Two April days threw a clarifying light on the state of race in America. On the 11th, North Carolina’s attorney general exonerated three white Duke students of the rape charges that a black stripper had lodged with much press fanfare a year earlier. The next day, CBS fired shock jock Don Imus for calling black Rutgers women’s basketball players “nappy-headed hos.” Between them, these events suggest an explanation for America’s most vexed social question: in a country whose chief domestic imperative for 50 years has been ending racism and righting long-standing wrongs against blacks—with such success that we now have an expanding black middle class, a black secretary of state, black CEOs of three top corporations, a black Supreme Court justice, and a serious black presidential candidate—how can there still exist a large black urban underclass imprisoned in poverty, welfare dependency, school failure, nonwork, and crime? How even today can more black young men be entangled in the criminal-justice system than graduate from college? How can close to 70 percent of black children be born into single-mother families, which (almost all experts agree) prepare kids for success less well than two-parent families?
The legacy of slavery and racism isn’t the reason, economist Thomas Sowell has long argued. That legacy didn’t stop blacks from raising themselves up after Emancipation. By World War I, Sowell’s data show, northern blacks scored higher on armed-forces tests than southern whites. After World War II and the GI Bill, black education and income levels rose sharply. It was only in the mid-1960s that a century of black progress seemed to make a sudden U-turn, a reversal that long-past events didn’t cause. Beginning around 1964, the rates of black high school graduation, workforce participation, crime, illegitimacy, and drug use all turned sharply in the wrong direction. While many blacks continued to move forward, a sizable minority solidified into an underclass, defined by self-destructive behavior that all but guaranteed failure.
What was going on in the mid-sixties that could explain such a startling development? Political scientist Charles Murray gave the first answer to that question: welfare benefits sharply rose just at that moment. Offering more purchasing power than a minimum-wage job, the dole, he argued, provided an economic incentive for women to have out-of-wedlock babies and for their boyfriends to live off their welfare payments, too.
A decade after Murray, I suggested that, though welfare was part of the answer, the real explanation was larger. It was cultural, not economic. Begun by the elites, vast changes reshaped mainstream attitudes in the 1960s. Sex became fine outside marriage, and illegitimacy lost its stigma. Drugs were cool; social authority and tradition weren’t. America was deemed a racist, unjust society that victimized and impoverished blacks, who could rarely better their condition and who therefore deserved generous welfare benefits as reparations for past and present oppression. If blacks committed crime, the system that drove them to it, out of poverty or as an act of protest, was at fault: we shouldn’t blame the victim, as the saying went—meaning the poor criminal, not his prey. Since people shape their actions according to the ideas and beliefs they hold, when these new attitudes reached the inner cities, what could result but an epidemic of social dysfunction?
What the Duke “rape” case shows is that these attitudes about race have hardened into dogma among elites. Otherwise, who would believe for long the fishy charges of accuser Crystal Mangum, then 27, who kept changing her story about how many Duke students had assaulted her, what they looked like, and what they had done? Hired as a stripper for a lacrosse-team party (where she turned up “passed-out drunk,” a cop on the scene reported), the unmarried mother of two claimed that she’d been raped, beaten, robbed, and threatened with violation with a broomstick, by three or five or maybe even 20 members of the Duke team, though she picked out different young men from different arrays of police photos. Or maybe she hadn’t been raped but only assaulted—or perhaps suspended in midair and used sexually by three young men at once, in a tiny bathroom. State attorney general Roy Cooper understandably suspected that Mangum might have had a tenuous grasp on reality. “She may actually believe the many different stories that she has been telling,” the AG remarked, in declaring the students innocent. “You can’t piece it together.”
It’s clear why Durham DA Michael Nifong, facing a desperate reelection fight, would at first have viewed the case as a political godsend in a 40 percent black district. Here was his chance to step forth as champion of a black victim of privileged whites. But early on, he learned that, yes, his hired testing lab had found DNA from several men on Mangum—but none of it belonged to the accused. He let the lab withhold that fact for nine long months. No wonder he was disbarred and resigned in June.
But what led the Duke faculty and officials, along with the mainstream media, to treat this cock-and-bull story as gospel to the bitter end? Why did the university promptly suspend the three students, cancel the rest of the lacrosse season, and force out the coach? Why did president Richard Brodhead say, just after police arrested the trio, “If our students did what is alleged, it is appalling to the worst degree. If they didn’t do it, whatever they did is bad enough”? As a lacrosse player recently told the student newspaper: “It was unfortunate that some of the subsequent actions that were taken by the University didn’t really imply a presumption of innocence.”
