Ignoring vulgar lyrics is not a form of enlightenment

Why do so many white people put themselves at the center of every story about race?

Why do they keep turning the problems that afflict too many African-Americans into questions about their own conduct?

Why have they made white privilege and white supremacy the grand unified theory of race relations?

The simple answer: That’s what people do. It’s the inescapable narcissism that flows from the fact that each of us lives in but one skin carrying the necessary belief that our actions can affect the everything else we live amidst.

It’s why African-American writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates put their version of black experience at the center of American history, transforming a story rich in freedom and opportunity into a narrative focused on “the destruction of the black body.”

White narcissism is the bigger problem in America because we are more plentiful and more powerful. We are far more able to define the debate. Too many of us, especially the loudest voices, have focused on what we have done to them. Not us, actually, the good white people, but all the others. Twitter and our major news outlets have become distancing mechanisms in which one group of whites accuses another of racism, making African Americans an unempowered bone of contention.

Yes, some crucial work is being done to address how problems in the criminal justice system – including over-sentencing, onerous civil fines, and the denial of basic rights to former prisoners – impacts African Americans.

But instead of bearing down on the complex forces that lead to racial disparities, too much energy is spent trying to shame others in order to absolve ourselves.

The latest local example centered on Larry Moneta, the Duke administrator who was offended by the vulgar, misogynistic rap song — Young Dolph’s “Get Paid” — playing at a campus coffee shop.

This became a national story when his complaint led to the firing of the shop’s apologetic black barista and a white manager. I have not heard anybody defend their terminations, or show that Moneta requested them.

Predictably, the coverage was driven by the view of bien-pensant whites who, as one N&O letter writer, framed Moneta’s concern as an expression of “white privilege and supremacy.”

A local columnist who admitted that the lyrics “appear to my privileged ears to dehumanize her and all women” also said he, as a white man, had no right to ask the African-American barista “what she hears in rap.”

But aren’t we supposed to be having courageous conversations?

These attitudes – which make the story about white actions and feelings – precluded any discussion of the “dehumanize[ing]” music Moneta responded to and the impact it might have, especially on African-Americans.

Just last month, the jazz musician Wynton Marsalis addressed the issue, saying, “You can’t have a pipeline of filth be your default position and not have it take a toll on society. It’s just like the toll the minstrel show took on black folks and on white folks. Now, all this ‘n—– this,’ ‘bitch that,’ ‘ho that,’ that’s just a fact at this point.”

In her seminal book, “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander argues that rap music often reinforces the image of black criminality, so that many artists “endorse and perpetuate the very stereotypes that are invoked to justify [black men’s] second-class status, their exclusion from mainstream society.”

It would be wrong, however, to blame the problems black men, women and families face on rap. Yes, the Centers for Disease Control reports that black women are more than twice as likely to be murdered – almost always by black men – as white women. They are also far more likely to suffer rape, domestic violence and psychological abuse.

But these numbers – along with African-American crime rates – have fallen significantly since the early 1990s, when rap started becoming popular.

Still, my fallible gut makes it hard for me to believe the coarse images that dominate rap have little effect on the vulnerable young people who embrace it. Rap (and R&B) is not a minor genre, but the most popular music in America.

Ignoring this is not a form of enlightenment but of dangerous indifference.

This column ran in the News & Observer of Raleigh on June 6, 2018.

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