There are a lot of truly idiotic ways to talk about popular culture. But if I could banish just one of them from the realm of public discourse, it would be the weird and persistent tendency to blame white racism on black rappers.
The latest invocation of this idea came on “Morning Joe,” where the participants got themselves into a state of high indignation upon hearing that Waka Flocka Flame had cancelled a planned appearance at the University of Oklahoma after members of the school’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon were taped repeating a grotesquely racist chant. For host Mika Brzezinski, it was a matter of hypocrisy, noting that the rapper both conjures up violent scenarios in his songs and uses some of the same slurs the boys used. “It’s full of n-words, it’s full of f-words. It’s wrong,” she argued. “And he shouldn’t be disgusted with them, he should be disgusted with himself.”
The hypocrisy canard is so old it’s dusty, and Willie Geist got a chance to parse what was wrong with it. But other comments during the segment were even more revealing.
Bill Kristol cast the fraternity members as victims of brainwashing, suggesting that “Popular culture becomes a cesspool, a lot corporations profit off of it, and then people are surprised that some drunk 19-year-old kids repeat what they’ve been hearing.” And host Joe Scarborough went even further, arguing that white audiences wouldn’t encounter these words or scenarios if only rappers would clean up their acts. “Anybody that watches ‘Empire’ knows that 70 percent of the [audience for hip-hop] audience is white,” he insisted. “It’s a white audience, and they hear this over and over again. Do they hear this at home? Chances are good, no, they heard a lot of this from guys like this who are now acting shocked.”
This ridiculously naive formulation stays in circulation because it’s convenient. It sets up a scenario in which a pure and gentle majority (which means white) culture is polluted by black people. It argues that white people who transgress can’t be held responsible for their racism because they have been poisoned or brainwashed. It’s an equation that always solves for white innocence and black guilt. (Kristol, Scarborough and company might also consider what it means that they consider white college students so weak-minded that they’ll just repeat anything they hear.)
Most of the time, people who blame rap for white racism can get away with this shoddy argument for causality. But in the University of Oklahoma case, this attempt to lay blame looks especially foolish because the fraternity members themselves have explained where the chant came from.
“The song was taught to us,” Parker Rice said in a statement. And not by Waka Flocka Flame or any other rapper, but by Rice’s fraternity brothers. While the national office of Sigma Alpha Epsilon denies that the chant is currently taught as part of initiation or fraternity ritual, the organization did say that the fraternity would look into reports that the chant had been cropping up at other chapters: “Some of the allegations refer to incidents, which Sigma Alpha Epsilon acknowledges, from more than 20 years ago. Although we cannot change the past, we can learn from the present and alter the future.”
So what does that past consist of? Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s charter used to restrict brotherhood to “members of the Caucasian race,” a qualification that was dropped when colleges started adopting nondiscrimination regulations that would have forced racist fraternities off-campus. In the decades since, SAE chapters have racked up a depressing record of Confederate nostalgia, parties built around racist stereotypes and even harassment and assault.
The fraternity, in other words, has a culture all its own. And SAE and its chapters have at times worked quite hard to protect that culture from African-American influence, first through white-only membership and later by broadcasting a clear hostility to potential black pledges and party guests. The very chant the University of Oklahoma students were caught repeating is about the idea that SAE will keep itself all white at any cost.
Waka Flocka Flame is off the hook on this one. And anyone eager to cast blame elsewhere might do well to reflect that white people have always done just fine at coming up with racist ugliness all on their own.