After all, this isn’t even the first such hoax. It’s like a rerun of a notorious farce of two decades ago, when 15-year-old Tawana Brawley turned up in a black plastic garbage bag, her clothes torn, her body smeared with dog feces and scrawled in charcoal with a racial slur. Her charge that white men, including a county prosecutor, had done this after raping her proved sheer falsehood, perhaps cooked up to explain her four-day disappearance to her hot-tempered stepfather. As her spokesman, Al Sharpton first won national notoriety by stirring up the case into a huge media circus; he subsequently had to pay $65,000 for slandering the county prosecutor.
Part of what a university should teach is the critical reasoning power to analyze situations like these, with claims and counterclaims, and determine what actually happened. But the last few decades’ transformation of the academic worldview unfitted Duke administrators and faculty from making such a judgment. Like the scientists Swift’s Gulliver met in the kingdom of Laputa, they have one eye that looks inward at themselves and one eye that peers outward toward the farthest heavens, leaving no organ to perceive the reality right in front of their noses—the reality that, as George Orwell says, takes a constant struggle to see through the fog of orthodoxy.
Even for the clear-sighted, that reality takes an effort to discern, because we see the world not in an unmediated way but through the prism of our culture (and even of our class or subgroup), which can both clarify and distort. In the act of observing, we also interpret and judge, according to the terms of our culture’s values, morals, and manners. Our power of reason has limits, so that we have to depend on aid from education, tradition, belief, on what Edmund Burke called “prejudice”—again, all products of culture, built up from the inherited wisdom and experience and sometimes superstition of mankind.
Critical reason’s task is to peer through the cultural web in which we are enmeshed to perceive clearly the reality that actually exists, including the man-made reality of the social order, whose terms give our lives meaning. We have to question our culturally created assumptions to clear away attitudinizing or propaganda or superstitious prejudice. But the professors sidestep this challenge, simplifying and flattening these complex truths about culture and consciousness. They reach the false conclusion that all descriptions of society and our nature are not just colored or refracted by our cultural assumptions but are mere propaganda, aimed at convincing others that the world is as our class or subgroup wishes it to be. Moreover, since the profs believe that not just the social order but also what we take to be “human nature” is man-made, whoever wins the propaganda battle gets to mold society and human nature—human reality itself—into the shape he chooses.
From these assumptions flows academe’s well-known mania for unmasking Western civilization (including its literature and art) as a machine for oppressing the nonwhite, non-rich, and non-male. This worldview—which grants its adherents a sense of superiority over their supposedly racist and sexist fellow men and also a belief in their own special power to remake the world by their words—appears so self-evident on campus as to be impervious to such realities as accelerating black success, for example, or the crowding out of male students by female ones on college campuses themselves.
But woe betide any apostasy from this dogma, as witness the fate of Lawrence Summers, fired as Harvard’s president for impiety about both race and “gender.” Not only did he suggest that African-American studies professor Cornel West ought to do a little real academic work, but he intensified the outrage by hinting that the reason great male mathematicians far outnumber female ones might—only might—have to do with differences in innate ability rather than with inequities in schooling.
Even earlier in Summers’s reign, another break with orthodoxy took place: in 2002, Harvard tightened its rules of evidence for charging someone with sexual assault, since the year before the faculty disciplinary board had found six of the seven such cases baseless. By contrast, most university sexual harassment codes seem to assume that male students will assault, that female students won’t make up accusations in so credulous an atmosphere, and that the accused is guilty until proven otherwise. In this spirit, for instance, Columbia doesn’t give accused students the right to cross-examine witnesses or even to be present to hear them.
So not only did many Duke professors feel that they didn’t have to think twice when stripper Mangum filed her charges; they scarcely had to think once. With one eye looking inward and the other fixed on the heavens, they knew instantly what must have happened. There was triple-plated presumption of the athletes’ guilt: they were, as a Duke literature prof wrote online, “exemplars of the upper end of the class hierarchy”—having doubtless learned lacrosse at fancy prep schools—“the politically dominant race and ethnicity, the dominant gender, the dominant sexuality, and the dominant social group on campus.” Mangum was black, poor, and female—trebly a victim. “How many more people of color must fall victim to violent, white, male, athletic privilege?” English prof Houston Baker wailed. We speak metaphorically of mining companies’ “raping” the landscape or empires’ “raping” their colonies: here was the metaphor made flesh.
