Pam Adams: Intro to Racism, Classism 101

Pam Adams

A troubled, troubling boy allegedly throws a brick over an overpass. A month later, college soccer players, plus a friend, allegedly light Roman candles in the door of a teammate's bedroom. Someone dies each time.

The common denominator?

Probably cheap thrills.

The plain and palpable difference?

Most anybody who has ever driven down I-74 (read black, white, rich, poor, anyone in between) could identify with the victim in the first situation, Katrina Kelley. She died after a brick thrown over an interstate overpass crashed through the window of the car in which she was a passenger.

Most anybody who has gone to Bradley University and/or sent a child to college and/or expects to send a child to college (read middle class and white) can identify with the victim and the alleged perpetrators in the Roman-candle case.

“I'm quite certain every person I know could put themselves in the shoes of the defendants,” said Peoria County State's Attorney Kevin Lyons, showing a rare trace of sympathy in a highly publicized criminal case.

There's the heart of the matter, the reason so many people (read: so many white people) seemed so uncomfortable with the most elementary comparisons of the two incidents. They could see themselves in the boys allegedly playing frat-house pranks. They could see their children sitting in jail, see their families shaken in the aftermath of a deadly fire that snuffed out Sheridan “Danny” Dahlquist's life. Even the county's top prosecutor sensed it.

Some of you are saying: Oh. My. God. Does she have to go there again? Haven't we said/read enough about that already? Can't they leave the poor family alone?

No, yes, and yes. Backing off, history tells us, is how Peoria reacts when the smallest questions of race and racism, money and status collide and break through colorized comfort zones. There are a thousand ways to deny that race matters.

Four young men, ranging from 19 to 22, all but one of them soccer players at Bradley University, allegedly play a prank with explosive fireworks that starts the fire that results in the death of Dahlquist, their friend and teammate. Now they face six to 30 years in prison on charges of aggravated arson and possession of an explosive or incendiary device. Jailed under $500,000 bail each, they get out in time to attend their friend's funeral. They are white, and so is the victim.

A 15-year-old boy allegedly throws a brick over an overpass late at night. Katrina Kelley, sitting in a car, dies. Now the boy, charged as an adult, faces 20 to 60 years on murder charges, plus more time on subsequent felony charges. He is still in jail, under $1 million bail, for the murder charge alone. He is black, and so is his victim.

The two cases opened what was, for me, a fascinating public dialogue on race and class, mainly among white people. Bradley would do a service by promoting it. Merely comparing the intentions of two very different types of defendants and the criminal charges filed against them qualifies for a pass out of the introductory course, Race 101. If this continues, we're heading toward the public version of a graduate seminar on the racial signals and symbols in everyday life, the hidden structures of racism.

Consider the headlines centering on one victim:

- “Heart-wrenching goodbye - Family, friends, teammates and roommates attend funeral for teen killed in Sunday fire”

- “Sharing sorrow - Hundreds come together to remember Bradley sophomore killed in house fire”

- “Hard to get mind around unthinkable”

- “Fire kills Bradley student - BU soccer player dies in blaze; three roommates held in Peoria County Jail”

Consider the headlines focusing on the other:

- “A death that should make you angry”

- “She will be missed - 26-year-old woman killed by concrete block remembered as hard worker with big heart”

- “Woman killed by brick thrown from overpass”

Not that headlines tell the whole story, but they help tell a story. And the story gets to the soul of who we see, how we see them and how we respond when we can see ourselves in their shoes.

Pam Adams is a columnist with the Peoria Journal Star. Her e-mail address is