"The truth speaks for itself," Peele told me. But the truth is often a matter of perspective, and Peele can't escape the fact that he's a white guy who has worked out of Contra Costa and Alameda counties since 2000. Perhaps that's why he's so quick to label poor urban areas with substantial African American populations as "ghettos." Or, sometimes even more dramatically, as a "sagging, blood-splattered ghetto," a phrase that a Los Angeles Times reviewer singled out as an example of how "Peele's prose occasionally overreaches."
I was repeatedly struck by the same thought, almost physically cringing when Peele labeled San Francisco's Western Addition, my old neighborhood, as a violent ghetto. Or when he wrote, "Richmond is one of the most hopeless and violent cities in America, an oil-refinery town of 103,000 people, littered with shanties where shipyard workers lived during World War II ," as if it were a cross between an Appalachian coal town and Third World hovel rather than a clean, modern Bay Area city well-served by public transit and a Green Party mayor.
Peele got defensive when I asked him about the labels, telling me, " I stand by characterizations," although he admitted that maybe Western Addition isn't really a ghetto. "I think you're nitpicking," he told me.
Perhaps, and I do think that Peele's flair for the dramatic is one of the things that makes Killing the Messenger such a page-turner, in the tradition of great true-crime novels such as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. But in a book that bravely takes on the complexities of racism and its backlash, I think this is more than a trivial "nit."
It's tempting for white America to dismiss such details, treat racism is a thing of the past, and malign racial sensitivity as political correctness. But as Peele and his book remind us, the wounds of not-so-distant indignities can run deep. And the collapsing opportunities for social and economic advancement in this country will create a backlash if we try to ignore it.