In the school paper three weeks after the event, 88 Duke faculty members took out a full-page ad whose circularity of reasoning would have done Swift’s Laputan academicians proud. Headlined what does a social disaster sound like?, the ad used the Mangum affair to stoke campus race and sex paranoia, and used the paranoia to insinuate that Mangum’s charges were likely to be true. Quoting an array of Duke kids’ remarks, the ad proclaimed: “These students are shouting and whispering about what happened to this young woman and to themselves.” And what do the kids say? “We want the absence of terror. But we don’t really know what that means. We can’t think. That’s why we’re so silent. . . . Terror robs you of language and you need language for the healing to begin.”
What to make of such almost comically irrational terror-without-a-name that the profs have stirred up with their specters of racists and sexists, like the nonexistent witches of old? Given the mass hysteria at this supposed seat of reason, the accused trio can probably count themselves lucky that they lost only a year of their lives. Indeed, only recently some of the 88 professors told the student newspaper that they still stood by the ad, while chemistry prof Steven Baldwin, an early critic of the administration response, mused, “I just wonder what Nifong would have done if he thought that the things he was doing were, in fact, not supported by the University.”
The press, as Charlotte Allen wrote in the Weekly Standard, amplified to the general public the keynote that the professors set. Were they not college grads, too—humanities majors—fitted out with the approved elite worldview, which it’s hard to avoid even if, like most young people, you’ve chosen your school not for educational reasons but for career and status ones? The case, according to a sprawling page one New York Times story the month after the event, was “yet another painful chapter in the tangled American opera of race, sex and privilege,” and that same month a Times op-ed agonized, “When the children of privilege feel vividly alive only while victimizing, even torturing, we must all ask why.” A Washington Post columnist struck a note that many other journalists echoed: “The Duke case is in some ways reminiscent of a black woman’s vulnerability to a white man during the days of slavery, reconstruction and Jim Crow, when sex was used as a tool of racial domination.” A USA Today columnist invoked “gender, race and the notion of athletic entitlement and privilege” to explain the case, while a CBS commentator opined, “The collisions are epic: black and white, town and gown, rich and poor, privilege and plain, jocks and scholars.”
Pure fantasy. For all the hyperventilating—including ex-dean of the Duke faculty William Chafe’s invoking the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, just turned 14, for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi—the rape never happened. Emmett Till outrages are long over in America.
What does happen is the kind of thing Don Imus did—a nasty racist crack, hurtful and deplorable but not deadly and not symptomatic of a society that excludes blacks. Moreover, for nearly half a century, whites who think themselves decent haven’t said such things and have scorned those who did. In most of America today, what remains are the vestiges of racism, not racism itself. “It’s like weight loss,” remarked actor D. L. Hughley, who is black. “The last few pounds are the hardest to get rid of. It’s the last vestiges of racism that are hard to get rid of.”
But as many pundits noted, Imus’s “nappy-headed hos” is not the language of white racism but the jargon of rap music. As bad as Imus’s crack is, what’s important about it is that it highlights the real problem facing black Americans today, and more particularly those in the inner city: it is not Imus’s smart-aleck racism but rather the African-American worldview that the rap music Imus quoted reflects and disseminates. Through the window that rap opens into contemporary ghetto culture, we can see that the attitudes that first created the underclass have hardened into stone.
Since City Journal still gets letters arguing with a hip-hop story we published four years ago, let me start with a disclaimer. I know that rap’s house has many mansions—there is even Christian rap—and I believe that some rap varieties are constructive. I know that nice kids listen to nasty music and remain uncorrupted. And I know that an old (if not yet dead) white male who thinks rock and roll died when Buddy Holly went down in a 1959 plane crash with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper is rushing into terra incognita in discussing this topic. But I also know that most of the rap that the wider world knows is gangsta rap, and to read the lyrics, listen to the songs, and watch the videos of some of the most popular rap songs is instructive, diagnostic, and disturbing.
One of the earliest and certainly most dramatic responses among black Americans to mainstream culture’s new narrative of black victimhood in the 1960s was angry confrontation and resistance. Its watchword was “black power”—armed and militant. One of the era’s iconic images is Black Panther Huey Newton glowering on a wicker throne, in his leather jacket and commando beret, brandishing a rifle and a spear. As it turned out, behind their political rhetoric, the Panthers were simply gangsters, their resistance mere criminality. Yet mainstream culture’s willingness at that time to see even in crime a manly and understandable, if misguided, gesture of revolt against an oppressive system invested a sordid reality with a grain of existential glamour.
