cross-posted from Dagblog
The FBI has caught Whitey Bulger, after a mere sixteen years. The arrest made national news because of the FBI's well-earned embarrassment and because of the mythology around Bulger. As a crime boss, Bulger was not nationally significant. He was a formidable gang leader with firm control over one slice of Boston's organized crime, but it was only a slice. He was the scariest gang leader in Boston, but not necessarily the biggest or richest. You'll hear a lot in the papers about what a criminal genius he is, and he really is smarter than any hoodlum should get, but what it's really about is this: Jimmy Bulger is the Last Great White Gangster.
Bulger is the last Irish-American mob leader who's likely to control even a slice of the underworld in a major American city. He is ethnically similar to many of the journalists and editors covering him, and they obviously love writing about him. He's the last gangster who looks like Jimmy Cagney, so even very good coverage of him gets tinged with sympathy and sentimentality that Bulger has never come close to deserving. It's a nostalgia trip. Reporters call Bulger "colorful," but it's only because he's so very pale.
Some of the Bulger myth is based on fact. He corrupted cops and FBI agents, who helped him murder and helped him escape. His brother was President of the Massachusetts State Senate for eighteen years, with Jimmy a notorious criminal the whole time. He is the primary model for Nicholson's character in The Departed, although even that bleak movie pulled its punches about Bulger's depravity and Boston's corruption. He did inform on the Boston Mafia, enabling the FBI to tape one of the Mafia's hokey (but, surprisingly, real) initiation ceremonies. And some people in South Boston, where Whitey did his crimes, did and do talk about him as a Robin Hood figure. But all of that was possible because Bulger was, well, Whitey. The open political connections, the wrongheaded sympathy from cops and deluded loyalty from the neighborhood all come down to ethnic solidarity and Boston's shameful history of race relations. Race isn't the whole story. It's only forty or sixty percent. But it's the forty-to-sixty percent that the media will leave out, and the part that explains all the rest.
The biggest break that the Bulgers ever got was the court order that desegregated the Boston schools by mandating busing in 1974. Back then Whitey was working for a gangster named Howie Winter and his brother Billy was South Boston's state senator. When busing happened, Southie flew into a frothing rage. It took the neighborhood at least twenty-five years to get over it. And while people (including William Bulger) will tell you with a straight face that all the anger wasn't about race (it was really about local control and neighborhood schools and yadda yadda yadda), that's just whitewash. People screamed racial slurs in the streets. They wrote them on public walls. Black people, including kids and unlucky bystanders, got intimidated and physically attacked. (Other Irish-American neighborhoods were also angry, but South Boston and Charleston were the worst, and Southie was ground zero.) Was every last single opponent of busing a dyed-in-the-wool racist? No. But plenty of them voiced the most toxic racism you can imagine, loudly and proudly. Twenty years later, you could still hear some people from those neighborhoods saying vile, hateful things in a matter-of-fact tone. And the fury wasn't even about the quality of white kids' education: South Boston High was a lousy school, at the bottom of the state rankings. What the angry mobs wanted was to make sure their kids went to a failing and dysfunctional school with other white kids.
Billy Bulger became a leader of the anti-busing movement, and it made him. Four years later he was President of the State Senate. Whitey was fighting busing, too, in his own way: the pro-busing Mayor of Boston actually worried at one point that Bulger might have him killed so the anti-busing Deputy Mayor could take his place. If you think of William Bulger as a segregationist Southern governor and his brother as Grand Dragon of the local KKK, you have the basic picture. And the deference they've received from Boston's press and politicians should be seen through that lens; they were the devils that liberals had to deal with, and too many locals had sympathy for.
Cops, including federal cops, liked Jimmy Bulger because he was an Irish neighborhood guy just like many of them were. (His FBI handler was a guy named Connolly who'd grown up in the same Southie housing project.) And the busing crisis turned that garden-variety ethnic bond into something deeper and more tribal as places like Southie and Charleston grew more defensive and aggrieved. Some of those cops felt that their ethnic group was losing ground in the city, and they weren't in any special hurry to see Boston Irish losing power in the underworld. In fact, the FBI was happy to help Whitey expand by undermining Italian mobsters. Whitey got stronger in the 1980s as the Mafia got weaker. The Last White Gangster basically got endangered-species protection.
People were willing to tolerate, even to celebrate, the Bulger brothers because they were a bulwark of Irish political influence that was otherwise in danger of eroding. At least they were Irish, and you couldn't be sure the next guys would be. William Bulger ran an old-school political patronage machine; if you backed him, he could help this or that nephew find a public job. Whitey was an old-school ethnic racketeer. He might have robbed South Boston blind and helped keep it poor, but at least the neighborhood got exploited by one of the tribe.
The "Robin Hood" myth about Whitey is partly the usual dysfunctional ghetto Stockholm Syndrome bullshit, and partly about the belief that Whitey kept African-Americans at bay. People will actually say that Whitey "kept drugs out of the neighborhood." That's not just a lie but a self-delusion. Whitey Bulger kept drugs out of Southie the way that Santa Claus keeps toys out of the living room on Christmas morning: he didn't deliver the packages himself, but everyone who did was acting in his name. The "keeping drugs out of the neighborhood" story demands (or allows) whoever believes it not to notice that Southie was totally full of drugs.
But if you read "keeping out drugs" as "keeping out blacks," it makes a lot of sense. That was the thing about Southie: the kids were on drugs, but all the drug dealers were white. Some people in Southie and Charlestown were willing to fight bitterly for the right to have their own all-white drug traffic and all-white extortion rackets and failing all-white schools where white kids could get a rotten education among their own kind. South Boston's love for Whitey Bulger is about the desire to be abused and exploited by a fellow member of the tribe; you can only have a Last White Gangster if you have a Last White Ghetto for him to rule over.
The Bulger brothers are masters of South Boston's greatest art: playing the victim. Whitey has the balls to complain that the FBI confiscated the $800,000 in his apartment and ask for a court-ordered lawyer. Billy Bulger complains that he was forced to resign as president of the University of Massachusetts in 2003 just because his brother had been a federal fugitive for nine years and Billy admitted having contacted him during that time. (Give Mitt Romney his due for making that happen.) That's the same Billy Bulger who used to complain that anti-busing protestors were being unfairly painted as racists just because they stood around screaming "Nigger!" at teenagers. Whitey's girlfriend, Catherine Grieg, excused his explosive temper by telling the neighbors that he had Alzheimer's, and serious media outlets gullibly repeated that. In fact, Whitey is just a terrible person. If his violent anger is a symptom of Alzheimer's, then Alzheimer's set in while he was in the womb. The Bulger brothers' Southie, the Southie they exploited and preserved, was just the same way: loudly declaring victimhood at the hands of any outsider handy, while reserving the right to do all the actual victimizing themselves. But don't let the martyr act fool you: neither South Boston nor Jimmy Bulger are victims. They're simply hoods.