I know some of you out there are regular Radio 4 listeners and I know some of you are familiar with the station’s forays into the world of situation comedy. I myself only find a couple of these genuinely funny: one is ‘In the Kitchen’ and the other is ‘Clare in The Community’. For those not in the know, the latter stars Sally Phillips as the über right-on title character, a social worker displaying every PC trait guaranteed to leave most Raccoon Arms patrons frothing at the mouth. A recent episode saw Clare venture into the attic of her parents’ home for the first time since adolescence, whereupon she rediscovered a mural dedicated to socialism she’d painted years earlier, one in which Nelson Mandela linked arms with Tony Benn in an idealistic portrait of an 80s lefty paradise. Clare was accompanied by her sister during this reunion, who queried the identity of the little black girl with dreadlocks in the mural, to which the whiter-than-white middle-class Clare replied, ‘Oh, that’s me.’
The white absorption of black street culture, in terms of dress and slang, has given birth to the Chav at one end of the scale, but there is at least some common ground between poor black Americans and poor white Brits to justify a degree of affinity. Not so with the desperate yearning by white folks emanating from materially comfortable backgrounds to attach themselves to something ‘cool’ with ‘street cred’ in a vain attempt to discard their true origins and conjure the illusion of residing on the cutting edge of society. This has a lengthy history and is there in everything from the lyrics of Pulp’s seminal 1995 hit, ‘Common People’, to the sad sight of so-called Trustafarians. It also shares a great deal with the growing contemporary desire for victimhood and a need to be perceived as a survivor of some unspeakable tragedy. After all, what section of society could be perceived as cool, cred and downtrodden by white folks of this ilk more than black folks?
I was reminded of Clare’s silly vision of herself as the antithesis of her reality when the storm broke in the US recently concerning the revelation that Rachel Dolezal, President of the NAACP in the Washington State city of Spokane, was not quite as black as first impressions suggested; in fact, the release to the media of childhood photos featuring a little girl bearing a closer resemblance to one of the Children of the Damned than one of The Jackson Five suggested frequent spells on the sun-bed along with an ongoing recourse to a home perm kit were closer to the truth. Her evident deception was not merely limited to her appearance, however. She had fabricated a past of characteristic black ‘suffering’, oppressed by whites and robbed of her roots by her white ‘stepfather’ (her actual biological father), posing for photos alongside an old black dude she claimed was her real father, and declaring herself a victim of racial abuse.
Dolezal continues to claim she is black, despite blatant evidence to the contrary of her Michael Jackson-in-reverse reinvention, but her bizarre metamorphosis not only highlights the ludicrous liberal guilt of some white Americans where the nation’s past treatment of its black population is concerned; it also taps into the persistent victimhood syndrome prevalent in some corners of that very population. A blonde-haired white girl could hardly expect to ascend the lofty heights of an organisation promoting the African-American community, but an Afro-haired black girl could, particularly one with a series of sob stories documenting her ‘struggle’ that serve as some form of authenticity insurance.
From the refusal of Rosa Parks to give up her seat at the front of the bus to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X though to Black Power and the Black Panthers, the black American demand for equality was once about making previously silent voices heard with impassioned gusto, voices that didn’t aim for their objective by seeking to invoke pity and condescending sympathy. Playing the victim was viewed as no more progressive than playing Uncle Tom. As James Brown memorably cried in 1968 – ‘Say it loud! I’m black and I’m proud!’ And, as if we could forget, exactly forty years on from that rousing clarion call, a black man made it all the way to the White House.
Yet, ever since a former black sporting hero seemed odds-on to be found guilty of the murder of his white wife just over twenty years ago, the decision of his defence lawyer to turn his client into the victim of racial discrimination has dramatically changed the tactics of those still concerned with achieving black equality with the white majority. The not guilty verdict in the OJ Simpson trial seemed to mark a critical turning point. Rather than seeking to rise above injustice and refuse to be defined by it, the new mood appeared to be to wallow in it and use injustice as a crutch. Playing the race card has now become as ubiquitous in the US as compensation culture, political correctness and victimhood, in many respects enjoying an incestuous union with them. Those whose childhood memories are haunted by witnessing a lynching or hearing horror stories from a grandparent whose formative years were spent in southern slavery are now on the last lap of life; any black American under-50 citing such experiences as having a relevance on their own lives is like a white Brit blaming workhouses for the fact they’re currently signing-on.
The recent spate of black deaths at the hands of white policemen in several American cities isn’t necessarily turning back the clock to the pre-Civil Rights era. Far more has changed than is convenient to the contemporary persecution agenda. In the decades since the 1960s, black Americans have risen to the upper echelons of the nation’s institutions, something that would have been inconceivable half-a-century ago. In a city such as Baltimore, the scene of ‘race riots’ a few months ago, the mayor, state’s attorney and police commissioner are all black, and within the Baltimore Police Force the actual division between black and white officers is more or less fifty-fifty. Washington’s police department even has a greater number of black officers than white. For some black voices in the public eye to lay the blame of police aggression solely at the door of skin colour doesn’t entirely hold true. Even the veteran black activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson stated on British TV last week that more white youths have been killed by police officers than black ones over the past twelve months. Surely poverty plays far greater a part in the causes of recurrent civil unrest than race?
As African-Americans constitute the largest non-white section of the US, it is unsurprising that many surveys of poverty statistics based upon race generally place the black population on a higher poverty percentage than other minorities – but only just. Hispanics run a very close second and one survey even claims Native American Indians are ahead of Black Americans, recording the highest national poverty rate at 27.0%, with Blacks at 25.8%. Indeed, how many Native Americans hold positions of public office or high-ranking police posts in comparison to Black Americans? Black America may always point back to slavery as the source of its grievances, but what of those whose land it was before even white men set foot on it, let alone imported Africans? Slavery is indisputably horrible, but hardly worse than virtual genocide. If there is any racial problem in America today, it can be found at its most dire on the Indian Reservations, where the average life expectancy is barely fifty, the shortest life expectancy of any community within the western hemisphere outside of bloody Haiti.
Perhaps white folks seeking to ally themselves with a genuinely oppressed minority should start donning feathered headgear and war-paint. And black folks should count their blessings. There actually are some minorities worse off in America than them.