So now we have rap’s hero, the gangsta, a ritualized, almost parodic descendant of mainstream culture’s four-decade-old vision of the ghetto homme revolté. One of the first notorious gangsta rap songs, “Cop Killer” of 15 years ago, set the theme that’s still gangsta rap’s keynote. There are no more Emmett Tills, racism is shriveling up, but according to gangsta rap, echoing today’s racial arsonists and extortionists, the system is still victimizing blacks, through the police. Did they not savagely beat Rodney King in Los Angeles?
The gangsta resists. Sings Ice-T in “Cop Killer”:
I’m ’bout to bust some shots off.
I’m ’bout to dust some cops off. . . .
I’m a cop killer, better you than me.
Cop killer, fuck police brutality! . . .
Fuck the police, for Rodney King.
Fuck the police, for my dead homeys.
Fuck the police, for your freedom. . . .
Cop killer, but tonight we get even!
In the rap worldview, as it developed, the police actively set out to murder blacks. Did they not murder Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, Sean Bell, and even Huey Newton himself back in 1989—and to general applause? As Tupac Shakur puts it in “Changes”: “Pull the trigger, kill a nigga, he’s a hero.” And the song (released two years after the singer’s 1996 murder) goes on to accuse racist white society of purposely introducing drugs into the ghetto to destroy blacks, a widespread inner-city paranoid myth (along with the myth that the government intentionally infected the ghetto with AIDS to exterminate black Americans). In fact, Tupac raps, if blacks commit crimes, mainstream society bears the blame for inciting them to do so:
Give the crack to the kids, who the hell cares,
One less hungry mouth on the welfare.
First ship ’em dope and let ’em deal the brothers.
Give ’em guns, step back, watch ’em kill each other.
It’s time to fight back, that’s what Huey said.
Two shots in the dark, now Huey’s dead.
In a final, diabolical turn, the police then hunt down black youths for dealing the drugs that whites introduced into their community in the first place. “Instead of war on poverty,” Tupac charges, “they got a war on drugs, so the police can bother me.” And why do cops do this? Tupac asks in “Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.” (1993):
’Cause the police love to break a nigga,
Send ’em upstate cause they straight-up hate the niggaz.
Later rappers focus their ire on racial profiling, charging the police with purposely harassing blacks out of racist malice. Chamillionaire, in the MTV Best Rap Video of 2006, “Ridin’,” describes looking into his rearview mirror and seeing officers smiling with pleasure in the expectation that when they stop him, they’re bound to find drugs (“dro”):
A nigga upset for sure ’cause they think they know that they catchin’ me with plenty of the drink and dro,
So they get behind me tryin’ to check my tags, look at my rearview and they smilin’,
Thinkin’ they’ll catch me on the wrong, well keep tryin’,
’Cause they denyin’ is racial profiling.
But they are wrong to profile him as a criminal:
When they realize I ain’t even ridin’ dirty, bet you’ll be leavin’ with an even madder mood. . . .
This a message to the laws tellin’ them WE HATE YOU!
Jay-Z, the one irrepressibly witty rapper, also thinks that the cops stopped him because of racial profiling, assuming that any young black is likely to be a criminal. But unfortunately on that occasion he did happen to have drugs (“raw”) in his car. He tells the story in “99 Problems,” the very funny 2004 MTV Best Rap Video:
The year is ’94 and in my trunk is raw,
In my rearview mirror is the motherfuckin’ law.
I got two choices: y’all pull over the car or
Bounce on the devil put the pedal to the floor.
And I heard “Son, do you know why I’m stoppin’ you for?”
’Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low?
Do I look like a mind reader sir, I don’t know.
Am I under arrest, or should I guess some mo’?
“Well you was doin’ fifty-five in a fifty-four,
License and registration and step out of the car.
Are you carryin’ a weapon on you? I know a lot of you are. . . .”
Once again, the right response, as Fabolous puts it in “Breathe” (2004), is resistance. Make sure to keep some handguns hidden away:
But I keep the Glocks in the stashes,
Cuz the cops wanna lock and harass us.
Rap’s well-known celebration of gangsta behavior is a bad enough message. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, head of Jazz at Lincoln Center and a ferocious critic of rap, succinctly sums up rap’s main story line: “Now you have to say that you’re from the streets, you shot some brothers, you went to jail. Rappers have to display the correct pathology.” The implicit message, of course, is that the bad environment is to blame for the bad behavior. As Nas puts it in “Hip Hop Is Dead,” Number One on the charts last year: “What influenced my raps? Stickups and killings / Kidnappings, project buildings, drug dealings.” But add to this celebration of ghetto pathology the cop hatred that is rap’s constant leitmotif, and you have a truly toxic brew.
