Friday, October 9, 2009

The Message

A child is born with no state of mind!

The Argument: These cults were caused by the history of political, social and economic disenfranchisement typified by social problems such as Jim Crow Laws, the continued observance is due to different social position, not self-sabotage appearing phenomena in black culture.

John McWhorter helps us develop a greater cognizance of the Black American condition with his book Losing the Race: Self Sabotage in Black America. He attributes this “self sabotage” to three cults within black culture: the cult of victimology, cult of separatism, and the cult of anti-intellectualism. Although the cults he describes are real phenomena, I disagree with his argument for two reasons. First, his title, his seven articles of faith and the names of all the cults imply that the continued separate identity of black culture in regards to dominant culture is due to black cultural identity choosing to be separate. Secondly, any theory is subject to falsification methods of analysis; a theory can not be false in even one instance or else it is wrong. McWhorter's findings have a few flaws and are not all encompassing. McWhorter acknowledges that post reconstruction political, social and economic disenfranchisement has contributed to the Black American condition, but he is spurious in labeling this phenomena as self-sabotage. These cults were caused by the history of political, social and economic disenfranchisement typified by social problems such as Jim Crow Laws, the continued observance is due to different social position, not self-sabotage appearing phenomena in black culture.
In regards to how McWhorter frames the black condition, we must first deconstruct the idea of individual agency and rather look at the black condition through a deterministic perspective. By using the terms self sabotage, McWhorter implies individual agency. Famous hip hop artist, Grandmaster Flash diagnoses the quintessential mechanism of the contemporary black condition in this quote,
“A child is born, with no state of mind, Blind to the ways of mankind, God is smiling on you but hes frowning too, Cause only God knows what you go through, You grow in the ghetto, living second rate, And your eyes will sing a song of deep hate, The places you play and where you stay, Looks like one great big alley way, Youll admire all the number book takers, Thugs, pimps, pushers and the big money makers, Driving big cars, spending twenties and tens, And you wanna grow up to be just like them, Smugglers, scrambles, burglars, gamblers, Pickpockets, peddlers and even pan-handlers, You say Im cool, Im no fool, But then you wind up dropping out of high school, Now youre unemployed, all null n void, Walking around like youre pretty boy floyd, Turned stickup kid, look what you done did, Got send up for a eight year bid, Now your man is took and youre a may tag, Spend the next two years as an undercover fagBeing used and abused, and served like hell, Till one day you was find hung dead in a cell, It was plain to see that your life was lost, You was cold and your body swung back and forth, But now your eyes sing the sad sad song, Of how you lived so fast and died so young.”
(Grandmaster Flash)
This quote provides the essential roadmap of my paper. The first part of this quote stresses that the young child is a “tabula rasa,’ or blank slate; one is a product of one’s environment. The next part of the quote mentions how the young individual will be pressured to admire the social deviants that excel in the poor subculture of our inner-cities by using alternative means of achievement for monetary success. Flash does not mention any positive influences in this child’s life. Lastly this verse ends with the boy being sent to prison; and that’s the point of this paper, white culture denies black culture the necessary social and economic means to enter the dominant culture. Dominant culture actively permits the continued existence of an environment that perpetuates three trends of cultural separatism. Clearly the environment in which the individual in this song grew up in aided his deviance. Grandmaster Flash’s quote also describes elements of McWhorter’s three cults; “God is smiling on you but hes frowning too,” Cause only God knows what you go through,” describes the cult of victimology; “You grow in the ghetto, living second rate, And your eyes will sing a song of deep hate,” illustrates the cult of separatism, and “You say Im cool, Im no fool, But then you wind up dropping out of high school, Now youre unemployed,” helps give an example of the cult of anti-intellectualism. The important idea of Grandmaster Flash’s poetry is that because a child is a blank slate, their future is determined by their environment. By labeling the black condition as self-sabotage, McWhorter’s argument is unsound. Are their significant differences between black culture and the dominant one?
