing is pretty important too, I guess, but first we have just got to get your label straight.

Keith A Owens is a Detroit-area freelance writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]
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