Back when “Cop Killer” came out in 1992, a Warner Music executive defended that anthem in praise of murdering police officers in a letter to the New York Times whose self-serving sanctimony the passage of time has not dulled. “Rap music provides a window to our urban culture,” the Warner honcho wrote. “To listen to it is to hear from a population desperately in need of attention, slipping headlong into despair and destruction. Almost 30 years ago, Michael Harrington wrote of the other America, the underclass in this country that lives in the shadows of high-rise society. Since then, the gulf between the two Americas has widened to new levels of disproportion. . . . Yet there is music sounding out from this other America, and its message is cautionary, filled with information, warning and, yes, rage. . . . We must confront that reality, however it may offend or disturb.”
However cynical, there’s the sixties’ elite orthodoxy at its most extreme: if the disadvantaged black Other America wants to take revenge on its oppressors by killing the cops who are their agents, that’s understandable. Rappers (and record companies) are doing the country a favor by warning it what danger bubbles down below, so the mainstream can reform its unjust ways and change the toxic environment before violence erupts. Just the other day, rapper Snoop Dogg offered the same rationalization on Black Entertainment Television: “Without hip-hop, the world wouldn’t have understanding of a lot of things that’s going on.”
Undoubtedly, rap reflects violent resentment churning in the ghetto, though without the political significance that the Warner exec gave it. But it is also a kind of propaganda that molds and amplifies, as well as reflects, attitudes—and molds them with harmony and rhythm’s special power to penetrate into the mind, as Plato understood. Rap stokes ghetto kids’ anger, while justifying and legitimating it. It even clothes kids in a special uniform (sold by rap moguls Russell Simmons and Sean “Diddy” Coombs, among others), designed to make its wearers look like dangerous “gangstas”—hooded sweatshirt, baggy jeans worn low to display the boxer shorts beneath, big sneakers, do-rag or baseball cap worn gangbanger-style, backward, sideways, or any way but straight. It provides as well a facial expression and a way of carrying yourself, learned from rap videos as well as from the streets: the contemptuous stare, the menacing swagger, the gang-like hand gestures, the aggressive loud voice, all proclaiming, Don’t mess with me, muthafucka. And there’s the hip-hop lingo, purposely hard for outsiders to penetrate, like Victorian thieves’ cant or Cockney rhyming slang. (I’m grateful to raptranslations.com for a clue through the labyrinth.)
Does all this matter? Well, we all see the world through the spectacles of our culture and subgroup; we depend on belief and prejudice to understand our experience; we slip into the manners and rituals of our culture as a way of knowing who we are and how we should behave. Imagine yourself one of the vulnerable kids that rap sings about, born in a project to an uneducated, teen single mother, possibly put into foster care, surrounded by gangs and gangstas, attending an unruly school that teaches—if it teaches anything—that you are a victimized minority in an unjust country that doesn’t want you to rise, and that you should nevertheless have high self-esteem because you are fine just as you are. No one gives you a book that opens up the world of possibility beyond your cramped existence. Meanwhile, through the headphones that you always wear pulses the beat of rap, driving out thought and underscoring the message of anger, hatred of the oppressor policeman, and resentful entitlement that the lyrics convey. You go home and watch rap videos on BET. You dress like a gangsta, talk like a gangsta, behave like a gangsta.
And what results? Over 16 percent of black men have been in prison (and 22.4 percent of those between 38 and 42 years old), blacks account for about 40 percent of the nation’s entire prison and jail population, and, extrapolating from its 2001 numbers, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that nearly a third of black men will go to prison during their lifetimes. In New York, home of the nation’s largest African-American community, blacks commit 68.5 percent of all the violent crime, Heather Mac Donald calculates, even though they compose only 24 percent of the population. It’s hard to argue that poverty explains these numbers, since blacks, 12 percent of the U.S. population, committed 48.5 percent of the nation’s rapes and sexual assaults in 2005.
Such things grow out of culture—and not just in U.S. inner cities: as Theodore Dalrymple has shown in these pages, similar attitudes among the British elites about class oppression and “social exclusion” have produced a largely white U.K. underclass with its own dysfunctional culture and behavior. In the U.S., rap helps transmit that culture, and it is helping to disseminate the gangsta attitude and the gangsta uniform to resentful youths around the world—to the racaille in the Paris cités, to the disaffected young men in Africa’s urban slums, to British-born Pakistanis listening to Aki Nawaz rapping in praise of suicide bombing.