According to Baker, Jones and Tate book, black Americans have a lower SES than their white counterparts, even though things have improved (McClerking, 2008). Directly important to this is Barrington Moore's social organization of democracy, in which he concludes "No bourgeois, no democracy" (Yildirim, 2008). Direct links between social capital and economic equality and social capital and civic equality show that the two variables have a high positive correlation (Putnam 360-361). Since on the whole blacks have a lower SES than whites, they potentially have less social capital and community organizing time. How can this affect an individual? The sociological effects of lower SES can limit life chances, the ability to effectively parent and the ability to maintain familial stability in a crisis; while the effects of lower social capital can be even more detrimental especially for mechanisms like the Black Utility Heurisitic, which relies on the dissemination and acceptance of linked fate amongst black Americans.
What did Putnam conclude specifically about race? Racial tolerance and social capital have a high positive correlation (Putnam, 356). Putnam states on page 298,
"A states racial composition and rate of single-parent families also affect child well-being, though far less consistently or strongly than do poverty and low social capital. In general, the education level of the adult population does not have a significant independent influence on child outcomes, after poverty, social capital and demographics are taken into account. A state's social capital is far more important than anyone would have predicted in ensuring the healthy development of youth."
Putnam also found that,
"In Chicago young black men who live in neighborhoods with lots of white-collar professionals are more than three times as likely to graduate from high school than are comparable young men who live in neighborhoods with less educated residents….. The urban ethnographer Elijah Anderson also has documented a steady erosion in the moral cohesion in low income neighborhoods….the departure of middle class blacks… 'Has diminished an extremely important source of moral and social leadership within the black community.'"
(Putnam, 312-313).
Social capital within a neighborhood (simply having more educated people around) lifts up high school graduation rates, and the exodus of the black middle class has created a brain drain in low income black neighborhoods. When it comes to social capital, it does take a village to raise a child. Thus the different environment for black children such as lower social capital and SES do significantly affect the life chances and educational chances of an individual.
What is so important in Putnam's work is that he stresses the importance of community organizations in helping to lift people out of poverty. Has the black community been systematically denied the organizational leadership of great people? Has our government committed assassinations on powerful black leaders like MLK jr. and Malcomb X? McWhorter would say this is ridiculous because his argument is that the government is meant to help people not hurt them. I will now refute this assertion. Indeed the government’s function is to help people, but the past history of the cold war illustrates the systematic instances in which the government functions to help centralized groups of power. In the past the government has acted amorally at home and especially abroad because of rationalizations of capitalist ideology and group think. What are the examples? In high school, a teacher named Mr. Molnar told my Political Radicalism class that in the 1960's a department in the FBI called COINTEL PRO infiltrated a group of Yippees in Columbus. The FBI agent repeatedly sold the Yippees drugs, and tried to sell them weapons. After a few years, the agent disappeared from the organization after marrying and impregnating a female leader and robbing the group (Molnar). The FBI for some reason also has a history of intelligence gathering on people like MLK jr. and Malcolm X, who were peaceful organizers in the black community. John Perkins claims in his book Confessions of an Economic Hitman that the CIA assassinated democratic leaders of foreign countries like James Roldós of Ecuador (Confessions of an Economic Hitman). During the Iran-Contra affair the CIA broke US laws and helped traffic drugs. These examples also demonstrate the amoral functioning of the federal government. Clearly our government can ignore our laws when it is under the leadership of certain people. Other notable amoral historical instances include the fomenting of a coup by US and British governments to remove Mohammed Mossadeq the democratic socialist leader of Iran in 1953, because he would most likely work with the USSR (Yilidririm), and the refusal by Eisenhower to allow democratic elections in 1954 to unite North and South Vietnam. Because the ideology of capitalism has trumped democracy in foreign policy why would our government not do so here at home? Is it logical to assume it would not? McWhorter would say yes, but he is naive to believe the government never does anything bad. In the social sciences this concept is known as the “irrationality of rationality,” because the government bureaucracy is fragmented into many powerful factions, sometimes different groups of the government act in ways that are to the advantage of that faction but to the detriment of the entire government as a whole.
