When a friend sent me a link to this BBC discussion about the recent riots in London, I can't say I was overly shocked by David Starkey's assertion that the riots resulted from white youths who have "become black," though I was certainly troubled by it. Though the video is full of your typical live news interruptions (Cross Fire style, I might add), it's worth watching the full ten minutes just to listen to the issues the participants bring up. . But if you don't have time to watch the video, here's how I'd sum up the debate: David Starkey says that these white youth have become black, pointing to the way they speak, as well as pointing to violence that he equates with gang culture and rap music. The rest of the panel accuse him of equating whiteness with goodness and respectability, which he denies, but without amending his original statement. Dreda Say Mitchell argues that the real issue at hand is the prevalence of us/them culture and that we need to move toward a sense of unification.
I find myself oddly excited by this interview, in large part because David Starkey has taken an assumption that many share (ignorantly, in my opinion) and he has brought it out into the open where we can interrogate it
So, here is the question: is gang violence a "black culture" problem, as David Starkey asserts in the interview?
That question and Starkey's assertion have me thinking of a few things. First, I'm reminded of a conversation I had six or seven years ago, when I was a wide-eyed college freshman, and my South Carolinan roommate was dating a North Carolinan man. I mention where they were from because they brought up their home region, not because I buy into the myth that American racism only exists in the South. In one instance, this man made a comment to the effect that he knew and was friends with several black individuals, and that as individuals they were "nice people," but that "when you get a group of black people together, they tend to turn violent." When I mentioned this conversation to my roommate, she said she didn't agree with him but that at the same time I didn't understand what he meant, because I wasn't from the South, and I didn't have the experience with race that the two of them had experienced. As you can imagine, I found this conversation disturbing, particularly because they both held the attitude that I just didn't understand what large groups of black people were like.
Second, I'm reminded of the profound impact that racial stereotypes can have on the way we perceive the same behavior in individuals of different races. The article What if the Tea Party Were Black? makes an excellent and perhaps chilling point about how race impacts political dissent in the US, as does Jon Stewart's more humorous discussion about how Common's rap lyrics compare to the lyrics of some more conservative white musicians (included at the end of this post). Perhaps this all goes back to Mitchell's point about the us/them mentality, and as long as we think in us/them terms we will never be able to see past our own bias.
The us/them issue isn't a new one - it exists in chaos and in the most structured civilizations. Just think of Lord of the Flies, a book usually touted as a moral about what happens when civilization is gone and humans return to a primitive, tribal state. Yet that simplified conclusion is belied by the end, when the survivors are "saved" by a military ship, whose very existence proves they will never escape from the us/them brutality they have engaged in.
Now, I'm not suggesting that all who equate blackness with violence do so on a conscious level, or, in the words of Avenue Q "go around committing hate cri-i-imes." But a person's appearance impacts how we perceive what they say and do. If you don't believe me, try a few IAT automatic preference tests. These tests look at how quickly you're able to sort items into pairs of concepts and ultimately help reveal unconcious biases. The basic premise is that if you're much faster at sorting pictures and words when European/good and African/bad are paired than when it's European/bad and African/good, it's because on some level you associate European with good and African with bad. But you'll find a variety of tests on this website.
But there's another issue at stake here that I want to suggest: while it is both unfair and inaccurate to describe violence as "black," or to even describe "this particular type of violence" as black (as Starkey does), perhaps seeing white young people behave in a way that many stereotype as "black" reveals something very important - this is desperate behavior, not black behavior.
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