by Charles M. Blow
On Sunday, there was a deadly biker gang fight and massacre in Waco, Tex. Nine people were killed, and 18 others were injured.
“About 170 bikers were charged with engaging in organized crime linked to capital murder,” The New York Times reported.
According to The Waco Tribune-Herald, “officials have found 1,000 weapons tucked into kitchen areas, vehicles and toilets,” and those weapons included chains with padlocks, pocketknives, assault knives, batons and even an AK-47. They also found body armor.
But the tone and tenor of the rhetoric the media used to describe this event — particularly early on — were in stark contrast to the language used to describe the protests over the killings of black men by the police.
In Waco, the words used to describe the participants in a shootout so violent that a local police spokesman called the crime scene the bloodiest he had ever seen included “biker clubs,” “gangs” and “outlaw motorcycle gangs.”
While those words may be accurate, they lack the pathological markings of those used to describe protesters in places like Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore. President Obama and the mayor of Baltimore were quick to use the loaded label “thugs” for the violent rioters there. That the authorities have not used that word to describe the far worse violence in Waco makes the contrast all the more glaring.
The words “outlaw” and “biker” while pejorative to some, still evoke a certain romanticism in the American ethos. They conjure an image of individualism, adventure and virility. There’s an endless list of motorcycle gang movies. A search for “motorcycle romance” on Amazon yields thousands of options. Viagra, the erectile dysfunction drug, even has a motorcycle commercial.
While “thug life” has also been glamorized in movies, music and books, its scope is limited and racialized. It is applied to — and even adopted by — black men. And the evocation is more “Menace II Society” than “Easy Rider.” The pejorative is unambiguous.
Now, to some this may simply be a semantics issue about how best to describe a criminal and a possible inconsistency, or maybe not even that. But to me it’s not. I try to register interconnections and historical context. To me, this is a societal and media issue about the imbalances in characterization, which is itself a proxy for the very value we place on different people simply because of their inherent identities and their personal presentations. And yes, race is a part of that presentation.
The world has seen, even in the last few years, unspeakable savagery of a scale on which the recent American riots would hardly register, and no one racial group has the market cornered on barbarism.
Human beings, as a whole, under the right (or should I say wrong?) conditions, are capable of primal, animalistic violence.
But there is something about black violence that makes some people leap to a racialized conclusion that the violence is about our fraying culture — that it’s not simply about people behaving violently, but about the entirety of the environment from which they sprang. Black violence stops being about individual people, and starts being about the whole of a people.
Does the violence in Waco say something universal about white culture or Hispanic culture? Even the question sounds ridiculous — and yet we don’t hesitate to ask such questions around black violence, and to answer it, in the affirmative. And invariably, the single-mother, absent-father trope is dragged out.
But a father in the home is no guarantor against violence. By the way, is anyone asking about the family makeup of the bikers in Waco?
History teaches us that this is a flawed premise. This country has a history of race riots, some that stretch back centuries, to a time when two parents in the home was the universal norm. Did that prevent the violence? No.
We have to recognize what these disparities and the way we see and discuss events, particularly violent ones, are all about: an underlying fear of, distaste for, suspicion of the otherness of blackness that informs these beliefs. This is a hatred, whether the conscious considerations are malicious or benign. This is a hatred, which says that blackness is inherently lesser. This is a hatred that at its most insidious can even be internalized.
Only love can defeat that kind of hate, particularly as it manifests itself in such subtle terms. It is a love that must move against these waves of current and historical thought and sensibilities. This love, in a way, starts with black people themselves, and always has. It demands that we love ourselves wholly, it demands that we love the very flesh that the world despises, and “love it hard” as Toni Morrison wrote in “Beloved,” because the world beyond our own hearts hates it.
In a sense, we must love our flesh hard because the world hates it hard.
We must build our own fortifications against systems and structures of brutality and subjugation that have long endured — that break us and blame us for the breaking.
When we come to love ourselves, we can more clearly see the lies that buttress the hatred, and it all begins to crumble like the ashes of a thing consumed by fire.
When we love ourselves, we honor ourselves and we see that black betterment isn’t simply about choice and culture but also about a defying and a demanding — defying the simplistic narrative of a personal pathology that society is salivating to impose, and demanding a dismantling of the systems of oppression (like racially tilted policing, criminal justice and incarceration) that play an incalculable role in black community destruction.
And while we can’t demand that the world love our flesh as we do, we can — and must! — demand that it stop pretending that its hatred of it is some cultural chimera concocted by a racial grievance industry. We can demand that the data around racial bias, which stretches across society, be accepted as fact rather than opinion.
We can demand the right to call hatred by its name and to its face. We can demand the right to exist, fully and freely, in the wholeness and beauty of our own humanity.
We must see the brilliant light in our beautiful darkness and love the brown bodies that the world would just as well mark and discard — even the “thugs.”
(This column originally appeared in the New York Times MAY 21, 2015 under the title “Of Bikers and Thugs”)
Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.”