Tyson - just a punch-bag for our racial prejudices

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The Independent Online

In the early decades of the 20th century, the myth of the black rapist haunted white America. Afro-American men, already economically disadvantaged, had to carry the additional burden of white society's fears and fantasies: that they were intellectually inferior, sexually more potent and a threat to women.

This is not a chapter of their history that many Americans look back on with pride, which makes last week's events at the Hudson Theatre in New York all the more disturbing. At one level, Mike Tyson's public brawl with the British boxer Lennox Lewis – Tyson bit his leg – is merely the latest in a long episode of disordered behaviour. But it happened at a moment when Tyson is waiting to hear whether he will face new charges of multiple sexual assault in Nevada, and ended with a verbal onslaught on a sports photographer, Lisa Carpenter.

The boxer spotted her from the stage and grabbed his crotch, yelling "Bitch, come over here and see what you can do with this!" Carpenter has published an account of these events in which she observed, somewhat puzzlingly, that she doesn't fancy Tyson. This is hardly the point, for I don't think many women would regard his behaviour as a charming if clumsy come-on. But Carpenter's reaction is consistent with the denial that customarily greets Tyson's appalling conduct, whether it is his rape of a young fan in 1991 – still denied by some of his most fervent supporters, even though he was convicted and served three years in prison – or vicious attacks on opponents and even a couple of elderly motorists. (He was prescribed the drug Zoloft after an episode of so-called "road rage" in 1998.)

It is hard to think of a worse career than boxing for someone as unstable and aggressive as Tyson. But the unpalatable truth is not just that the fighter is perpetually on the edge of committing serious damage, to himself and others. It is that he incarnates all the old racist prejudices about black men, in a context where they have been turned into a species of public spectacle. Does anyone go to his pre-fight press conferences to hear his considered opinions on boxing? Does anyone pay to watch his fights because they admire his lightness of touch? Of course not. They think he is stupid and they expect blood, which Tyson has provided on many occasions. Now there is the added frisson that he has put on weight, slowing him down in a way that can only add to the psychological pressures that have been tearing him apart for years.

Going to watch Tyson fight these days is like hanging around a road junction notorious for accidents, hoping to hear the sound of squealing rubber. Except that it is worse even than that, for the really insidious thing about the Tyson circus is that much of the violence is black-on-black. Punters pay to see him inflict injuries on black boxers such as Lennox Lewis, Orlin Norris and Evander Holyfield, whose ear Tyson bit off in the ring, while the woman he raped 11 years ago, Desiree Washington, was a Miss Black America contestant. This is not an easy point to make when there is a black audience with a natural hunger for heroes, and boxing is one of the few ways in which a black kid from the Bronx can achieve fame and wealth. But the huge purses Tyson is still able to attract – he will share $100m with Lewis if the contest goes ahead in April – obscure the fact that his function is to confirm racist stereotypes about black masculinity. African-American men no longer get lynched in the US; they get paid to damage each other and then self-destruct.

Woman who took on the Pentagon and won

I have only once had to put on an abaya, the horrible black garment that women are expected to wear in some Muslim countries, and I absolutely hated it. At least it didn't cover my face but the wretched thing kept slipping off my hair and it was incredibly difficult to walk while wearing it. If women choose to cover themselves up like this, fine. But Lt Col Martha McSally, an American fighter pilot based in Saudi Arabia, doesn't see why she should. And she has just won a seven-year battle with the Pentagon, which last week reversed its policy of insisting that American servicewomen in the kingdom must wear abayas when they leave their bases.

McSally denounced the inconsistency of US troops helping to liberate Afghan women while the defence department makes its own servicewomen stationed in the Gulf wear the veil. She is now protesting about a rule forbidding US servicewomen to drive or to leave their bases in Saudi Arabia unless accompanied by a man; McSally is in the position of being trained to fly the most technologically advanced fighter aircraft, yet relegated to the back seat of a car. I wish her luck, as well as hoping that the Bush administration will address some other oppressive Saudi practices, such as the use of cross-amputation – cutting off the right hand and the left foot – for convicted criminals. Unless, of course, its respect for human rights extends only to people who are protected by the American Constitution.

Boeing, Boeing, bong

One effect of the war against terrorism that has so far gone largely unremarked is the bonanza that it represents for defence contractors. President Bush last week announced the biggest increase in military spending since the end of the Cold War, bringing the Pentagon's total budget up to a staggering $380bn. But it is not just weapons manufacturers whose economic prospects have been given a considerable boost by the current conflict. The US Air Force has been forced to lease 100 Boeing 767s for use as tankers over the next 10 years. The air force didn't ask for the planes and it will have to bear the cost of converting them to military use, then return them to Boeing in their original state when the lease expires. The deal will cost some $20bn and, according to the dissident Republican Senator John McCain, is five times as expensive as buying the aircraft outright. McCain and other critics have denounced the deal as a "gross exhibition of corporate welfare". Have these guys forgotten there's a war going on?

* * *

All right, I have a suspicious mind. But is it a coincidence that in a week when the Queen's Golden Jubilee celebrations looked like being engulfed in universal apathy, Prince William's name was once again linked with Britney Spears? The singer got herself on to the front pages with an assertion that William had made a date with her by email – a nice contemporary touch, that – and then broke it in order to take part in somefox-hunting. This claim about the Prince's caddish behaviour followed hard on the heels of revelations about his younger brother's trip to a drugs rehabilitation unit, where he was warned about the dangers of alcohol and cannabis. Take the two stories together and you've got the classic combination: sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. Is there no limit to what the Windsors will do in a desperate attempt to make themselves interesting?