Rap Music and the Demonization of Young Black Males

Article excerpt

Condemning hip hop and gangsta rap is empty moral grandstanding by politicians unable and unwilling to tackle the real problems that plague America's cities and their poorest black children.

IN THESE TIMES, when media-crafted frenzies are the bread and butter of television news, entertainment programming, and tabloid journalism, street crime has become the coal that fires the crisis boiler. The notion that violent crime has swung out of control in this country is less a matter of fact and more a matter of perception constructed by law-and-order budget managers and ratings-hungry media executives. In fact, according to the FBI'S National Crime Survey, burglary, homicides, and other violent crimes have decreased steadily since the mid 1970s.

Crime and violence have become the central focus of popular attention not because more and more people are the victims of crime, but because more Americans vicariously experience more violence through repetition of tabloid, televised news, and other reality-based programming. Street crime is sexy copy because, more than other equally pressing and even more urgent crises in American urban communities, it can be fitted into presentational formats crucial for mass media news consumption.

First, street crime lends itself to personal portraits of loss and horror; second, unlike corporate or economic crimes against people, it has clearly identifiable victims and villains, even when no villain is caught; third, it takes just one or two gruesome acts to terrorize viewers; and fourth, most street crime is committed by the least powerful members of society, those most easily villified. Other violent criminals with greater economic resources are less vulnerable to categorical public censure. Since reporting these sorts of crime appears to be a matter of public service, it creates the illusion that the terms of the discussion automatically are in the best interests of the public.

In this whirlwind of produced, heightened, and repeated anxieties, it is essential to take a step back and distinguish between criminal acts and the social language used to talk about crime and to define criminals. it is important not to lose sight of the fact that these are not one in the same. In other words, crimes taking place are not the same thing as the perception of these crimes nor are they equivalent to the process of counting, naming, categorizing, and labeling criminal activity and ultimately criminalizing populations. (Think for a moment about the media explosion of child abuse cases and its relationship to the history of child abuse.)

These distinctions are not merely a matter of semantics. Understanding them allows people to see how the way they talk about a problem determines the solutions they deem logical and necessary. In other words, the terms of the discussion on crime in the public arena are helping set the direction of public policy.

In a still profoundly segregated and racially hierarchical society, popular public images and descriptions of poor black and Latino communities as hotbeds of crime, drugs, and violent behavior appear to be mere descriptions" of the people and environments where crime takes place. These stories and pictures are not simply descriptive, however. They describe some elements of life in poor communities with a particular set of assumptions and consistently leave out and obscure descriptions of other parts.

The stories that frame violent street crimes deliberately omit information that would draw attention away from the sense of crisis produced by the depiction of an overwhelmingly horrible incident. What," the stories often cry out, "would make a young person do such a thing?" Answers that might focus on the larger social picture - not flawed causal responses like poverty causes crime or there are more criminals so we need more prisons, but relational answers such as street crime is linked closely with unemployment and poverty - are deemed "excuses" by the logic of the story that surrounds it, not explanations. …