In ghetto neighborhoods, part of underclass culture is an anti-“snitching” code that stigmatizes any cooperation with the police, even to help them find the murderer of your friend. Rapper Cam’ron told 60 Minutes that he wouldn’t inform the cops if he knew that his next-door neighbor was a serial killer, and in fact he refused to cooperate with police after he himself had been shot and wounded. It would violate his code of ethics, he says, and hurt his business. Even a group of earnest, well-behaved young teens in parochial-school uniforms solemnly told BET that they’d never snitch. Consequently, a criminologist told 60 Minutes, while the national rate for solving murders is 60 percent, it’s in the single digits in many inner-city neighborhoods, in some of which, he says, “we are on the verge of—or maybe we have already lost—the rule of law.”
A vicious circle now operates between the gangsta kids and the police. The kids dislike and fear the cops; the cops—looking for suspects whom victims have described as black, or seeing youths dressed as gangstas behaving as if they might be carrying weapons—stop law-abiding blacks, who then feel all the more victimized, angry, and resentful. And when frightened officers, black or white, mistakenly kill an innocent black man, like Amadou Diallo, such kids—and their mothers and neighbors, who write to City Journal often to say so—take it as proof that the cops are out to kill blacks on purpose. “I am scared for my son,” one mother wrote us recently. “The police always harassing the wrong people & jumping out of cars spot checking, . . . while the criminals sit around the neighborhood all day. . . . Was 50 shots necessary for Sean Bell? Or 45 shots for Diallo? . . . Come on, we all know none of these situations would ever happen to any white kids.” And you understand how she feels.
But one solution, if the mother knows who the real criminals are, is to “snitch.” Another, as a former juvenile-court chief prosecutor puts it, is: “If you don’t want to be treated like a thug, don’t dress like a thug. It’s an invitation to ‘probable cause.’ ” After all, urban black culture wasn’t always like this. Just look through old photos of Harlem and see young men and women dressed up like fashion plates out of Henry James or Thomas Mann, or like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Look at the black musical celebrities who took such care and made such an impression on people my age: Count Basie, with his elegant mustache, always in a tie and jacket; Duke Ellington, debonair in white tie and jauntily cocked top hat; gorgeous Lena Horne, radiant in her shimmering evening gown—all with the bearing of counts and dukes. What would they make of the gangstas?
The gangsta style, only 15 or so years old, is the malign outward expression of a malign worldview. And it doesn’t just get gangsta kids hassled by the police. It can make them unemployable. “When I see a kid with his hat on backwards or sideways, and who gives me the ‘attitude,’ I don’t go on with the rest of the interview,” says one big New York grocer of his methods for hiring his mostly minority workforce. The only skill his operation requires of employees, aside from bagging groceries, is showing up and being civil to customers, not giving them “attitude.”
Finally, rap’s language: the “hos” Imus mentioned, along with the “bitches” and the “niggas,” are also outward expressions of a destructive and self-destructive worldview. Christopher Hitchens thinks that African-Americans use “nigga” the way suffragettes adopted their detractors’ dismissive name for them as a way of disarming its hurtful power. Perhaps. But I read it as a kind of provocation and reproach: a contradictory combination of WE can use this word, but we dare whites to try, and Whites think they are doing us a big favor by not calling us this, but see how little their puny gesture means to us. Trouble is, rap music has won many white fans, too, some of whom think it’s funny to use the word “nigga.”
But calling women “bitches” and “hos” (dialect for “whores”)—and rap has almost no other word for woman—is an even more destructive development. Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson explains black Americans’ low marriage rate and high illegitimacy rate by saying that too many unskilled black men are “unmarriageable,” since the disappearance of well-paid manual labor has deprived them of the means to support wives. He’s right that they are unmarriageable, but the reason is not economic but cultural: they are unmarriageable because they have odious attitudes, and therefore odious behavior, toward women, which rap expresses ad nauseam.
Popular music has had risqué lyrics at least since the Victorians sang about “the most immoral lady” who “lay between the lily-white sheets with nothing on at all.” Some lyrics are sophisticated, like “Birds do it, bees do it, / Even educated fleas do it.” Some are wittily raunchy, like Bessie Smith singing in 1931:
I wished I had some good man, to tell my troubles to;
Seem like the whole world’s wrong, since my man’s been gone.
I need a little sugar in my bowl,
I need a little hot dog on my roll,
I can stand a bit of lovin’, oh so bad. . . .
