There are two things that hit me immediately when we drove through the State Park neighborhood a few days ago.
First, I had never seen so much gang graffiti in one neighborhood. I've seen plenty of gang graffiti, including areas in Chicago, Los Angeles, St. Louis and other cities, but never so many spray painted symbols and messages in one small area.
Second, I had never seen so many threatening looking dogs in one neighborhood. The broad-shouldered, heavily scarred pit bulls, mastiffs and dobermans, often barking at the end of a chain in the front yard, set the tone for State Park, a neighborhood where many of the residents are also on guard.
State Park south is in unincorporated St. Clair County, Illinois. It's close to Fairmont City, which has the highest percentage of Hispanics in the St. Louis metro area. According to the 2000 census, Fairmont City's population is 55% Hispanic.
Many of the Latinos are documented workers from Mexico who work in agriculture and at the nearby horse track. Of course, there are also Spanish-speaking immigrants employed in many other industries too.
In State Park, the common thread among the residents, both White and Hispanic, is poverty. Nearly all of the residents are poor and live in trailers or small homes.
Dangerous looking dogs and gang graffiti aren't the only warning signs in State Park.
We saw a Confederate flag flying outside Mike Stanley's house. The flag, which represents racist anti-African American sentiment for many Blacks and southern pride for some Whites, is there to send a message, especially to the Hispanic gangs that are spray painting their symbols and messages throughout State Park.
"I'm putting a sign out to all these drug dealers and everything: Don't come around here with all of that we don't want it here," Stanley told me as the flag flew on a pole attached to his home. "Take it somewhere else. Take it down south where you all come from, that's why I got it here (referring to the flag)."
"When you say take it down south what do you mean?" I asked him.
"South of the border," he said. "The Mexicans?" I asked.
"Right," Stanley responded.
Keep in mind Stanley isn't from the south. The flag doesn't carry any special historic meaning for him as a sort of southern pride thing. It appears his only motivation is to use it to stick it in the face of other people who might find it offensive.
Stanley had the only Confederate flag visible in the neighborhood, but he wasn't the only one who resented the presence of so many Hispanics.
There's no excuse for racist comments or parading symbols that are designed to hurt people. However, it's important to understand why some of the people who share these beliefs got to be that way.
In State Park, many Whites are poor (just like the Hispanic families) and seem threatened by hard-working people who are often willing to work for less money. Many Whites also resent the dramatic increase in gang activity, which seems to be tied to the increase in the Hispanic population. The Whites resent the gangs and blame Hispanics in general, which is clearly unfair, but that's the way many of the Whites feel.
Some Whites in State Park also resent the fact that their neighborhood is "becoming more Mexican." There's a successful Mexican restaurant and market nearby. Although
the owner Jesse Hernandez is college-educated and a U.S. military veteran, some Whites are concerned about "losing their identities" because there's too much Hispanic flavor in the area.
I understand their fears about gangs and their concern about feeling "pushed out."
But it doesn't justify their comments, or the flying of a racist symbol simply to "send a message."
The kind, hard-working Hispanic families are just as concerned about problems in their community as the Whites.
Capt. Steve Johnson of the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department calls the racial tension between Whites and Hispanics in State Park "significant."
One of the biggest crimes in State Park is that many White residents don't see it.