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The rape of Black America

Race, not rape, was the central issue in the controversy surrounding the Mike Tyson trial, suggests Emmanuel Oliver

The conviction of Mike Tyson for the rape of Desiree Washington has been hailed by many as a victory for women's rights. In fact, the case has done nothing to advance the cause of women's rights. But it has done a lot to criminalise the black community. Those newspaper editors who championed the cause of Desiree Washington could not give a damn about women's rights. They took the side of one oppressed group only because it gave them the opportunity to stick the boot into another. Under the pretext of standing up for the rights of rape victims, they stamped all over the rights of black people.

Media coverage of the Tyson trial was saturated with racial stereotypes. There was the stereotype of the black brute who cannot control his sexual urges. Tyson was said to have an oversized penis and an insatiable sexual appetite. Then there was the stereotype of the black mugger for whom violence is a way of life. According to the Sun's four-page profile of the 'Baddest man on the planet', Tyson's child gang 'mugged drunks, robbed old ladies and ripped necklaces from women's throats' (12 February 1992). Finally, there was the stereotype of the black sportsman who is all brawn and no brain: 'Mike Tyson has the temperament and physique of a mutant pit bull terrier and an intellect to match.' (Sun, 13 February)

This composite of every white prejudice added up to a police photofit of urban black America. It was not just Tyson who was in the dock in Indianapolis. The whole black community was on trial. Indeed, for the duration of his trial, Tyson became the personification of the 'underclass', against whom the US establishment has been rallying a racist backlash.

Over the past decade, the underclass has become a code word for the urban black community in America. The notion of the underclass is constructed on images of the ghetto: unemployment, welfare, illegitimacy, criminality, drugs and violence, all set to a soundtrack of NWA's 'Fuck the Police'. The reason why the media focused so much on Tyson's upbringing in the ghetto was because his past provided fuel for their preoccupations in the present.

Just read Frank Keating's description of Tyson's upbringing in Brooklyn: 'Lorna Tyson, who was unmarried, gave birth to her second son, Michael, in a tenement room at Herzl Street in the notorious Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn. The family lived off public assistance. The children lived, and sometimes slept, on the streets. Michael grew up to run with a gang of under-10 hoodlums who called themselves the Jolly Stompers.' (Guardian, 12 February 1992)

The continuous link made between Tyson's beginnings in the ghetto and the premature end of his career in the dock served to drive home the racist argument that 'you can take a black man out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out of a black man'. This point was spelled out by Glyn Davies in the Weekend Guardian: 'It's not that nobody can take the ghetto out of Tyson: it's more like Tyson trying to stuff as much of it back into himself before it's too late. It's as though he is trying to reclaim his soul.' (18 January 1992) The implication is that a ghetto spirit lurks within all black people, and no matter how hard they try they will never escape from it.

The idea of the underclass serves a useful purpose for the American establishment. The deficiencies of US capitalism are at their most glaring in metropolitan centres such as New York, Washington DC, Chicago or LA, especially in inner-city areas where blacks are concentrated. The appalling squalor of many of America's major cities is testimony to the parlous state of US capitalism. The urban deprivation which so obsesses conservative politicians is an index of America's economic decline.

According to the US elite, however, the responsibility for this grim state of affairs lies with the black community and its inability to come to terms with modern civilisation. The foremost victims of capitalism's failure to offer everybody a stake in the American Dream are themselves blamed for their own degradation. In other words, the underclass provides a scapegoat for the manifest failures of American society in the 1990s.

The other function of the idea of the underclass is that it can be used to rally support from white workers who are themselves less than enamoured with the American way of life at the moment. Conservative politicians are trying to use the consequences of their own social failures as a way of cohering what's left of middle America. By targeting the underclass and the 'dependency culture' as a drain on scarce resources, the establishment can deflect attention from the shortcomings of its own system.

The idea of the underclass functions as a sort of internal evil empire, a contagious disease which must be contained at all costs. It can be used to justify the most repressive of social measures. In South Carolina, for example, the state has been jailing (mainly black) women who take drugs when pregnant. In some American cities, the authorities have used the violence of the black ghettos in order to justify police curfews. The underclass debate enlists the support of white America for a more repressive crackdown against a supposed threat to the American way of life.

