A new round of white denial: Drugs, Race
and Reality in the 'burbs
By Tim Wise
In a time of multiple school and workplace shootings, middle-aged
mass murderers, drug-saturated rave parties, and moms who drown
their kids in tubs, lakes, or dump them in garbage cans, one
question comes to mind. How long will suburban white America
get away with expressing shock at the criminal proclivities of
its progeny, without media exposing their presumption of incorruptibility
as fallacious and patently racist? Especially when government
statistics indicate deviance and dysfunction are quite commonplace
with such folks and in such places.
On Sunday, August 12, the front page of the Washington Post brought
us yet another story about white suburban youth, who, to the
amazement of their parents, friends, and the media, turn out
to be stone cold criminals. This time the headlines emanate from
"nice neighborhoods," in Northern Virginia: places
where sinister crimes aren't supposed to happen.
As authorities have discovered, one of the most significant drug
operations in the region's history was being run from this "nice,
safe" place. And not by dark-skinned street-hustlers preying
on vulnerable teens and getting them hooked; but rather, by the
former soccer-playing little leaguers who this nation grooms
to run major corporations, hold political office, or merely typifies
as normal, all-American boys.
In this particular drama, one of the principal players, named
(I kid you not) Owen Merton Barber IV, stands accused of murdering
Daniel Petrole Jr., one of his drug-dealing colleagues at the
behest of yet another fellow-dealer, Justin Michael Wolfe. Seem
implausible? Surreal even? Thanks to well-worn stereotypes about
drug users, dealers, and criminals in general, we've come to
expect the bad guys to look like them - black and brown people,
not those who are white like us. When we have to protect ourselves
from folks with names like Owen Merton Barber the Fourth, well,
what is the world coming to?
Actually, although underreported, drug data has long confirmed
that the stereotypes of users and dealers (poor, black or Latino,
and urban-dwelling) are not only racist, but also wrong.
According to the National Institutes on Drug Abuse, the Centers
for Disease Control, and the Department of Health and Human Services,
whites are equally or more likely to use drugs than their African
American counterparts, despite common misperceptions to the contrary.
Although blacks and Hispanics tend to try drugs for the first
time at a slightly younger age than whites, by the end of high
school, whites have caught up and surpassed them in every drug
category. White seniors are a third more likely to have smoked
pot in the past year, seven times more likely to have used cocaine,
three times more likely to have used heroin, and nine times more
likely to have used LSD. And it's not just that there are more
white users, as this would reflect mere population percentages,
but rather, that the white rate of use is that much higher than
the rate for blacks.
It's the same story for young adults. Whites are 66% of 18-25
year olds, but 70% of drug users that age. Blacks are 13.5% of
persons in that age cohort, but only 13% of young adult users,
while Hispanics are nearly 15% of that age group, but only 12%
of drug users 18-25.
When it comes to drug dealing, the picture changes only slightly.
According to the Justice Department, drug users tend to buy from
same-race dealers. So the nearly three-quarters of users who
are white, mainly rely on white dope peddlers, not the Jamaicans
or Dominicans of popular imagery. When it comes to drugs like
ecstasy-a hot product for the Virginia cartel-the dealers and
users have long been known to be mostly white, middle class males
between 14 and 32.
One would know none of these things from reading the Post story
on the recently uncovered suburban Drug Empire, or drug related
articles in any other nationally prominent paper. Instead, white
suburban dealers and users are presented as exceptions to an
otherwise law-abiding rule.
In the instant case, the accused, from the Prince William County
hamlets of Chantilly and Centreville are youths that reporter
Josh White describes as "good kids," who "went
bad." When was the last time a black or Latino drug dealer
or gang-banger was described this way? To those who study media,
implicit in most news coverage when they do it is the suggestion
that it's because they were congenital criminals; it was their
IQ or pathological underclass families. They don't "go"
bad; they just are bad.
However, when stories are written about pale-faced killers or
dealers, or in this case both, sympathetic adjectives fill the
pages. Crime becomes human interest-a cautionary tale. We are
encouraged to identify with the instigators of the mayhem in
ways we never would be were they dark or poor.
For example, Kip Kinkel, 1998's poster boy for school shootings,
was likened in the major media to MAD Magazine's Alfred E. Newman:
freckle-faced, and the "boy next door." Similar descriptions
were offered for the school shooters in Arkansas, Georgia, Pennsylvania,
Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. Even Columbine shooters
Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, described by classmates as "dark
and brooding," were still referred to by many as "basically
normal," and gave off no warning signs in the eyes of Littleton
families, teachers, or law enforcement. Andrea Yates, the Houston
suburban mom who killed her five kids in their bathtub was described
by one major newsmagazine as having "loved her children
too much," and having been "overwhelmed" by the
responsibilities of keeping hearth and home together.
