Jay-Z is a multimedia mogul with a gift for business and the credibility of the art world. Kanye West is a hyper-talented producer and visual artist who has refined and redefined the sound of pop music several times over. And in their relentless drive for accomplishment and success, they embody the American dream.
To Bill O’Reilly, however, they’re just “gangster rappers” who need to be put in their place. Or at least, that’s what he said on Thursday, when he spoke to Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett about the president’s new program to help young minority men. The Fox News host—who once wondered in amazement at the manners of black diners in Harlem—isn’t convinced the administration sees the urgency of the situation in the urban centers of America:
“You have to attack the fundamental disease if you want to cure it,” O’Reilly told Jarrett. “Now I submit to you that you’re gonna have to get people like Jay Z, Kanye West, all these gangsta rappers to knock it off.”
“They idolize these guys with the hats on backwards, and the terrible rap lyrics and the drug and all of that,” he continued, adding that high-profile figures need to hammer young people with that message to “reverse the peer pressure.”
Last week, I had a conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic and Gene Demby of NPR on the verdict in the Michael Dunn trial, and the issues around it. We spent a bit of time on the problem with “respectability politics”—the idea that “proper” behavior is the key to escaping your socioeconomic circumstances and mitigating the consequences of racism.
It’s a seductive view because it affirms our belief in our agency and our ability to do something. At the same time, it’s an open surrender to the logic of racism, which holds that blacks can earn a place in society by erasing their blackness, as much as possible.
That’s what O’Reilly wants. He sincerely believes that things will be better if young minority men would stop listening to hip-hop, stop wearing “urban” fashion, and adopt better role models. But this is nonsense. You might win adult approval for wearing a suit and swapping your Chief Keef for Miles Davis, but it won’t fix your crumbling school or stop police harassment.
It’s also a weird reversal of causation. ‘Gangsta’ behavior didn’t create the ghetto, the ghetto created ‘gangsta’ behavior. And likewise, the ghetto was created by racist public policy. To take this history, and then blame hip-hop for the circumstances of young minorities is to adopt the logic of racists. It’s a recipe for failure.
Or, to put this another way, the person who puts her hope in respectability is like the foolish man who built his house on sand. When the rains of racism descend, and its floods bear down, the house will fall.