Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Hip Hop, News Media, Racism, and White Denial | Hip Hop as a "Sign" of Black Immorality and a Justification for the Murders of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of my forthcoming dissertation on hip hop, the culture industry, and systemic racism. You can access my masters thesis version @ academia.edu

Negative Framing of Black Victims Through Associations with Hip Hop and Gangster Rap

In the past two years, two killings of unarmed black teenagers, Trayvon Martin (February 26, 2012) and Michael Brown (August 9, 2014), have ignited national debates and commentaries about racism in contemporary America. 

In each case, the defendant, George Zimmerman (Trayvon Martin’s killer) and Darren Wilson (Michael Brown’s killer), claimed that race was not a factor and that deadly force was required as self-defense. Many citizens, journalists, politicians, and public personalities justified these killings on the basis of self-defense, denied the role of racial prejudice, and vilified the victims by portraying them as “gangsters,” “thugs,” and “wannabe gangsta rappers.” 

Martin and Brown were framed, through identification with “gangsta rap,” as violent, aggressive, criminal, and dangerous. 

As evidence that George Zimmerman’s shooting of Martin was justifiable self-defense, Ted Nugent claimed that Martin was a “dope smoking, racist gangsta wannabe” responsible for “his bad decisions and standard modus operendi of always taking the violent route.” 

Geraldo Rivera claimed that photographs of “Trayvon posing as a ‘gansta’ rapper, holding weapons and sporting an elaborate grill on his teeth” were proof that he was a threating individual. Rivera also argued that the hoodie sweatshirt worn by Martin warranted Zimmerman’s suspicion because it made Martin look like “every 7/11 robbery suspect ever caught on tape.”

"And so it was for a few weeks until the race-baiting industry saw an opportunity to further the racist careers of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, the Black Panthers. President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, et al, who then swept down on the Florida community refusing to admit that the 17-year-old dope smoking, racist gangsta wannabe Trayvon Martin was at all responsible for his bad decisions and standard modus operendi of always taking the violent route." (Ted Nugent, Rare.us, 7-18-2013)

"That image of Trayvon as a non-threatening, harmless youngster was later muddled by photographs released by the other side showing Trayvon posing as a ‘gansta’ rapper, holding weapons and sporting an elaborate grill on his teeth. Additionally, store surveillance video from earlier on the evening Trayvon was killed showed the young man wearing a hoodie and looking like every 7/11 robbery suspect ever caught on tape." (Geraldo Rivera, Latino.foxnews.com 8-15-2014)

Also, in each case, rap music has been cited as influencing the violent behavior that justified the suspicion and killing of Martin and Brown. After quoting lyrics from a rap song recorded by Michael Brown, Bill O’Reilly implied that rap music influenced Brown to act violently towards cops and was responsible for the decay of “our” culture. 

"Rap music didn't kill him, a policeman's bullets did. But who knows whether his attitude towards cops, shaped by violent music, played some role in any possible confrontation? We will never know for sure, but does anyone doubt that parts of our culture have crawled deep into the gutter?" (Bill O’Reilly, Billoreilly.com 8-28-2014)

In “race-neutral” (or not so race-neutral) language, O’Reilly coded two-parent, suburban families as “white” and fatherless, directionless, and structureless urban families as “black.” In doing so, O’Reilly juxtaposes good, college bound white kids against violent, sexual, and loveless black “thugs,” and argues that hip hop, devoid of love and marriage and full of sex, money, and violence, is responsible for moral destruction and death of the young black men.

"Today there is no love, no romance, no seduction, no marriage, only sex and violence and money. To suburban kids in two-parent homes, the music is often an amusing diversion as they head to soccer practice and the SAT prep course. But to young men with no fathers, no guidance, no structure, and very little hope, the thug life depicted in the music is a siren song. And just like the sirens of mythology lured men to danger and death, today's rap culture leads down a path of destruction." (Bill O’Reilly, Billoreilly.com 8-28-2014)

Deconstructing Hip Hop as a "Sign" of Black Immorality

These statements from O’Reilly, Rivera, Nugent and many other white elites reveal how hip hop has become a race-neutral “sign”, as Derrida explained, of black individual and cultural moral failure. 

For many whites:
  1. Hip hop = gangsta rap
  2. Gangsta rap = the authentic representation of black impoverished “ghettos”
  3. Gangsta rap = individual immorality (gang banging, violence, drug dealing, sexual aggression, misogyny, laziness, irresponsibility, irrationality, uncontrolled desires, materialism, urban, poverty, ghetto, thug)


  1. Gangsta rap as the authentic representation of immoral black impoverished “ghettos” becomes equated with black identity and black culture in general. 
  2. Authentic black identity, then, is immoral and hip hop is the authentic representation of black immorality. 
  3. As a sign of moral failure, hip hop becomes both an explanation of black inequality and mistreatment and a justification for treating blacks as always suspicious - potentially dangerous and violent.

Hip Hop as a Tool for White Denial of Racism

Associating individual victims, such as Brown and Martin, with gangsta rap provides the rhetorical frame to blame black victims for their own inequality, oppression, and exclusion from the rights and protections of citizenship. 

Further, this framing of hip hop, individual blacks, and black culture provides the rhetorical frame to deny the role of racism in the continual violation of black rights and in the white explanations of these incidents. 

This framing of hip hop, as negative gangsta rap and blackness, through gangsta rap has been a rhetorical strategy of whites since the rise of hip hop music in the early 1990s.

History of Assigning Hip Hop Blame

Since hip hop music’s seemingly meteoric rise in the early 1990s, it has become a accepted representation of black cultural and individual moral failure and a race-neutral justification for inequality, oppression, and exclusion. Following its pop culture ascendency (despite the diversity of artists, styles, messages, and images) hip hop music and its artists have been increasingly reduced to the messages and images associated with the narrow sub-genre of “gangsta rap.” 

