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On Making Moral Judgments About 'White Power' Music

It has been fashionable in the wake of Wade Michael Page’s tragic acts in Wisconsin to speculate on whether the White Power music he listened to helped stoke him into the senseless murders he committed. Such speculations, however, are as incoherent as they are pointless—and they are marked, above all, by a cloying air of self-congratulation.

A comparison with another musical genre helps put the debate into relief. Indeed, in assessing White Power music’s influence on Page, it helps to acknowledge that rap music—savored by people of all colors, ranging in age from “youth” to middle-aged—has its own tendency to celebrate the indefensible. Some practitioners casually boast about hurting women—whether attacking a partner during intercourse (Cam’ron, “Boy, Boy”), or kicking a woman in the stomach to make her abort (Joe Budden, “Confessions II”) and, of course, all varieties of maiming and murder.

However, nasty as all of this is, and whatever one might say about its implications for the street culture that produced it, it’s all symptom rather than cause. Those who listen to rap—including myself—are not passively consuming its message, but actively seeking it as a release. Indeed, last I heard, the enlightened take on rap lyrics is that their violence must be taken not as counsel but as poetry, poses of strength from disenfranchised people—“Black Noise” as Brown’s Tricia Rose calls it. Other academics, priding themselves on their connection with the music, crown the makers of violent rap as “Prophets of the Hood” (Imani Perry, Princeton) or “Hoodlums” (William Van Deburg, University of Wisconsin), the latter meant as an arch compliment to men celebrated for speaking truth to power.

And there is more than a little bit of truth to this treatment of rap’s violent strain. In that light, rapademics have been fond of noting that old-time “toasts” among black people had their violent strains as well. Despite the prevalent anxieties in the 1990s about the social consequences of rap music, evidence that the music causes actual violence never actually surfaced.

(One study got around a while ago showing that watching a violent video makes some people more likely to assent to violence in response to hypothetical scenarios. This seems suggestive of a link—but only at first glance. After all, who would expect otherwise? And this is hardly analogous to listening to a track by the Wu-Tang Clan about snapping chains and responding by making plans to shoot up a party.)

In this light, we must ask why ugly White Power music should be thought of as any different. Certainly it must help bond adherents of the movement. But the proper question is: If the music didn’t exist would fewer adherents decide to attack people? The evidence here is nil. For example, one might note that in this country, overtly racist violence was a commonplace throughout the South up to about 1970 without the need for a music genre to keep its practitioners stoked, much less an Internet to broadcast it. The men who killed Emmett Till in 1955 weren’t stoked up by music telling them what to do.

Therefore as chilling as the lyrics to the kind of music Wade Michael Page likes can be, we must resist a temptation to think that the music was the culprit for his actions, rather than his being a deeply troubled person in a country where it’s too easy to buy and furnish a gun. In fact, I wonder whether that temptation is really that difficult for most of us to resist at all.

The heated coverage of Page’s musical tastes, then, are clearly fueled by media sensationalism intent on keeping the news cycle primed. But to the extent that the coverage holds our attention, it’s largely because we like to think that being part of a moral, enlightened America consists in regularly decrying tokens of racism such as this music. The message all of us are receiving and transmitting is less “Hate music must have helped make him do it!” than “His hate music is something to air and decry.”

Okay. There’s nothing wrong with exploiting something as a teaching moment. And we would do well to consider Robert Futrell and Pete Simi’s suggestion in their New York Times piece to track signs of violence among movement adherents by observing the venues for such music.

However, framing the music as an incitement to violence falls apart in the face of the countless people who savor it 24/7 and never hurt a fly. We should be satisfied instead with what is, at heart, our true—if more resigned—take on the issue: Music all about white people taking over the world by violence is seriously awful stuff.