Kanye West is known for lighting up concert halls and social media with his outrageous, publicity-seeking theatrics, yet his recent comments speculating that enslaved blacks made a lifestyle choice sparked an unusually intense reaction. “When you hear about slavery for 400 years…for 400 years? That sounds like a choice,” Kanye said to TMZ in remarks that have now been replayed millions of times. Outrage, confusion—and even some praise—roiled for nearly a week, and then the controversy seemed to fade.
While there are those who take Kanye’s words as frivolous and not to be taken seriously, others argue that his comments cause damage and have a lasting negative impact because they effectively validate false racial narratives.
“The key in this instance is the connection between popular narratives, rhetoric, and policy”, said Amara Enyia, a Chicago-based public policy consultant and community organizer. “The reality is that so much of policy is driven by widespread rhetoric and false narratives about particular ethnic groups, socioeconomic classes, set forth by highly visible or influential characters. Individuals like Kanye West.”
Non-conformity often finds sanctuary in the expression of artists such as Kayne. The innovative legacy of black art is its refusal to submit to boundaries of expression established by white cultural standards. Kanye’s discography is emblematical of this heritage. His music genre and masterworks force America to contend with its’ allergy to cultural inclusion. But when his criticism becomes distorted and he casts blame on victims, he surrenders to the very limitations black art refutes.
Suggesting that slavery was merely a matter of opting in or out is intellectually dishonest in its claim and culprit-cleansing in its purpose. “It is troublesome when somebody of that stature displays that kind of stark ignorance”, said B. Anthony Bogues, director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University. “This is not free thought. What he’s doing is, quite frankly, displaying ignorance about the way slavery worked and how those actual legacies continue to structure the life of many African Americans today.”
To be sure, Kanye’s perspective logically resonates with a relative few who, along with him, articulate their position in defense of “free-thinking.” Rendering oppression a matter of choice overlooks the fact that in America’s historical context of compulsory black labor, “choice” was removed.
The mere suggestion that the nation’s 244-years of slavery was voluntary promotes a myth of indolence. In both policy and practice this timeworn tactic has been relentlessly employed by agents of racial prejudice to square the condition of black subjugation with white guilt, while striving to maintain white supremacy. It can be used to justify violence against people of color, mistreatment by police and judicial systems, or diverting resources away from black communities to white ones.
This ploy posits persistent black poverty as a function of black social deficiencies. This false narrative fuels community division. It implies that a lack of black initiative brought American enslavement upon people of African descent. And by charging a fictional lack of drive to the challenging social and economic conditions facing a large share of African-American communities, those corroborating Kanye’s version provide racism the support it needs to flourish. Kanye’s derisive avowal about those who paved the way for him supports this false pathology argument.
“The problem with Kanye’s narrative is that it intentionally ignores the very real resistance to oppressive systems – the rebellions that took place on a daily basis — the uprisings and the resistance in its many forms,” Enyia said. “Similarly, in the present day, his view disregards the fact that impoverished people of color are typically working and two and three jobs to sustain themselves — thus dispelling the ‘lazy’ narrative. Kanye’s type of rhetoric ultimately absolves policymakers from the responsibility of addressing the systems that actually keep people of color oppressed.”
With a few words, Kanye reinforced a damaging and false narrative that some policymakers may find all too persuasive.