MLK jr., Malcolm X, John Lennon, JFK, RFK, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, and Benazir Bhutto all have something in common. They were well liked by diverse groups of people and their celebrity personas were highly critical of aspects of certain centralized power. If we view all people in the world as rational actors, why would someone kill a peaceable artist or politician, for fame? It is logical in many cases for certain factions of centralized power to covertly assassinate someone. The sentiment of most Americans is that some people are crazy and become detached from society so they kill a famous person for their own misguided legacy. To an extent this is true in all the aforementioned assassinations, but I contend in a few of these cases a conspiracy is not illogical. Perhaps all the aforementioned assassinations were performed by single psychopaths, not a centralized undemocratic group of power who organized their assassinations--the point is that the system has not changed to ensure that celebrity persona are safe from the apparently insane members of society. This lack of publicly noted policy change in society to safeguard democratic leaders illustrates an acceptance among elites of the status quo. This acceptance of the assassination of political leaders is technically and logically termed a conspiracy. Is it possible to prevent all assassinations? A Social control perspective of society is that society can control all people and to an extent, it actively does so by tools like public education, police and general social structure that ties the individual to society. (Social Control) If we can integrate people into a more equitable and secure system then these assassinations would not continue to occur. The Harris alternative model attributes the black condition to three things: basic structure of America's economy, capitalist ideology conditioned by white supremacy and his understanding that structures, laws and racist ideology all help determine the changes in the black condition (McClerking, 2008). Clearly the societal functioning in the Harris Alternative model shows that centralized groups actively work to control blacks, and the killing of Civil Rights leaders and the acceptance thereof show major flaws within our society and in McWhorter’s assumptions of a benevolent government.
Everything so far mentioned is relevant to the black condition including McWhorter's phenomenal cults and myths; which have not achieved the universality of good objective theory. Thus we must reject McWhorter's theory because there are too many discrepancies in his theory. All the discrepancies are illuminated by the theories of social construction and interactionalism theories. Some social scientists feel that all social reality is constructed by history, and that this construction of reality although skewed by perspective, is made real in its actors consequences by their interpretation of reality. (Cote 2002:37) I feel that McWhorter reifies (makes into) the black identity into something it is not. It is not real in and of itself but is simply a social construction. It is not an all encompassing identity for all dark skinned individuals; it is up to the individual whether or not to assume the label as black.
One of the best examples of the social construction of race comes from the sociologist Dalton Conley, and his anecdotes of growing up in a largely black populated neighborhood as a Jewish boy of artistic middle class parents. He illustrates the social construction of race to the reader with three anecdotes. The first anecdote is when he was a young man and waiting for his pregnant mother to have his sister. He was told that he would soon have a baby sister, but he did not understand how babies came about so he thought that he could choose one. He ended up kidnapping a black neighbors' toddler in a stroller. He sums up the event, "In retrospect, my baby-seizing mistake was understandable. The idea that a brown-skinned baby couldn't come from two ashen parents wouldn't have entered the mind of a two-and-a-half-year-old" (Conley, 8). His second anecdote comes from around Christmas time, at a Head Start program. His sister Alexandra was given a white Barbie doll, while the other children received their respective colored doll. The other children attempted to take the doll away, and in the end broke it in half. None of the kids cared about the color of the doll; they all wanted a "real Barbie" (Conley, 39). During his middle school years, the best example of the social construction of race is illustrated. The assistant principle was polling an entire school assembly about what kind of music to play at a school dance. The auditorium was highly divided by race, but Dalton was in the black section. The predominately white section of children yelled rock, while the predominately black section of children yelled disco. After the vote the assistant principle stated that rock won, and the following interaction ensued:
"The white kids erupted back into their chant: Disco sucks, disco sucks, disco sucks! Then someone from our side of the aisle…….cranked [on a boom box] Queen's 'Another One Bites the Dust'…….In the meantime a blond kid from the rock side yelled over, 'Hey, Queen is white anyway, and they're rock and roll!' [someone else responded] 'Queen ain't white!' 'Yeah they are, someone else chimed in. They're even gay.' [Someone else responded] 'Queen ain't no faggots!'
(Conley, 146)
Clearly this is a quintessential example of the social construction of racial identity. To some of the young boys just because Queen had some funky music, they had to be black, and heterosexual.
Other discrepancies in McWhorter's arguments can be seen by his assertion that blacks statistically commit more crimes. His theory is impossible to break down unless one alters the definition of crime. In this country, at least two major groups are of relevance, arguing that the criminal justice system is biased to incarcerating certain people. The two are the Black Male Initiative and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Leaders of BMI of the University of Maryland stress the significance of the Prison Industrial Complex, a system in which police have a vested interest in a high level of incarceration. ACLU president Anthony Romero mentions this problem,
"the government's 'war on drugs' and move toward mandatory minimum sentences in the 1980's and 1990's helped to boost the OPP (Orleans Prison Parish) bottom line….[warden] Foti was known for encouraging his police to make more arrests when prison beds were empty….. Clearly, rehabilitation was not the job of those that ran OPP."
(Romero, 32-33)
Matthew Fogg, a member of LEAP discussed how drug prohibition is disproportionately structured to incarcerate minorities. Another important group leader was Ron Hampton, a former police officer in DC. He is executive director of the National Black Police Association. Fogg and Hampton worked with other groups including the ACLU of the National Capital Area and ACORN, to prevent the Safe Homes Initiative, a pet project of DC police chief Cathy Lanier to search local residents homes for guns. The conglomerate of community activists felt the program did not offer informed consent to people solicited to allow police in their homes to search for firearms. Many people helping to prevent the program felt that the program illustrated institutionalized racism. Using the falsification method many parts of McWhorter’s argument such as the government having the best interest of every individual at heart, the reification of racial identity and the contemporary examples of institutionalized racism shoot holes in his argument. Thus we can reject his theory, and accept his observations of phenomena.
In conclusion, although McWhorter's ideas are important and do help describe certain trends in black culture, his argument is founded on a concept of racial identity that is impossible to completely prove-- except in regards to a marginalized group that is kept down by the dominant one. At this point his argument breaks down because the environment is determined; there is no self sabotage as McWhorter asserts. I do agree with McWhorter when he blames the black condition on disenfranchisement and Jim Crowe laws, but even to this day there are examples of continued institutional racism. When McWhorter describes the black condition as self sabotage, he is simply trying to sell a book, a book that is too full of anecdotes and not fully substantiated assertions that are somewhat less academic than could be.

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Grandmaster Flash. “The Message.” Single: The Message. Sugar Hill Records, May,

McClerking, Harwood. "Harris Alternative Model." Political Science 504: Black Politics
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  1. Well written carles, I like how you chose to pick of rap la yric for this piece. Also I read thru it quick but a large reason why alot of afro american males and females end up in the lifestyle they do is because there parents arent pushing them in the right direction. Its the same with racist whites, terroists, etc. the fact that your a product of you enviorment is one thing, but your parents also play a large part and how you chose to live your life.

  2. This also reminded me where the state of hip hop/rap is today. I listen to a lot of trap/drug rap music which is awesome, but you rarely and this may just be my opinion/who i listen to but rappers dont really deliver a "message" that really makes you think about some shit. I mean there are few that do but I guess they dont get the attention other rappers do. Keep this up bud the whole paper was good I have read this a few times now and I have done my own research on a few issues you brought up.

  3. Thanks yea i think mainstream hiphop is dead. Its all about konsumerism now. But theres still good stuff on the fringes, my one buddy likes immortal technique but its still kinda shock jock, some real hiphop thats out is jazz poetry ensemble. Also Id say the home environment is a major cause of the nurture over nature. But Ill have another paper ready for november. Hope everythings good ill see you in December