Periodically, an individual black male is used to lend credence to the idea that the American Dream is turning into a nightmare thanks to the existence of a malignant disease called the underclass that is eating away at society. Who remembers Willie Horton, the paroled black rapist who became the stick which George Bush's supporters used to beat the Democrats in the 1988 campaign for the presidency? In another year of presidential campaigning by increasingly desperate politicians, we can be sure that Mike Tyson will not be the only black to take the rap for the failures of American capitalism.

Shape of the future

Are British designers as trendy as they think, asks Richard Stead

One of the very few areas in which Britain can still compete with the rest of the world is in graphic design. British artists are supposed to be hip to the latest trends and styles. Just as in the fashion world, where Paris produces the haute couture and Britain is trendy, so too in the field of design. Britain has its finger on the pulse, something celebrated monthly in i-D magazine and recently documented in a glossier format in Design after Dark: The Story of Dancefloor Style by Cynthia Rose.

The emphasis on innovation in British design glosses over the striking similarities between today and the past. In fact the two main strands in contemporary design owe more to the past than the future.

Rose's book identifies the origin of much of today's trendiest design in the period just before and after the Russian Revolution. Kept to the forefront of British design through the influence of ex-Sunday Times and City Limits designer David King and the typographer Neville Brody, the influence of Russian design has been immense.

At the time, the designs of Malevich, Kandinsky, Lissitzky et al expressed the excitement and aspirations of a rapidly changing society through the use of colour, abstract form and typography. What was innovative then has now become familiar. Today's reworkings of the past can only add superficial decorativeness. At its worst, this expresses itself in the classy blandness so familiar to readers of men's magazines like Arena or GQ. At its best, it can be a concentration of shapes, colour, texture, logo and motif, as seen in any Dream Warriors, Massive Attack or raveinfluenced record cover.

In fact, many of the best visual images today come from the dance-inspired styles of the past few years. With little pretension to be radically innovative, but expressing a desire for immediacy, iconic imagery has been plundered from advertising, detergent packets and even toilet doors. Colour and bold outlines abound. Computerised images are cropped, squeezed and montaged. These are images of high intensity and little longevity, but none the worse for it. Indeed this is preferable to the alternative on offer.

The second strand of contemporary design has less obvious roots in the visual imagery of the past, but nonetheless has both feet firmly planted there. Its precursors are the likes of Byron and the German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. While dance floor design frequently celebrates its modernity through kitsch, this romantic design wants nothing to do with the present, never mind the future. It is dreamy, often blurred, slightly rusted, maybe burnt and certainly yellowed. It can be found on any album cover by the Cocteau Twins or in any graphic novel that doesn't want to be thought of as a comic.

The romantic, aged quality that is so popular today is a rejection of all things modern. Modern is equated with tacky, while the discreetly aged represents quality, something fine from a mythical bygone age, nostalgic and more often than not melancholic. Usually this means some beautiful textures and tones are used, frequently including either bones or dried flowers. This is the imagery which can justifiably lay claim to expressing the spirit of the backward-looking age in which we live.
  • Design after Dark: The Story of Dancefloor Style, by Cynthia Rose is published by Thames and Hudson, £12.95 pbk

The breast-feeding fraud

Are we really to believe that babies fed on breast milk will be more intelligent adults than those, like Bernadette Whelan, who were fed on the bottle?

Have you seen the TV advert where the scientist proves that Fairy non-biological is the best washing powder for baby clothes? The battleaxe in the Margaret Thatcher suit, representing Mothercare, has to concede that Fairy can (wash whiter). The recent claim that breast-feeding makes brain cells multiply seems to be a similar sort of trick to me, except this fairy story is selling a labour intensive type of mothercare - and I'm not buying.

The hard facts are few. The only thing we can be sure of is that the results are drawn from a sample 300 babies, who were given IQ tests at the age of seven or eight. The departure from fact to fiction begins with the contention that babies who received breast rather than formula milk had significantly higher IQs than those who did not receive maternal milk: 'Our data points to a beneficial effect of human milk on neuro-development', declared The Lancet (31 January 1991).

How did the Medical Research Council come to make such outrageous claims on the basis of such paltry evidence? Even more to the point, why have these claims been seized upon so eagerly by the media? I suspect that it has something to do with the trend in recent debate to suggest that social problems have natural causes. We have heard a lot of late about the underclass, a category of people who are apparently congenitally incapable of making a contribution to society. According to the new conservative wisdom, this is part of the natural order of things. Now we are told that the intellectual prowess of the nation's youth is also given by nature. In this case, it's in the mother's milk.

