Books like White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race are always an interesting read. It’s always intriguing to see how an editor gathers and organizes a diverse group of articles, and what new material will be added. In the case of this reader, everything regarding punk rock and race is covered.
Editors Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay don’t assume that the reader is intimately familiar with everything being presented here. Each section of the book, as well as each article included, comes with an attendant introduction. They are by no means pedantic, and simultaneously serve as a point of reference for the unfamiliar and a refresher for those who are in the scene. White Riot is organized in such a way that each segment can be read on its own, as an entity unto itself. Should the reader wish to focus only on the early London scene, they could, or range abroad into the Latino culture in Mexico and the barrios of Los Angeles.
However, reading the book start-to-finish presents a story that interweaves. The punks in Los Angeles decrying the Mexicans in their neighborhood are really no different than the punks in London talking about the Pakistanis. Despite being seperated by an ocean and a continent, they’re quite alike. This hypocrisy is addressed head-on, in that the early London punks got behind causes they could identify with, such as Caribbean blacks being beaten down by the police, while ignoring (and sometimes almost condoning) the attacks on Asians living in London, also known as “Paki bashing.”
White Riot is not a comfortable read. While the articles, interviews, and personal narratives presented are sometimes framed in the context of youthful ignorance, this is by no means used as an excuse or means of rationalizing away some massively insenstive statements from the likes of Ian Mackaye or members of the Clash. These statements are examined, analyzed, and presented with additional information. Some of the interviews are thirty years old, and the intervening years have seen their speakers change to the point of renouncing what was said, and if apologies or anything of that nature are extant, they’re included.
What will really make folks uncomfortable is the section on white power. It’s not an entertaining read. While illuminating, and contexually useful to have interviews with the likes of RaHoWa frontman George Eric Hawthorne, the reading of such vehement, unvarnished racism is stunning and discomforting. The means to which openly racist people go to distance themselves from anything that might contain racial overtones other than white is, frankly, disgusting.
White Riot is an uncomfortable, but ultimately enlightening and informative read. Readers will struggle with some sections, and breeze through others. However, throughout the whole of the book, they’ll be presented with ideas which should, hopefully, allow them to see punk in a context a little more full and rounded out than they might have previously.