"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People announced plans recently to file an injunctive class-action suit “to force [gun manufacturers] to distribute their product responsibly,” the NAACP president, Kweisi Mfume, noted that gun violence takes a disproportionately high toll among young black males.
According to an NAACP press release, African-American males between the ages of 15 and 24 are almost five times more likely to be injured by firearms than are white males in the same age group. “Firearm homicide has been the leading cause of death among young African-American males for nearly 30 years,” it stated.
Am I alone in seeing this as an absurd act of political desperation by the civil rights establishment? What’s next? Will Irish-Americans sue whiskey distillers, or Jews the gas company?
That last analogy only works, of course, for those who think the Holocaust was a self-inflicted wound. In fact, black leaders have already accused white and Korean liquor vendors of “invading” black communities and intoxicating their inhabitants. Boycotts have followed these charges, and anti-white, anti-Korean race riots as well.
But who forces alcohol down reluctant throats? And who makes guns shoot in ways that victimize blacks more than whites?
How can the NAACP even make the comparison between gun deaths of blacks and whites, if not as a racist insinuation that whites are somehow the cause of those “disproportionate” violent deaths, just as whites are the implied cause of nearly every other social pathology that afflicts the African-American community?
In the sociology of the left, including the NAACP, there cannot be a wound the black community inflicts on itself that is not ultimately the responsibility of malicious whites. To think otherwise would be to “blame the victim.” Only mean-spirited conservatives (like me) would even think of doing that.
The fact is that while blacks make up only 12 percent of the population, they account for 46 percent of total violent crime and 90 percent of the murders of other blacks. It is they, not whites or gun manufacturers, who are responsible for the disproportionate gun deaths of young black males.
Firearms don’t kill people. Sociopaths do. It takes a human brain to pull the trigger. If young black males abuse firearms in an irresponsible and criminal fashion, why should the firearm industry be held accountable? Why not their parents? Why not themselves?
Unfortunately, as a nation we have become so trapped in the melodrama of black victimization and white oppression that we are in danger of losing all sense of proportion. If blacks are oppressed in America, why isn’t there a black exodus? Why do all those black Haitians want to come here? To be oppressed?
In the grips of a politically inspired group psychosis, we find it natural to collude with demagogic race hustlers in support of a fantasy in which African-Americans are no longer responsible for anything negative they do, even to themselves.
If blacks constitute just under half the prison population, for example, that cannot be allowed to suggest that the black community might have a problem when it comes to raising its children as law-abiding members of society. Oh no. Such a statistic can only be explained by the racism of a criminal justice system that is incarcerating too many blacks.
Nonsense like this is proposed daily by the entire spectrum of the civil rights leadership from racist bloviator Al Sharpton to urbane Urban League President Hugh Price. Against the intimidating atmosphere this consensus creates, to suggest the obvious — that too many blacks are in prison because blacks commit too many crimes — is to be identified as an apologist for racism, and perhaps even a closet racist oneself.
The NAACP’s anti-gun lawsuit comes on the heels of the crusade to defend crack dealers because 90 percent of them are African-American and their sentences are considered “too harsh.” This insipid campaign was launched by Jesse Jackson at the Washington rally of race-hater Louis Farrakhan.
That 90 percent of crack cocaine dealers are black cannot be seen, of course, as a moral stain on those crack dealers or as a massive social problem for the community that produces them. It can only be the result of a white legal system that stigmatizes crack as a more dangerous and more culpable drug than the powder cocaine it uses itself.
Forget that the heavier penalties were originally demanded by black leaders who claimed that crack was associated with street violence in the black community and the white criminal justice system did not care enough about its destructive consequences to make the penalties harsh.
That was then, this is now. And now, lessening the sentences that were previously raised has become a crusade for “social justice” that overshadows the need to combat the crime wave itself. Because racial oppression is the main enemy, the villainy of the crack trade is transformed into yet another symbol of white unfairness.
This kind of race baiting has now intruded into the presidential contest as a means of smearing the Republican leader, George W. Bush, who is distinguished by his outreach to minority communities and by his support among blacks. Is there a vast left-wing conspiracy that sees Bush’s black support as a political threat?
Well, of course there is. It is precisely because Bush is perceived as a candidate who can break the vicious stereotyping of Republicans as anti-black that he has to be smeared. Bush was thus labeled Governor Death in a Christopher Hitchens column.
The clear implication of Hitchens’ attack was that Bush is collusive in a racist justice system in Texas that executes blacks in disproportionate numbers. “Perhaps you wonder if capital punishment is unevenly applied, as respects race and class, in the state of Texas,” wrote Hitchens. “Wonder no longer. Just read the Amnesty report Killing With Prejudice: Race and the Death Penalty in the USA.”
Well, Christopher, I read the Amnesty report. Maybe you should, too. The Amnesty report does not even mention racial or class statistics in Texas and could not possibly be used to draw such a conclusion. Moreover, a perusal of the report reveals no self-evident truths even nationally. Rather, it is a slovenly produced, inflammatory document.
Under the heading “Racist Representation of Indigent Defendants,” for example, it offers this evidence: “Gary Burns, black, executed in Indiana on 20 November 1997, was described to the jury by his white attorney as an ‘insignificant, snivelly little street person.’” End of example.
What is this supposed to prove? That someone else must have done the dirty work because Burns was too weak to be guilty of it himself? Who can tell from this example? Most of the report consists of unsystematic and frustratingly brief snippets of cases like this, combined with a sprinkling of unanalyzed statistics that are arrayed to serve a partisan agenda.
