Why Segregation And Poverty Continue To Be The Cornerstones Of Hip Hop Culture
Documenting the realities that sadly haven't changed.
April 19, 2018 at 4:19 pm
“Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.” — Kerner Commission Report, 1968
Segregation and poverty have been intrinsically woven into the fabric of hip hop culture since its inception, making the link between hip hop and America’s failure to address the conditions of the ghetto glaringly evident.
The above quote published 50 years ago this month, was the result of lawmaker’s investigations into the causes of several racially motivated uprisings like those featured in the 2017 film “Detroit.” The findings of the report can also be seen in the role of Doughboy in John Singleton’s 1991 film “Boyz In The Hood”, in which Ice Cube embodied every negative stereotype of young black men that existed in the early 90s. A high school dropout spending his days caught in the foggy haze of life in the ghetto. But even as he sold crack, drank 40 ounce beers and carried his pistol as he navigated the peril-filled streets of South Central, Dough was able to recognize the gaping chasm between his world and mainstream white society.
In the film’s final scene, Doughboy, while reflecting on his brother’s homicide, his own role in the ensuing retaliation, and the overall condition of his environment, drops one of hip hop culture’s most significant testimonies; “Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what goes on in the hood.”
There’s a direct correlation between Ice Cube’s monologue and the commission’s conclusion that the conditions of the ghetto were unknown to most white Americans.
“When we first did the movie ‘Boyz N the Hood,’ we felt like we was teaching America about a part of itself that they don’t see,” Cube once told MTV. “We was teaching you about people like Doughboy and why he is the way he is.”
Singleton’s screenplay and Ice Cube’s monologue served as modern-day manifestations of decades-old ruminations about race and inequality. The ghetto as we know it and hip hop culture are essentially products of American policy. As the Commission notes:
“White America is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it. White institutions maintain it. And white society condones it.”
In addition to outlining specific policy recommendations in areas of employment, education, the welfare system and housing, the report made clear the enormity of reversing the course of national division by indicating it would require a “commitment to national action — compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American, it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will.”
Sustained national action filled with compassion, massive in scale, and backed fully by American resources has proven to be too tall a task for this country to aspire to. Meanwhile, our two societies have continued to grow further apart.
The majority of white America is still in the dark in relation to the nuances of life in the ghetto. This was true when the report was released and even more so today.
On the song “ Who We Be” DMX reinforces the concept put forth by Doughboy and the Kerner Commission. As the chorus simply states “They don’t know who we be.” DMX uses each verse to detail with great specificity the various toxic elements that have affected our neighborhoods:
The picture DMX paints is one of an environment that has deteriorated greatly since the Kerner Commission Report was released. America’s failure to comprehensively address segregation, poverty and their effect on black communities has been compounded immensely by the failure of American institutions, namely mainstream media, to properly contextualize the subsequent issues caused by those conditions.
“Our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
If the commission concluded white America didn’t know much about the destructive environment of the racial ghetto and that our nation was moving towards two societies in the 1960s. Sweeping structural and cultural changes such as deindustrialization in the 70s, the crack era of the 80s and mass incarceration of the 90s to name a few, have shaken the foundation of the black ghetto and assisted in creating an environment that is exponentially more destructive today than it once was.
Those of us born into the millennial ghetto grew up in an environment plagued by open-air crack markets, joblessness, and sky-high homicide rates. According to Department of Justice statistics, in 1993 the homicide rate for black males ages 18–24 was 195.6 per 100,000. For white males in the same demographic, the murder rate was less than 20. Additionally, for every $100 in white family wealth, black families hold $5.04.
Hip hop music and culture carries with it a litany of problematic attributes — toxic hypermasculinity, misogyny, and consumerism to name a few. But what can never be denied is the link between the culture and America’s historic failure to address the conditions of the ghetto or the reconcile the policy through which it was created.
Though the nature of contemporary American politics would likely never produce a document even remotely similar to those found in Kerner Report, the effects of failing to adhere to its recommendations are just a song or movie away.
That the condition of the ghetto is a central theme in 'Black Panther', a movie directed by an 80s-born African-American, is indicative of the long-lasting ramifications these failures have had on the hip hop generation. With no concrete change in sight, we can be certain that through art, specifically hip hop music, the condition of the ghetto will continue to be documented.