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Fearing Hip-Hop: The Decline of the White Conscience

Overheated Beltway cranks and the blood on their hands.
Lynching Tree, 2013. (Photo: Steve McQueen)

Lynching Tree, 2013. (Photo: Steve McQueen)

“This competition between Arizona and South Carolina for 'worst state in the union' is really getting out of hand.” —Facebook post by respected American writer, 2/22/14

Ahem. Florida.” —response from another respected American writer

If a piece of legislation currently on Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's desk goes forward, same-sex couples could be booted from Whole Foods and CVS locations across Arizona. SB 1062 cedes business-owners the right to deny service to same-sex couples, a wildly pre-1964 bill that passed the state House of Representatives last week by six votes. South Carolina, meanwhile, cut $70,000 in funding from two public universities that had assigned pro-gay books such as Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio.

That same week, in Florida, Michael Dunn, a 47-year-old white man, was convicted on two charges of attempted second-degree murder but, thanks to a hung jury, escaped conviction for the actual murder of Jordan Davis, a black 17-year-old. Dunn had started an altercation with four teenagers in an SUV who were playing what Dunn later described to his wife as “thug music.” Dunn unloaded 10 rounds into the teens' Dodge Durango from a 9mm pistol that he kept in his glove compartment. The shooter claimed he had felt “threatened” by the teens, and by a shotgun he says he saw through a window in the SUV.

Why is it OK to say "thug" in place of "nigger"? And to what extent are racial fear-peddlers responsible for incidents like the shootings of Davis and Trayvon Martin (also 17)?

Police discovered no such weapon. Davis' companions escaped the seven bullets that didn't end up in the 17-year-old's body.

“Thug” has attained a special racial charge in recent weeks, after Richard Sherman, the Stanford-educated cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, dropped some trash talk on Michael Crabtree, a wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers, who reacted with a helmet-jab after Sherman deflected a Peyton Manning pass that turned into an NFC Championship-winning interception for Seattle.

Decried in numerous outlets as a “thug,” the generally sportsmanlike and ever-articulate Sherman spoke frankly at a press conference before the Seahawks' Super Bowl win.

“The reason [the word] bothers me is because it seems like it's an accepted way of calling somebody the N-word now,” Sherman told reporters. Right-wing outlets expressed the usual Captain Renault-like “shock” over race-card gamesmanship. They were right to be uneasy; Sherman's response had brought the hullabaloo's clear racial subtext to the fore.

Why is it OK to say “thug” in place of “nigger”? And to what extent are racial fear-peddlers responsible for incidents like the shootings of Davis and Trayvon Martin (also 17)?

If you find racial essentialism in the National Review too politically correct, then John Derbyshire (still at it!) is the blogger for you.

The year 2012 was great if you were a conservative and wished to thrash Trayvon Martin's posthumous reputation in the NRO and other rightist sites like the Daily Caller (exhibits A; B). That spring, Derbyshire learned the important lesson that when satire fails, it does so spectacularly—and that racial humor is pretty hard to pull off if you're white. The columnist has called himself a “mild and tolerant racist” (rather like being “a casual cannibal — you know, I eat fish on Fridays like a normal person”). After building a career on slavering compliments from similar “white-minority” fear-mongers, Derbyshire was let go from the National Review in April for an ostensibly “satirical” piece in Taki's Magazine, in which he counseled his children to avoid blacks.

After not watching Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, Derbyshire mustered the gall to rebut the film by resurrecting the interminable, vampiric myth of the happy/loyal slave. Drawing selectively from the Slave Narratives first collected in the mid-1930s during FDR's Federal Writers' Project (a project that Derbyshire would have vehemently opposed, along with the rest of the New Deal, had he been born in time to do so), the columnist argues that “the Slave Narratives ... remind us how remarkably often ex-slaves spoke well of their masters.”

His muscle memory tells him to dub any programmatic, non-rightist political film “[blank]-porn” (“Abolitionist porn,” as distinct somehow from “Civil Rights porn,” “slavery porn,” and, less obtusely, “Anti-Catholic Porn”).

Derbyshire-like sentiments find a comfortable daily home on talk radio—the forum where Rush Limbaugh declared on September 15, 2009: “It’s Obama’s America, is it not? Obama’s America, white kids getting beat up on school buses now.” Paranoia about WASP-extinction inflected each decade of the last, “American” century: Think of Tom Buchanan, The Great Gatsby's grand Yale dullard, who became animated by the specter of a race-war after reading The Rise of the Coloured Empires by "this man Goddard":

The idea is if we don't look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged. It's all scientific stuff; it's been proved.... This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It's up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.

As Janet Malcolm notes in “Capitalist Pastorale,” a 2009 essay in the New York Review of Books about novelist Geneva Stratton-Porter, “[Fitzgerald] based Goddard on a real writer named Lothrop Stoddard,” author of The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy (1920). Malcolm observes that Fitzgerald uses this thinly veiled allusion to mark Tom as a type, subject to idle, half-baked paranoias about the shifting industrial economy of America, in which the vaunted oldness of the Buchanans' money is swiftly losing its social cachet. Macroeconomic “change” can mean the loss of blue- or gray-collar jobs in cities such as Detroit; but recent high-profile bloodbaths suggest that it takes a chattering class trafficking in paranoia to gin up violence in states where races rub shoulders and guns are nearly as accessible as Skittles.

“Human kind cannot bear very much reality,” Derbyshire wrote in that “abolitionist porn” column, and here, for once, the man is correct. It's much easier to skip 12 Years a Slave, or to assume that any SUV blasting hip-hop is full of “thugs,” than to confront the hard moral truth at the center of our current race-crisis: the truth that carefully stoked white fear, not black aggression, is the real impediment to our notions of a “post-racial” America.