It is true that the number of blacks executed in Texas (and nationwide) is greater than their proportion in the population. But it is also true that the proportion of black murderers far exceeds the proportion of blacks in the population at large. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics 1996 report (released May 1999), blacks commit 54 percent of the homicides in America even though they constitute only 12 percent of the population.
An individual black male is eight times more likely to commit murder than an individual white male. Thus, in the most equitable system imaginable, a black male would be eight times more likely than a white male to be executed for murder.
In fact, however, convicted white murderers are more likely to be executed for their crimes than convicted black murderers. In 1996-97, whites accounted for 62 percent of the convicted murderers executed in Texas. According to statistics provided by the Justice Department, the proportion of whites presently on death row compared to the total white population is almost four times that of the comparable proportion of blacks on death row in terms of the total black population.
Whatever these statistics prove, it is not that justice in America is systemically biased against blacks. But the desperation to prove white turpitude is so great that instead of celebrating this as a triumph of civil rights reform in the law, the race baiters merely shift their focus to the victims of capital crimes.
Thus the statistic with which Amnesty opens its case is this: “Of the 500 prisoners executed between 1977 and 1998,” according to Amnesty, “81.8 [percent] were convicted of murdering a white person, even though blacks and whites are the victims of homicide in almost equal numbers nationwide.”
No attempt is made of course to explain how the criminal justice system might systematically discriminate in favor of white victims but not against black defendants (except by this indirect method). What the report’s raw statistic fails to take into account is that the death penalty is only imposed in aggravated circumstances, which can include the violence of the crime, whether it is committed in the course of another crime or whether the perpetrator has a prior criminal record of violent crimes.
All these factors are ignored in the Amnesty report. It so happens that black felons commit 43 percent of aggravated assaults, 66 percent of armed robberies, 27 percent of rapes and 85 percent of interracial crimes of violence, mainly against whites (this last figure from a Justice Department report for 1993).
Since juries generally don’t demand the death penalty for crimes of passion, where the victim is known to the killer, and since blacks are far more likely to commit violent crimes against whites than are whites against blacks, the disparity that offends Amnesty may not imply a racial bias on the part of prosecutors and juries at all. The report does not even acknowledge this as a problem.
The defense of criminals as a civil rights cause is only an extreme manifestation of what has apparently become the very essence of the civil rights movement. Do black children fail to achieve in school? White oppression explains their failure. (Nothing else could without blaming the victims.)
Poor black academic performance cannot be seen as a failure of black families to educate their children, or of the black community to support educational values, which are often referred to derisively as “thinking white.” Black failure can only be the result of some lingering residue of the white perfidy involved in slavery and segregation. Call it “institutional racism.”
Of course, those who invoke the phantom of “institutional racism” are too sophisticated to claim that there are actual racists lodged in our liberal education establishment who refuse to admit black children to legally integrated schools or refuse to teach them when they get there.
Instead, the concept of “institutional racism” is made to encompass an entire system of oppression that invisibly conspires to keep black children down. It may do so through culturally rigged tests; or through the failure to provide black role models in positions of authority; or by providing only underfunded schools to black neighborhoods; or as a result of the pervasive negative pressure exerted by an environment of poverty that cannot be countered with a mere six hours of school. (And, indeed, compulsory preschool is already being proposed by Al Gore and the left as a new social cure-all.)
In reality, the failure of African-American children to make the educational grade cannot be explained by any of the above factors. Statistics analyzed by the New York Times (July 4, 1999) dispel the poverty argument by establishing that impoverished white children whose parents earn less than $10,000 a year score higher on standardized SAT tests than black children whose parents earn more than $70,000.
None of the above arguments, moreover, can explain why Vietnamese children who are poor and discriminated against, whose schools are underfunded and who are culturally at a greater disadvantage than blacks, and have even fewer “role models” to inspire them, still manage to be educationally competitive.
While the oppression theme dominates public discourse, no attention is paid to the real problems that hold African-American children back. There is a symbiosis, in fact, between the political mumbo jumbo of the Kweisi Mfumes and Jesse Jacksons (abetted mightily by patronizing white liberals) and the seemingly intractable social problems of the black community.
The myth of racial oppression, invoked to explain every social deficit of blacks, is an exercise in psychological denial. Crying racism deflects attention from the actual causes of the problems that afflict African-American communities. Its net result is to deprive people and communities who could help themselves of the power to change their fate.
Nearly 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock. A child raised in a single-parent, female-headed household is six times more likely to be poor than a child of any color born into a two-parent household. Seventy percent of youth violence is committed by males from female-headed households, regardless of race.
If the NAACP and other black leaders want to end the terrible scourge of gun violence committed by young inner-city blacks, they should launch a campaign to promote marriage and family formation in the African-American community; they should issue a moral plea to the community to stigmatize fathers who abandon their children and parents who have more children than they can afford.
Instead of waging war against law enforcement agencies and supporting destructive racial demagogues like Al Sharpton, they should support the Rudy Giulianis and other champions of public safety, whom they now attack. They should campaign for a tripling of police forces in inner-city areas to protect the vast majority of inhabitants who are law-abiding and who are the true victims of the predators among them.
But to take these remedial steps would require rejecting the bogus charge of white oppression. It would mean abandoning the ludicrous claim that white America and firearms manufacturers are the cause of the problems afflicting African-Americans. It would mean taking responsibility for their own communities instead.
David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.More David Horowitz.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)