And certainly the straitlaced have long claimed that lyrics like “Why don’t we do it in the road” will subvert the whole framework of society.
But in rap you’ll find no witty double entendres, no playful seductiveness, no risqué flirting. It is hard-core porn—and please be warned that the bad language so far is as nothing compared with what follows. I apologize, but I have to show you the coarseness of the language to convey the coarseness of feeling that is so troubling. What rap has to say about the relations between men and women is basically what Crooked I asks in his song title “Who Wants to Fuck Tonight?”
Now do my niggaz wanna fuck tonight? Hell yeah.
How many ladies wanna fuck tonight? We do, we do.
Understand though, Crooked I cautions, it’s just sex; it has nothing to do with marriage:
I’m tellin’ hos ain’t no holy matrimony,
Just us, fuckin’ on the holy mattress only.
In fact, as 50 Cent explains in his hit 2002 song “In da Club,” it has nothing to do with love, either:
I’m into having sex, I ain’t into making love.
So come give me a hug if you’re into getting rubbed.
What that leaves to rap about is mechanics. Petey Pablo’s “Freek-a-Leek” is representative:
Tell me what you want, do you want it missionary
With your feet crammed to the headboard?
Do you want it from the back with your face in the pillow,
So you can yell it loud as you want to?
Do you want it on the floor? Do you want it on the chair?
Do you want it over here? Do you want it over there?
Do you want it in ya pussy? Do you want it in ya ass?
I’ll give you anything you can handle!
Without feelings other than lust, relations are impersonal and narcissistic. So while it’s good to have a good-looking woman—and rappers go on in considerable detail about what they like (often tall, willowy Asian- or Hispanic-looking women in the rap videos)—sometimes you have to make do with what’s available at the moment. “If she ain’t right,” Ja Rule advises in the verse he contributes to “Who Wants to Fuck Tonight?,” “turn the lights off / Put her on a summit and pump till your dick’s soft.” But even if “on a one-to-ten she’s a certified 20,” Usher sings in “Yeah,” Ludacris, who sings the song’s next verse, says he nevertheless wants to have sex in a way that recurs with disturbing frequency in rap:
I’m a spit the truth, I won’t stop till I get ’em in they birthday suits.
So gimme the rhythm and it’ll be off with they clothes,
Then bend over to the front and touch your toes.
It’s hard to be more impersonal and dehumanizing than to ask a woman to present herself as no more than an orifice. But as one picture is worth a thousand words, take a look at Snoop Doggy Dogg’s pornographic cartoon cover for his album Doggystyle. Sticking out of a doghouse, we see only the saucily tilted hindquarters of, well . . . it has a tail rigidly sticking up, but is otherwise a very well-shaped young woman, the rest of whose body— naturally along with her face, which would show her to be an individual, a person— is covered up. This motif gets even worse in David Banner’s 2005 hit “Play,” but you’ll have to look that one up yourself. It is beyond pornographic.
Of course, if you do have a personal relation with a woman, it is likely to get annoying. Sings Snoop himself:
This is what you made me do; I really didn’t want to put hands on you.
But bitch you playin’ with fire.
I’m so sick and tired of loudmouth bitches like you. . . .
You got to put that bitch in her place, even if it’s slapping her in her face.
Ya got to control your ho. Can you control your ho?
The Duke profs wanted to know, “What does a social disaster sound like?” It sounds like this.
By contrast, the closest thing to a love song that I came upon in the rap canon is called “I Miss That Bitch.” Snoop starts by saying that E. White is going to sing a song “For all the players that lost somebody special / And wonder where she at.” And E. White raps:
Perhaps I went to jail,
That left us out of touch.
Shoulda shot some mail or something. . . .
Baby I really wanna see what you got now.
I’m all grown up with my shit together.
I don’t know if I’mma see you ever.
I got a woman and shit, but I must admit this:
You at the top of my list,
It’s not much, but by comparison with the organs and positions, it seemed to me like stumbling upon “Night and Day.” What E. White feels about his current woman, of course, is her problem.
The great accomplishment of civilization has been to replace the reign of force with the rule of law, and to humanize the animal realities in which our lives are embedded by means of manners and rituals that give those realities a human meaning. And if the rule of law fares poorly in rap, civilization’s great effort to transform the animal facts of reproduction into love and marriage doesn’t do so well in gangsta-land, either. This is what so much of our culture is about—our manners and morals, poetry and song and film, from the Song of Solomon and the medieval French romances to “The Way You Look Tonight”: yes, I have these feelings, but not just for anyone; it’s you personally I love, so much that I want you always. And many of the popular songs of the 1940s and 1950s, making the promise of permanence explicit, end with talk of marriage. Human beings undergo an education of the feelings, and popular culture’s love songs were once great instructors in this school.
