Let me introduce you to a man named David Starkey. Unless you have a particular interest in English history or, in the past two days, politics, there’s a good chance you have not heard of him. He’s a scholar of the Tudor period, and he’s apparently something of a regular on the talk-show circuit. On Aug. 12, he was invited to the panel discussion show “Newsnight” to discuss the recent riots in London, and he offered this opinion:
I have just been re-reading Enoch Powell, the Rivers of Blood Speech. His prophesy was absolutely right in one sense. The Tiber did not foam with blood, but flames lambent, they wrapped around Tottenham and wrapped around Clapham. But it wasn’t inter-communal violence. This is where he was completely wrong. What’s happened is that a substantial section of chavs have become black. The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion. And black and white, boy and girl, operate in this language together — this language, which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has been intruded in England. And this is why so many of us have this sense of literally, a foreign country.
As poetically as he expressed himself, his comments were not well received. Firstly, he referenced the Rivers of Blood speech, a wildly anti-immigrant screed spoken on April 20, 1968, in the Midland Hotel in Birmingham by one Enoch Powell, conservative member of Parliament. Powell argued that the recent rise in immigration of black people to the Commonwealth had been devastating, and would worsen. He claimed he spoke to an ordinary Englishman who wanted to leave England, because “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”
It’s a bit hard to parse precisely what Starkey meant by the rest of his comment. He seems to be saying that black immigrants brought with them a criminal culture that has infected the whites of London, as demonstrated by their adoption of speaking in a Jamaican patois, and this has, in essence, made the white youths of London black. And by “black,” he means “lawless.”
Now, a Minnesota-based news site is an odd place to address English politics, and this is not what I intend to do. I begin with Starkey because, if I am interpreting his comments correctly, they are startlingly similar to comments I see in Minnesota with great frequency. There was a recent article on the City Pages website about a group of African-American youths assaulting several people in a Wisconsin amusement park, an assault that was possibly racially motivated. Like most online newspapers, City Pages maintains little control over the comments on their site, and, like most online newspapers, it has, as a result, become a popular location for aggressive, unfiltered political trolling. And, at once, the comments section filled up with mocking talk of black “culture,” which is presumed to be a culture of criminality.
When I edited MnSpeak, a local discussion forum, every time a crime was reported, an especially noxious commenter would show up to demand to know why the Star Tribune didn’t report the race of the criminal. If a photo was published with the story, and the criminal turned out to be black, this same commenter would launch into long jeremiads about this same idea of a culture of lawlessness. Like Starkey, he would use the phrase “gangster.” I don’t know if Starkey was referencing gangsta rap; the MnSpeak commenter certainly was. Along with this, there would be references to a series of assumptions about blacks in America that the commenter presumed we all shared: There was an endemic laziness; there was an unstable family life, with women giving birth to children by multiple fathers who would abandon their parental responsibilities; etc. and ad nauseum.
I don’t know whether this viewpoint has any mainstream acceptance at all, or if there is a small group of very dedicated online commenters who make it a point to bring it up whenever possible. But the fact that it seems to have jumped the pond leads me to believe that there are enough people who buy into this idea of a culture of criminality that it is worth addressing.
There is no black culture that celebrates criminality. This will be, to some, a counterintuituve statement, I know. There actually is such a thing as gangsta rap, although it peaked in the ’90s. There are movies made by and starring African-Americans that celebrate criminal activities. There is an awful lot of slang spoken by some black people that seems to reference violence and crime in a celebratory way. All this is true.
