“I guess cuz I’m black born, I’m supposed to say ‘Peace,’ sing songs and get clapped on…” -2Pac (“Holler If Ya Hear Me,” 1993)
There are two generations of American adults now who have grown up with hip-hop. Grown up with artists like 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G. held up as cultural icons; with hip-hop in movies and television shows; with rap songs being played in stadiums and with a president who knows Jay Z and Ludacris.
I’m from the small-town South. I remember so many of my white friends quoting Ice Cube or Too $hort lyrics when we were growing up. We’d sit in class, passing copies of magazines like Word Up! and Yo!, wearing tees with Cypress Hill or Wu-Tang Clan on them. Hip-hop “connected” us.
Like most of the country, I’ve been following the unrest in Baltimore with frustration and concern—but also understanding. That feeling of empathy and understanding was noticeably lacking in the attitudes of some of those same white friends I’d grown up with all those years ago. Those kids who’d loved Ice Cube are now mothers and fathers who vote red and reacted to the murder of Freddie Gray by posting on Facebook and Twitter about “thugs.” Kids who had worshipped 2Pac were now voicing their unequivocal support for police who “put their lives on the line.” The '60s hippies became '80s yuppies. And '90s wiggers are now in the Tea Party.
I’ve watched this play out now several times: in the wake of Eric Garner’s murder, immediately after the killing of Mike Brown, again when Officer Darren Wilson wasn’t prosecuted for that murder, and during the protests that have been ongoing in major American cities for months. I realized one thing very quickly:
So many of these white people who were raised on songs of the struggle of inner city black folks just don’t give a shit about inner city black folks.
Hip-hop artists have rapped about police brutality for decades. And hip-hop is now mainstream. It’s not uncommon to catch a popular Seth Rogen comedy, for example, and hear a string of classic hip-hop tracks from artists like KRS-One, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony or Public Enemy. We're seeing TriBeCa docs about classic Nas albums. “Hip-hop is everywhere,” we think. And everybody feels good about how “far we’ve come.” Shouldn’t that mean that this generation of white folks has more awareness of the problems black people face than ever before?
Black pain has provided American culture with most of its greatest art. The negro spiritual is the foundation for much of America’s musical heritage. The blues is the template by which we got rock and roll and R&B. In Hollywood, films like Boyz N the Hood generated widespread critical acclaim for their depictions of the “struggles of the young black male.” A TV series like The Wire won fans by showing the difficult to impossible circumstances in the city of Baltimore. We’ve been singing sad songs for years. And white America has often sung along. But they still don’t hear us.
HBO’s The Wire was set in Baltimore. Despite mediocre ratings when it was on the air from 2002 through 2007, the show has, in hindsight, become one of the most beloved dramas in the history of American television. In five seasons, The Wire examined fictionalized versions of the city’s multifaceted culture: from the drug trade, to the police officials, to the city politicians, local media and school system. It was praised for exposing each segment of urban infrastructure that was failing in a way that was detrimental to its citizens and to its future. Exposing those failings shed light on the deterioration of urban America beyond just Baltimore.
So many Americans love that show. They wax poetic about how it gave us a well-rounded portrayal of corruption, how it “humanized” the corner drug dealers and “educated” America about the “harsh realities” that so many urban black youth face. But when the real city of Baltimore erupted this week, many of those same fans didn’t connect the dots. They could watch fictional police officers brutalize young blacks with impunity and then lie to save their own necks—then pretend that it’s exaggerated when a real-life community cries out about that very same behavior. They could be “riveted” by the tension between young “hoppers” and the cops who patrol the streets, but can’t understand why anyone would hurl bottles and rocks at police cars after a 25-year-old gets his spine severed during a supposedly routine arrest? Even as the cops claim the man did it to himself?
No, most of those Wire fans didn’t see how this was rooted in ongoing tension and distrust. They’d rather embrace the idea that a black mother slapping a black teen upside the head is what we need. In the wake of what we’ve seen, crying out for “mentorship” of young black people implies that they are the reason unrest like Baltimore’s occurs. Mentorship for young black people is commendable, but treating it like “the answer” in a situation such as this misses the point.
The rage that is felt is a result of a police force that views urban communities only as dens of potential suspects and perps. Police departments and officials endorse that viewpoint every time a cop isn’t indicted after murdering in those communities. Militaristic, antagonizing police, economic disenfranchisement and political indifference is why Baltimore burned. Not “lack of mentors.”
This was going to boil over sooner or later. And there are several more overheated pots sitting on America’s proverbial stove, in cities like Chicago, New Orleans and many, many more. But that lack of empathy keeps white America from taking any real stock of what’s happening. They love those sad songs about “the hood,” but so many would rather remain willfully ignorant or wholly indifferent to what creates “the hood” in the first place.
Recognition of this lack of empathy should shape the way we handle other, associated conversations, like use of the “N-word” and discussions about cultural appropriation. The idea that those in a position of privilege can genuinely “celebrate” a culture without recognizing their oppression of said culture is dishonest and dangerous. Mohawks are extremely fashionable, but the Mohawk people live on America’s fringes. That doesn’t sound like the way to “celebrate” anyone. But that’s America.
So, no, white people can’t say “nigger.” And, no, it’s not cool for Iggy Azalea to fake a “black-cent” to become a hip-hop star. Black pain has provided entertainment and inspiration for white culture while no one has cared to address that pain. Black people have gotten nothing but bullets and brokenness in return. Not only have there been too many Freddie Grays and Rekia Boyds, there have been too many “What about black-on-black crime?” responses and too much “Why destroy your own community?” finger-wagging. Maybe you don’t hear the anger in our voices because you are too busy singing our songs yourselves. That’s not “love.” That’s erasure.
This country will continue to burn long after Baltimore begins to rebuild, as long as we allow the souls of black folks to entertain the same America that ignores the very real scars it’s inflicted.