Pedaling the stationary bicycle at my neighborhood health club, I sometimes put down whatever I’m reading to watch one of the many silent televisions bolted to the wall above. Rarely do I find myself kept from my book for long, but a couple of days ago something did rivet my attention: the silent tomfoolery of “gangsta” rappers “stylin’ ” on Black Entertainment Television. Hopping around and making violent hand gestures, their long gold chains swaying, pants drooping low and eyes shaded, backed by adoring, barely-clad, pelvis-grinding young black women—with the sound off, the thuggish menace of these performers was unmistakable. The sensibility reverberates across the globe at present, from urban Morocco to the burning suburbs of Paris.
Black parents have decried to me the presence of such trash on BET, but liberal white America, especially its suburban progeny, tends to see black gangsta imagery as culturally authentic—to be respected and understood rather than subjected to the condemnation or mockery it deserves.
That notion of cultural authenticity wasn’t quite the overt theme of a community meeting attended by 300 people a few nights ago in Chicago’s Hyde Park. But it might as well have been. The Chicago Tribune reports that University of Chicago administrators and concerned students met to air worries about a dorm party last month, in which some 20 non-black students dressed up gangsta style and play acted for about an hour:
The meeting was sparked by last month’s “Straight Thuggin’ ” dorm party at the U. of C., during which students, none of whom were black, dressed in sideways baseball caps, gold chains, and pants and shorts worn so low that their underwear showed. One student wore handcuffs and drank from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. Several black students who heard about the party contacted university administrators after seeing pictures from the party posted on a Web site. While fewer than 20 students attended the hourlong party, its theme led to a campuswide debate about race and cultural awareness on the Hyde Park campus, where about 4 percent of undergraduates are black.
During Tuesday’s meeting, called by U. of C. president Don Randel, both school officials and students spoke of an element of “thoughtlessness” toward minorities on campus and discussed a desire to improve cultural awareness. “We need, as a group, to understand why this episode resonated the way it did,” university Provost Richard Saller said.
President Randel’s hope for improved cultural awareness is code for the belief that thug-life is a valid form of expression—but only as long as those doing the “straight thuggin’ ” are minorities. The answer to provost Saller’s query about “resonance” is that truthful satire, even if thoughtlessly expressed, can prick the conscience.
Yes, the student behavior was somewhat offensive. But the black gangsta identity—the glorification of drug-dealing, crime, and serial sexual conquest, coupled with a blithe rationalization of fatherless black children—is what really deserves condemnation and concern, and not just in black barbershops, churches, and homes. Bill Cosby excepted, however, few have raised public concerns when blacks outfit themselves in the sartorial and ethical drapery of common street hustlers. Many young blacks walk around saying n**** this, n**** that, but then take offense when others borrow the attendant stylistic signifiers, which our culture foolishly condones and celebrates as black authenticity.
White liberals remain particularly close-lipped about the popularity of the gangsta persona. The memories of slavery, lynching, and segregation linger so persistently in the American liberal psyche that criticism of any aspect of underclass behavior remains difficult, if not impossible, for them today. When it comes to the social pathologies of different-colored Americans, a liberal party line prevails: white racism, not black failure, is to blame. The same approach applies when it comes to the racial “achievement gap” in public education, where blacks and Latinos badly lag Asians and whites. White liberals like Jonathan Kozol twist themselves into knots trying to offload onto society—and taxpayers—the entire responsibility for the academic struggles of minority children.
In precisely this way, the modern-day rubrics of tolerance and diversity become a distancing, and enforced, ignorance.