Listen to those quoted in White's story. First there is Prince
William Detective Greg Pass who explains, "None of this
happened in bad neighborhoods. It bothers everyone involved that
in many ways these kids are mirror images of the detectives working
the case, except they have chosen to go the wrong way."
Sympathy, recognition, identification, and all of it, by the
officer's admission, due to the fact that these kids are "mirror
images" of the detectives themselves. What does one see
in the mirror after all? One's face: one's white, middle class
suburban face, to be precise.
Throughout the Post piece the ringleaders of this marijuana and
ecstasy empire are described as kids who "went to church,"
"sold Christmas trees at the mall parking lot," were
"polite, shy, friendly, non-threatening," "clean
cut," "cautiously pensive," "kind and gentle,"
"fun-loving," "the class clown." The kind
of boys "you'd want your daughter to date," and who
have been known to nurse sick birds back to health, "romp
down the soccer field," and whose hooliganism was limited
to writing their names in wet cement.
The alleged shooter "relished fishing with his father along
the Virginia coast, where the two would exchange high fives when
reeling in a catch." Barber's father-that's Owen Merton
the third for those keeping count-insists the family was solid
and led a "normal life." Forced to contemplate what
went wrong with his fishing buddy, he speculates that perhaps
watching his mother die of cancer convinced his son "life
wasn't important anymore." Again, sympathy conjured up for
the wayward white youth in ways that would be highly unlikely
for an inner-city kid: even one who had watched his mom die of
cancer, as many have, or perhaps had friends who had been killed
The young man accused of ordering the hit on Petrole is described
as a "role model for his brother and sister," a "religious
Catholic" who is intensely "spiritual." For his
part, Justin Wolfe is presented as a helpful son, who assisted
his single mom in caring for his younger siblings. When was the
last time the child of a black, inner-city single mom was applauded
for helping out around the house?
Throughout the story we learn that the parents of these budding
gangsters never suspected anything, even as their early-20's
offspring jet-setted to Hawaii or Atlantic City, and bought $200,000
townhouses with their own money. As an additional sign of the
times and the stupendous denial that afflicts so many white upper-middle
class families, Petrole's father actually believed that his son
was able to buy his own home because he had been lucky dabbling
in the stock market. After all, said Petrole Sr., his boy always
wanted to be an entrepreneur. As indeed he was. So should we
now expect national condemnation of the culture of affluence
and the capitalist emphasis on moneymaking as being implicated
in these crimes? Don't count on it. That kind of analysis we
reserve for the "underclass" values of ghetto-dwellers.
As evidence of how strong the stereotypes are, consider that
Justin Wolfe, at the height of his criminal activity, dated the
daughter of the director for the DC regional office of the Drug
Enforcement Administration and aroused no suspicions whatsoever.
The agent, having no doubt memorized the darker profile of a
drug dealer used by law enforcement, naturally had no clue. Wolfe,
according to DEA agent Frank Chellino seemed "well-mannered"
Perhaps white folks in the 'burbs need to stop listening to the
voices of officialdom or the media, and start listening to the
only folks who seem to know the score: the dealers themselves.
As one associate of the accused explained: "American society
doesn't want to face the fact that white kids deal and use drugs.
They simply can't look in my face and see that a nice-looking
white kid is selling drugs to their kids, because that would
mean that their kids could do this too. The fact is, we do sell
drugs to their kids, in their rich neighborhoods and in their
Just as the media generally "deracializes" incidents
of white deviance, portraying them as the aberrant, inexplicable
acts of aberrant, inexplicable individuals, (unlike the same
from the dark and poor which are often portrayed as group tendencies),
so too did Josh White in his Post piece on Wolfe, Barber and
Petrole. Instead of pointing out the fallacies of white suburban
denial and the blindness that besets so many of the residents
in these "nice" places, White and the Post offered
up a quixotic melodrama: good kids gone wrong; sympathetic, misguided
youths posing as hardened criminals and coming to a tragic end.
Powerful to be sure, but far too narrow a truth, lacking as it
did the contextual information necessary to understand the common
phenomenon of white substance abuse. Unfortunately, facts unspoken
or unreported tend to remain hidden. The debilitating stereotypes
they might unravel remain firmly in place. Those who have convinced
themselves that it couldn't happen here remain in danger.
Tim Wise is a Nashville-based writer, lecturer and antiracism
activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Footnotes for this article can be obtained from that same email