Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Racism and the "Boogie Man"

I noticed this interesting post of opinions on a wave of violence washing over Chattanooga, Tennessee. No shortage of racial subtexts there, for sure, but it inspired today's entry. In Tipper Gore fashion, posters rapped hip hop culture for influencing a whole generation of thugs in Chattanooga and beyond. But how realistic is that, really? I can't imagine a scenario in which music could turn an otherwise reasonably well-adjusted kid or adult with a functional conscience into a killing machine.

Could a culture, though, offer enough incentives and rationalizations to nudge the same kid to kill a cop for gang initiation? Could a black subculture's norms and mores turn even dormant racism into a nascent one? The sad irony is the answers are yes, yes, and it already has.

When Snoop Dogg rhymed in "Serial Killa" that:

"One gun is all that we need, to put you to rest
Pump pump, put 2 slugs dead in your chest
Now you dead then a motherfucker, creepin and sleepin
6 feet deep in, fuckin with the Pound is"

he served up a very small slice of black American life. To many in the nation, it was a hardcore affirmation of the archetypal black man as thug, solid proof that "those" people are no damn good. To some kid wavering between doing the right thing and the practical thing, the repeated message that it was or is good enough for Snoop coupled with peer and even family pressures can result in tragedy for everyone in this circle. To wit, the final 2004 statistics from the CDC confirm that homicide was the sixth leading cause of death for blacks, versus the 20th for whites.

Then there is the "ghetto fabulous" phenomenon which has provided comic relief but at a cost. In 2003, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a study in which job applications with "black-sounding" names a la Cheniqua and Teniqua got a whopping 50% fewer call backs from employers than did those with more traditional "white" names. And while jobs may have been harder to come by, so-called conspicuous consumption (i.e., clothes, jewelry and cars) by blacks and Hispanics outpaced that of everyone else, according to a study published in 2007. What suffered among these subgroups of backs and Hispanics? Spending on healthcare and education.

What to make of all this? Here's my psychological spin: A small subculture of blacks willingly adopted the shadow role ascribed to them by the dominant culture. The pay-off? A youthful black subculture no longer had to try, and the a dominant, mostly white culture got to put the feared and hated Negro back in his place. But so as not to appear racist, it had to look like the black man's idea. A tidy little circle, isn't it?

How did this happen? I believe that in the post-Civil Rights era, blacks awakened from Martin Luther King's dream and found they were better off but it wasn't better enough. Whispers then shouts of a learned helplessness passed from one generation to the next. A disconsolate wind whipped through the urban black communities. The ascendance of crack and gangs slapped them with a final, overwhelming insult. An already disenfranchised subculture of young blacks felt even more adrift, finally throwing up their hands and saying, "You know what? We can't get ahead, won't get a job, don't have the smarts, and have no other options than the thugged-out and ghettoized facsimiles of life."

When will the younger generation of inner city African Americans realize that playing the "boogie man" is not the only option? That they will only marginalize themselves further and mortgage their children's future in the name of playing the helpless victim? Is anyone even listening?
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