Any doubters who might worry that this wasn't an entirely conclusive study are offered this reassurance: 'The findings take account of other possible explanations, such as breast-feeding mothers tending to be better educated and from higher socio-economic groups.' (Times, 31 January 1992). Funnily enough, they don't tell us how they managed to take account of these other explanations. My guess is that if they did, this might too easily betray the prejudices that informed their research.

I don't mind admitting that I have a double-edged axe to grind on this issue. I have only recently emerged from a month-long wrestling match with my daughter, most of which she spent stuck to my chest like a limpet. Finally, I burned my nursing bras and found liberation in a can of formula milk. Two months of decent nights' sleep further into motherhood, having got the New Man out of bed to bottle-feed, I now feel qualified to champion the cause of bottle-feeding as progress.

I have no objections to scientists striving to manufacture formula milk which more closely matches mother's own. I'm sure that if they put their best minds and enough resources to it, they could even make milk which is nutritionally far superior to that which I can produce, given that I do not subsist on a diet of organic vegetables and may even have a few drinks from time to time.

But that is not the issue here. I don't believe the moral crusaders for breast over bottle care any more about my diet or my daughter's than Edwina Curry did when she railed against the working classes for buying fish and chips with their dole money.

Regardless of whether they come in the guise of journalist, feminist or scientist, accepting the idea that intelligence can be measured physiologically makes all of these people eugenicists in my book. It should also be said that their empirical ground is too shaky to support the argument anyway. Indeed, we would do well to remember Sir Cyril Burt, who at the turn of the century claimed to prove that intelligence was hereditary. He wasn't discredited until the 1960s, when it emerged that he had falsified the results to obtain the conclusions he wanted.

Even Burt's first and 'honest' paper of 1909, which he cited as proof of the innateness of intelligence, proved in a circular argument only that he had begun his study with that a priori conviction. 'The "evidence" served only as selective window dressing.... He continually argued for innateness by citing correlations in intelligence between parents and offspring and he continually assessed parental intelligence by social standing, not by actual tests.' (Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man)

Nearly a century later, Burt's discredited methods have been rehabilitated. The a priori assumptions of these present-day eugenicists seem clear to me. They want us to believe that the middle classes are naturally more intelligent because they get brains from their mother's milk.

Breast-feeding is out of the question for most working class women who have to go out to work or have other children to look after - and don't have live-in nannies. According to a survey commissioned by Farley's Baby Milks, only one in four babies is breast-fed, and that figure includes the women who, like me, learned the hard way that it's impractical to be an Earth Mother if you live in a council flat and want to get out once in a while. I assume that the women who persevere do so because they can afford the time and have the inclination to do it (it's a round-the-clock job).

The test claims that the offspring of this section of society are more intelligent than the rest of us. No doubt these people also have the wherewithal to furnish the older child with the trappings of the intelligentsia to which they rightfully belong - perhaps a little desk complete with computer - before Dr Lucas, whom we have to thank for this latest survey, comes along at age seven or eight to carry out his IQ tests. I have a feeling that if we all had the same start in life, then we wouldn't have to put up with bogus surveys like this one.

I reckon that my mother was a potential Einstein when she started out. The reason why she never realised that potential probably had more to do with having to work in a stultifying job and look after an army of children than with the way in which she was weaned. Despite all this, she made a lot more sense than the Medical Research Council when she convinced me that neither I nor the baby were getting much out of breast-feeding.

If I had continued to breast-feed my daughter, I doubt very much if it would have had much impact on her intelligence in later life. But it would have had a major impact on mine in the here and now. Having sat through a month of breast-feeding with no hands free to even eat properly myself, it dawned on me that my intelligence was being drained away in the process. I might as well have been put out to pasture for good if I'd kept it up for any longer.

Breast-feeding is the most exhausting, time-consuming and boring occupation imaginable. It didn't allow me to do anything except sit in front of the telly for the whole month. I could go into the mental and physical anguish involved in the operation of the breast pump, the essential appliance for the breast-feeder who wants to get out for an hour, but I won't. Despite some women's claims that they enjoy the whole business, I'm telling you that there are better ways to express yourself.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 42, April 1992

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