In his column this week, Charles Blow of The New York Times broke down the difference between "bikers" and "thugs" in the wake of the deadly biker gang shootout in Waco, Texas:
"The words 'outlaw' and 'biker,' while pejorative to some, still evoke a certain romanticism in the American ethos. They conjure an image of individualism, adventure and virility. There's an endless list of motorcycle gang movies. A search for 'motorcycle romance' on Amazon yields thousands of options. Viagra, the erectile dysfunction drug, even has a motorcycle commercial.
"While 'thug life' has also been glamorized in movies, music and books, its scope is limited and racialized. It is applied to — and even adopted by — black men. And the evocation is more 'Menace II Society' than 'Easy Rider.' The pejorative is unambiguous."
It turns out that a version of this dynamic plays out every summer in South Carolina's Myrtle Beach area, where two different festivals for motorcycle enthusiasts are held each May — one white, one black.
The first is the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Rally, which regularly draws about a half-million people. Its attendees are mostly white. The other is the smaller Memorial Day BikeFest, which is mostly black and informally known as "Black Bike Week."
Jason Eastman, a sociologist at Coastal Carolina University, has studied how residents of the Myrtle Beach area, around 70 percent of whom were white at the time of his research, feel about these two events. In a paper published last month in Contemporary Justice Review, he analyzed 8,600 comments left by readers on online articles in the Myrtle Beach Sun News about the Harley rally and the Black Bike Week held in 2009, and about controversial new rules the city had placed on the events — mandatory helmets, no loud mufflers — that year.
Eastman found that while the black bikers were painted as "underclass criminals who attend the rally to steal and murder," the white bikers were framed as "exemplars of American Individualism," whose disregard of the new rules was "celebrated as defiant acts against authority."
Eastman has attended these festivals himself, and when we talked this week he stressed to me their sameness: They're both loud, raucous, unruly affairs that can be headaches for many locals. At the Harley rally, he said, "we usually don't see things like we see in [Waco] but we definitely see a lot of drinking and a lot of nudity." In his experience, the goings-on at Black Bike Week are the same.
According to Eastman's paper, assumptions about the bikers varied wildly by race. Both self-described bikers and nonbiker fans of the Harley rally championed its attendees as upstanding, charitable members of society:
"White bikers are framed as mature, upscale, upper class citizens who exemplify strong morals and American individualism, such as when one Internet poster claims:
" 'The Harley people visiting our town are good, hard working people. Most of them have served in the military, police or fire depts. Most of them have families, and most have no criminal record. Quite often I have met doctors, lawyers, ministers, corporate CEOs, and good people from all walks of life.' "
That's a far cry from how Sun News commenters described attendees of Black Bike Week, who, as Eastman describes it, are "are doing essentially the same thing, at the same time, in the same place." A typical posts calls them "predominantly thugs, thieves, and low-life criminals." A lot use words like "trash," "filth," and "sleaze," which almost never come up in the comments on white bikers.
"Unlike the Harley rally, where amoral deviance is blamed on a few isolated white bikers, posters attribute criminality to most, if not all, BikeFest participants. And unlike white bikers whom posters perceive as capable of policing themselves, there are widespread calls of further and more stringent law enforcement during 'Black Bike Week.' When blacks use the courts to fight civil rights violations (including attempts to overpolice BikeFest), they are framed as exploiting the system to secure undeserved protections and privileges from their minority race status."
And while commentors praised the big, expensive trucks as of the Harley riders as markers of their professional status, they complained that BikeFest attendees with the same kinds of vehicles would clog traffic and play loud music in the streets.
In other words, the black bikers were painted as deviants, while white bikers were painted as productive, hardworking people deservedly letting off steam for a few days. And if the white bikers did happen to break any rules during their revelry, well, those rules were dumb anyway. An aura of what Eastman calls "white innocence" protects the white bikers' reputations, shields them from the criminal justice system and lines up neatly with our ideas about whiteness in general.
Which brings me back to Waco.
Let me clear up a couple things right off the bat. As many have pointed out this week, not all members of outlaw motorcycle gangs are white. But at least as of 2012, membership in 2 of the 4 largest gangs — the Hells Angels and the Outlaw Motorcycle Club — was limited to whites.
And to be sure, there's a whole lot of sunshine between the various flavors of motorcycle enthusiast organizations and outlaw motorcycle gangs, known in law enforcement shorthand simply as "OMGs" (yes, really). Indeed, members of real OMGs proudly refer to themselves as the "one-percenters," after a statement often attributed to the American Motorcycle Association that 99 percent of bikers across the country are not involved in illegal behavior.
But in the public imagination writ large, there's telling overlap between the way white bikers in Myrtle Beach are perceived by locals, and the way we think about outlaw bikers. The one-percenters enjoy some of the same shine of tolerant admiration, the same benefit of the doubt.
"[He] claims that most Americans, including many police, don't take bike gangs seriously enough because 'people have allowed themselves to be too romanticized' by the idea of bikers as modern-day bandits.
" 'They watch their Sons of Anarchy and their little television shows. These guys all seem likable enough: that they are misunderstood, outlaws from the old days, and they ride motorcycles instead of horses,' he said. 'Even cops think, "Oh they are just tattooed long haired guys who like to ride motorcycles." [Emphasis mine.] And the reality of it is they are long-haired tattooed guys who ride motorcycles and sell a hell of a lot of methamphetamine and murder people and steal motorcycles and extort people and beat people up in bars for no reasons.' "
Another case in point: A federal agent who went undercover with a different biker gang and called them "the most violent motorcycle gang in America, a tightknit collective of crazies, unpredictable and unrepentant badasses" — again, emphasis mine, because does this not read like the elevator pitch for a TV series on Showtime?
This romanticization is especially troubling given what a 2012 paper in Justice Policy Journal tells us about how the biggest OMGs have evolved in recent years. Some have become more secretive and underground while at the same time ramping up their involvement at home and abroad in organized crime, including "drug and firearms trafficking, violent offenses, money laundering, theft, prostitution, gambling, and extortion."
Which makes it all the more baffling that law enforcement agencies continue to do very little to track OMGs — there's no centralized database for federal and local agents to store and share what they learn about these groups, and thus no real way to know how big they are or what they're up to.
"Law enforcement officials do not even formally tally the crimes that are committed by [outlaw motorcycle gangs], despite the fact that they are now an international presence and have contributed to various crimes domestically for decades," writes Danielle Shields, the paper's author.
Some law enforcement officials go so far as to urge treating the one-percenter bike gangs as domestic terrorist organizations. But Shields warns that until the government starts tracking OMGs in earnest, these groups are going to remain unknowable to law enforcement agencies and to the public. That mystery almost certainly adds to their allure, securing the "badass" space they occupy in the public imagination.
Despite the romance around these subcultures, they need to be taken far more seriously. But as we've seen, in a lot of people's imaginations, white bikers fall on a spectrum from benevolent weekend warriors with good day jobs to "misunderstood" but ultimately "likeable" misfits.
In the meantime, black bikers, no matter what they're actually doing or not doing, are just "bad."