It’s a long drop to the dogghouse and Doggystyle. And since it’s culture that molds feelings and behavior, when the “Why don’t we do it in the road” spirit of sexual liberation of the 1960s declined in the ghetto into “Do you want it over here? Do you want it over there?,” feelings and behavior were bound to follow. Rap is a school that hardens and coarsens rather than cultivates the feelings and, presenting women as disposable and interchangeable objects for use, dehumanizes rather than humanizes the relations between the sexes.
While middle-class people, black and white, have other cultural influences—including loving, caring families, helpful in cultivating a child’s capacity to love—to counteract the dogghouse, the most vulnerable don’t. And while, of course, people do fall in love in the inner cities, it’s not enough to preempt the attitudes that, as Kay S. Hymowitz has shown, lead ghetto girls onto the “teen-mommy track”: that you can’t count on men, that they’re such animals that nobody needs or wants one around the house, that using them to get pregnant without expecting them to be fathers to your children is normal and fine. The men won’t love you, but the baby will—an expectation so often disappointed, with tragic results for the baby and society.
Rap didn’t cause this, but it doesn’t merely reflect it, either, just as it doesn’t merely reflect ghetto lawlessness. It is part of a culture that reinforces, normalizes, and perpetuates a self-destructive, pathological way of life. So if we want to bring the inner-city underclass into the mainstream, we have an immense work of cultural reconstruction ahead of us, of which recognizing the damage that gangsta rap does, and stigmatizing gangsta rappers and their record companies for doing it, is only one part. Chrysler should stop featuring Snoop Dogg in its ads; Mrs. Clinton should stop letting rappers like Timbaland host fund-raisers for her, just as her husband long ago rejected rapper Sister Souljah’s support after she suggested that blacks should kill whites; and the entire nation needs what’s come to be called a Sister Souljah moment, ostracizing rap stars instead of glorifying them.
Wynton Marsalis’s scathing critique of rap understands how hip-hop relates to the larger problem. Leaving aside the lyrics, rap is musically “ignorant,” Marsalis says. “Rhythms have to have a meaning. If the rhythm is corrupt, the music is corrupt and the people become corrupt.” (And, one might add, rap also subverts music’s aim of creating a realm of harmony and beauty.) As for the lyrics, Marsalis says, “I call it ‘ghetto minstrelsy.’ Old-school minstrels used to say they were ‘real darkies from the real plantation.’ Hip-hop substitutes the streets for the plantation.” In its conception of black authenticity, rap perfectly embodies the cultural tragedy of the ghetto underclass. As Marsalis puts it in the title of a 2006 song, when you look at the underclass, it seems that all the progress blacks have made is to go “from the plantation to the penitentiary” and to be, as the song puts it, “in the heart of freedom . . . in chains.”
Those chains are not only the chains that bind prisoners but also what the poet William Blake called “mind forg’d manacles”—beliefs, attitudes, and habits of feeling that imprison you even when you are outwardly free. For the underclass, those manacles are the beliefs that they’re victims, that they’re entitled to be angry and resentful, that the law is an oppression, that the larger community owes them a living, that education is useless, that sex is without responsibility or even emotion, that they’re not responsible for supporting and nurturing their children, and that because they’re victims they never need to be ashamed of anything they do.
The most positive development I know came when Bill Cosby addressed the NAACP on the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision and spoke the truth that people like Jesse Jackson, glaring at him from the next chair, try to suppress and stigmatize as racist. “The lower economic and lower middle economic people are not holding their end in this deal,” Cosby said. “In the neighborhood that most of us grew up in, parenting is not going on. . . . People in jail, and women having children by five, six different men. . . . We’ve got to take the neighborhood back. . . . It’s not what they’re doing to us. It’s what we’re not doing . . . . All of these people . . . they’ve got to be wondering what the hell happened. Brown v. Board of Education—these people who marched and were hit in the face with rocks and punched in the face to get an education, and we got these knuckleheads walking around who don’t want to learn English. . . . Well, Brown v. Board of Education, where are we today? . . . What did we do with it? . . . . Fifty percent drop out—rest of them in prison. . . . You have the pileup of these sweet beautiful things born by nature—raised by no one.”
Blacks need to heed this message, and whites need to stop telling them anything different.