But it’s troubling when these expressions of culture come to be seen as representative of black people. Or, rather, I should say, the trouble comes when black people are uniquely held to be influenced by and defined by cultural expressions we disapprove of. After all, white people create art that celebrates crime. I would guess roughly half of the characters Johnny Depp has played in his storied career have been criminals of one sort or another: pirates, drug dealers, mobsters, murderous barbers. Last year’s hot summer jam was a song called “Pumped Up Kicks” by a band called Foster the People that tells of a school shooter. I do not think the band was celebrating school shootings, but the lyrics to the song are descriptive rather than moralizing, and the whole of it is set to a friendly, cheerful melody. There has been a lot of music by white artists that have similar qualities: When the Beatles sang “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man” in the song “Run for Your Life,” they offered no critique of their own lyrics. Without context, one could fairly assume that the song’s author, John Lennon, felt no qualms about the idea of murdering women who are unfaithful. Further, that specific line is taken from an earlier song, “Baby, Let’s Play House,” sung by none other than Elvis Presley.
I could fill up this whole column with a similar inventory of work created by white artists and enjoyed, mostly, by white audiences. And yet nobody shows up on newspaper websites in the comments section when a white person commits a crime, complaining about a white culture of criminality. Nobody points to white hipsters listening to Johnny Cash singing that he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die and says, there, hipsters are potential murderers. No, it is African-Americans who are expected to be collectively accountable for this sort of art. And they are held to be collectively influenced by it, and this art is held to have a capability to influence white people as well that seems unique. (I should note that this same charge is sometimes leveled at other minority groups, but to a lesser extent; the same people who go on and on about gangsta rap may not know of the Mexican tradition of the Narcocorrido, which celebrates drug dealers, or the Indian genre of film called Mumbai Noir, which celebrates organized crime in India.)
I have all sorts of problems with this discussion. I think it’s a problem that white people are defining black people as having a culture based in what we disapprove of. Black people express themselves culturally in a lot of ways, and it seems perversely selective to tease out one cultural expression, link it to behavior we don’t like, and call it black. There are, after all, white people who are lazy, who abandon their children, who commit crimes, but the only time this is racialized is when they also happen to be fans of rap music, in the United States, or affect a few phrases from English patois, if they are Londoners. Then this misbehavior is attributed to the influence of blacks. Race and crime only seem to be an issue in these discussions when the race is “non-white.” And it’s not just that white criminals are not seen as acting on behalf of their race, or are an indictment of their race, as happens with blacks. It’s that race usually doesn’t enter into it at all. White criminals are just criminals. Unless, of course, they have been influenced by black culture, and then, in the words of David Starkey, they have become black.
All of this points to an enormous double standard when it comes to race and culture. And there is a word for when we hold one race up to one standard and another race up to another standard, especially when those standards propose that one race is uniquely violent, uniquely criminal, and their culture has a unique, pervasive, destructive effect on the other race.
That word is racism. It’s been prettied up by masking itself as a critique of culture, but if it truly were a critique of culture, that criticism would be applied equally to all cultural expressions, regardless of the skin tone of its creator. That is not what is happening here. Instead, we are offered a critique of race, with one race falling short. It is a critique that says that when a black person engages in a specific cultural activity, it is significant and menacing, and when a white person engages in the same activity, it is invisible.
And I think this is worth pointing out, even if this criticism is only being offered by a few noxious and boorish online commenters who attempt to dominate any unmoderated forum. Because race goes underdiscussed in American society, even though it is still one of our fault lines, and easily exploited in the way that social animosity is always exploited. But the discussion of race has started to become coded — hostility against Obama, for example, is presented as being based in a fiction, that he was not born in America. But this is nonsense. He is from America. But calling him Kenyan worked as a sort of shadow puppet show, in which his otherness as a black man could be highlighted without ever actually being discussed. And it’s hard to talk about race when the people who raise the subject refuse to admit that race is an issue at all — no, they’re talking about culture, and we should be able to criticize culture, shouldn’t we?
Yes, by all means, discuss it. If you have a problem with gangsta rap, go ahead and offer your critique, although you run the risk of sounding woefully out-of-touch, as rap has moved on. But the moment you hold up culture as representing the viewpoints and influencing the behavior of a race, you’re no longer discussing culture. You’re discussing race. And, if you hold one race to a standard that you don’t hold another to, you’re having a racist discussion, and don’t be surprised when somebody tells you this.