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'South-Central' as a Code Word

Stereotypes don't belong in coverage of crime in our communities.

November 23, 2002|Marcy De Veaux | Marcy De Veaux is president of an entertainment public relations firm and a six-year resident of Victoria Avenue.

Imagine returning from a relaxing weekend getaway to discover your quiet, tree-lined neighborhood has been visited by murder: Another young, talented black man gunned down while sitting in a parked car in the late hours of a Saturday night. Merlin Santana, at 26 an accomplished actor, died just outside my front door.

In Los Angeles, the news media are accustomed to chasing this kind of story: Satellite trucks, live shots, police tape -- you know all of the visuals. And true to form, after Santana's death, there they were, cruising up and down my street, covering the crime and looking for signs of a neighborhood gone bad.

They couldn't find what they sought. The lawns were manicured, the shaded streets free of trash, abandoned cars and debris. Most driveways contained expensive automobiles that had not been bought with drug money or other ill-gotten funds. But the media representatives couldn't help themselves.

The reports went out on TV and radio: "We talked to neighbors who said this crime-ridden community in South-Central L.A. ... "

Ah, there it was, the code word: South-Central. News organization in every American urban center have one: In Chicago, it's the South Side. In Boston, it's Roxbury. In Houston, the Fifth Ward. Those, the media supposes, are all places where crime happens, as if they are nations and crime is the signature national product. Coverage is always the same: News stories are always about blacks and Hispanics living in poverty and neighborhoods riddled with felons.

It didn't matter that the 3800 block of Victoria Avenue, where Santana lost his life, was 12 miles from the heart of South-Central Los Angeles. If it's a black neighborhood and south of Wilshire, it must be in South-Central, mustn't it?

So the code words were spoken: "murder in South-Central." The consequence of presenting Santana's death in this fashion is not so much hurting the feelings as hurting the reputation of a perfectly fine neighborhood. The media are perpetuating the false sense of security they give those who don't live in communities of color. Posh Beverly Hills is only seven miles from the crime scene, much closer than the real South-Central. But we wouldn't want to shake up our wealthy neighbors to the west by referring to the crime scene as Los Angeles' Westside.

The reality is, if this tragedy could happen in the well-heeled 3800 block of Victoria, it could happen in any neighborhood in Los Angeles. The code word is tantamount to saying: "Don't worry, it's not in the good part of town -- no danger where you are." To paint all communities of color with the same brush adds up to either lazy journalism or something more insidious.

In the end, the result is the same: People who live in neighborhoods that are not black and brown relax in a false sense of security -- until something happens on their block. Then it's "an isolated instance of shocking violence" in neighborhoods where it's not supposed to happen.

Well, it should not happen in my neighborhood or any other. But it does, and on the 3800 block of Victoria we will mourn the loss of Merlin Santana -- and our innocence -- while our insurance rates go up and our property values go down.

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