Gangsta rap is framed as an authentic mirror of black identity and black pathology and a cause of gang and drug related violence, sexual irresponsibility, poor academic performance, demeaning of women, general social dysfunction, the destruction of the black community, and the overall destruction of America’s values. 

“The excessive blame leveled at hip hop is astonishing in its refusal to consider the culpability of the larger social and political context. To many hot-headed critics of hip hop, structural forms of deep racism, corporate influences, and the long-term effects of economic, social, and political disempowerment are not meaningfully related to rappers’ alienated, angry stories about life in the ghetto; rather, they are seen as ‘proof’ that black behavior creates ghetto conditions.” Rose 2008, 5

“While this struggle over hip-hop’s soul has unfolded, outside critics have lambasted hip-hop for being responsible for a myriad of social ills. Several high-profile politicians, academics, journalists, and activists, have held hip-hop culpable for violent crime rates, sexual irresponsibility, poor academic performance, and general social dysfunction.” Ogbar 2007, 106

Responsibility for the negative content of hip hop and its "destruction of black morality" is generally assigned to: individual rappers, the music industry, or the white audience. While most public critics assign responsibility to individual rappers, many scholars place hip hop music and individual rappers within the socio-economic and cultural context in which the music industry profits from the production, distribution, and promotion of the messages and images associated with gangsta rap. Further, white consumers, that have revealed their preference for gangsta rap in the market, are identified as the driving force behind the economic vitality of gangsta rap. 

I contend that all three arguments are overly simplistic and do not properly identify the cyclical interaction of the three actors and the ways in which this interaction hides the assumptions that reproduce systematic racism, the white racial frame, and market fundamentalist ideology. 

Following Ben Agger, I posit that the cyclical interaction of each group of actors reflect and reproduce, what Joe Feagin refers to as, the “white racial frame.” The white racial frame continually reproduces a historical system of white supremacy and black inferiority; white racism; and negative white racial attitudes - justified through science, individualism, and market fundamentalism. In order to over come the simplistic responsibility arguments, I explore hip hop music, systematic racism, and market fundamentalism through what I have coined the culture industry’s cycle of assumptions.

The Culture Industry's Cycle of Assumptions

The culture industry’s cycle of assumptions is the interaction between the director (culture industry), the author (hip hop artist), and the audience (white consumer). Together the three combine to reflect and reproduce the white racial framing of society and to hide the systematic nature of American racism, insulate white America from critical self-reflection and culpability, and to continue the explain and justify racial inequality as a result of individual and cultural pathology. 

Peculiar to the culture industry of postmodernity is that it deauthors cultural content in a way that hides the ideological content signified in cultural artifacts. Ben Agger argues: 

“The ideological outcomes of the culture industry are in a sense unintended; they emerge in the interplay of authorial, directorial, and audience assumptions about the nature of the world.” (Agger 1992, 65)

By unintended ideological outcomes, Agger is arguing that the culture industry actors, authors, and audience do not collude to reproduce dominant ideology. Rather, operating within positivist and market fundamentalist ideology, the cultural industry integrates artist and consumers into the logic of industry and markets. When culture becomes commodified, it hides market and racial ideology within cultural artifacts. 

Culture is produced as neither authored nor ideological and consumed as non-ideological. Thus, culture, decontextualized and dehistoricized, engulfs “all discourse, experience, and evaluation,” and is reproduced as if it were natural – appearing from nowhere and going nowhere. 

“Where popular culture loses both its apparent and its textual demarcation, it slips by us unchallenged. The cultural millieux of the moment are extraordinarily permeative in the sense that they engulf all discourse, experience, and evaluation. Culture appears to come from nowhere and to be heading nowhere; it is objectified in the magazine racks at the airport, in the chain bookstores, in the endless television programs and movies at the mall. We expect culture in the same way that we expect the weather; although it varies, its existence is invariant.” Agger 1992, 69

When ideology is hidden within culture-as-a-commodity and when the history of systematic racism is hidden within the commodification of hip hop, whites can claim that racism no longer exists and use hip hop to blame blacks for their exclusion, inequality, and oppression in contemporary America. 

Interrogating the culture industry’s cycle of assumptions contributes to academic discussions regarding race and hip hop by deconstructing the complex ways in which the culture industry integrates cultural producers, authors, and consumers into the market ideology as natural and unalterable. 

Moving beyond the simple cause and effect arguments about responsibility - analyzing the complexities of the culture industry’s cycle of assumptions exposes how the naturalization of positivist market ideology works to naturalize the white racial frame. Exploring the assumptions of the culture industry, the artist, and the consumer reproduce the white racial frame. 

Hip hop, as a sign of black moral failure, becomes a powerful race-neutral explanation and justification for prejudice, inequality, and exclusion of blacks from full citizenship. 

In order to understand the dynamics of the culture industry’s cycle of assumptions, I will first investigate the history of systematic racism, the white racial frame, and the ways racism has been recoded in contemporary America. Next, I will expound up the theory of the culture industry and how the commodification of culture serves to hide ideology. Last, I will interrogate the interaction of the culture industry, the artist, and the consumer in the culture industry’s cycle of assumptions and connect the commodification of hip hop to the reproduction of the white racial frame. In doing this, I will demonstrate how this process of commodification hides the systematic nature of racism and allows whites to claim color-blindess and justify personal prejudice while blaming blacks for the continuing existence of racial inequality and exclusion from citizenship rights.

(To Be Continued)

Deconstructing the World, One Human Rights Violation at a Time,

No comments: