12, No. 2, May 2011
So-called Black Ghetto Cool: From the Color Line to the Colorblind
Karen Bettez Halnon
Penn State Abington
The Black Ghetto in the 1960s. During the late 1960s the nation was in the midst of social upheaval and generational struggle. Born into a more affluent society than ever before achieved, many youth spurned the superficiality of material comfort. Rebelling precisely against the deceptive tranquility of suburban life and self-interested materialism, rebellious hippies cast them off as a foreclosure to the possibilities of getting in touch with nature and of the self in community with others. Aiding the quest for something deeper and more unifying were mind-expanding drugs such as marijuana and LSD, experiments in communal living, membership in collectivist-minded groups, and occupying the streets in massive numbers to protest against a war that for many signified a “close link between empire, class, and race; between imperial wars, wealth inequality, and racist practices" (West 304, 57). Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers protested that the Vietnam War, involving an estimated 5 million Vietnamese deaths by the time the conflict was over, was not the only unjust war. There was also an unjust war being waged at home. The domestic war was between White racists endeavoring to hold African Americans back with segregation, White supremacist groups, and hate words versus those who, sometimes with the sacrifice of their lives, insisted on equality for all.
The “Whites Only” lunch counters, bathrooms, water fountains, and racially segregated places on the bus signified much of what was wrong. But the Black Ghetto was the most visible symbol of inequality. For many in the 1960s and into the 1970s, racially segregated urban centers were the greatest impediment to breaking down barriers, abolishing the color line, cashing a replenished ‘blank check,” or achieving a society where people would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the measure of their character. Following the assassination of leaders who brought hope—President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, and Martin Luther King in 1968—the country exploded. 1968, one of the most tumultuous years in U.S. history, was one of mass rebellion inside the ghettos of Washington, D.C., Chicago, Newark, Detroit, Baltimore, Boston, Kansas City, and Watts. Sparked by the assassination of King, and the inhumanity of living amid ugliness, hopelessness, debasement, and confinement of social spaces that assured that African Americans remained categorically unequal, many of the ghettoized looted, set stores ablaze, protested, fought in the streets, and retaliated against the police when they were hit with batons, sprayed with hoses, and attacked by snipers. During this fiery and explosive contestation there was absolutely no question that the Black Ghetto was real and was a problem. Through the rioting it was made concrete, hyper-visible, and undeniable.
Erasing the Black Ghetto as Social Problem. Since 1968, debates over what to do about the “Black Ghetto,” and related 1970s issues contentiously postured as the “Negro problem”(Myrdal 1944/1999), the “tangle of pathology” (Office of Policy Planning and Research, United States Department of Labor), and the “culture of poverty” (Lewis, Mead, and LaFarge 1959/1979), have been quieted by the assumption on the part of many that we have overcome racism with the 1955 decision of Brown Vs. Board of Education (that dismantled the legal basis for segregation in schools and public facilities), the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (that outlawed segregation in schools and public places), the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (that outlawed discriminatory voting practices), and the institutionalization of programs such as Affirmative Action. Affirmative Action (that was first introduced by President Kennedy in 1961 and later developed and enforced by President Lyndon Johnson as a method of redressing discrimination that had persisted in spite of civil rights laws and constitutional guarantees). This landmark Supreme Court decision, these landmark federal laws, and this landmark federal social policy are four major evidences for many of the institutional achievement of racial equality.
Other evidences of equality for all include the development of a visible and prosperous Black middle class and the representation of African Americans in significant leadership positions such as Supreme Court Justice, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense. Further exemplifying how much race relations have improved, in 2008 Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan and a White American, was elected, with an indisputable popular vote, President of the United States of America, thus becoming the nation’s first Black and White president. Still more proof of Blacks making it in the U.S.A. include the celebrated lives of Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, Oprah Winfrey, Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Maya Angelou, Marian Anderson, Michael Jordan, Russell Simmons, Bill Cosby, Will Smith, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Charles Rangel, Tiger Woods, and the very long list goes on.
From a certain view then it is relatively easy to get the impression that racism is a thing of the past. However, whether or not one believes that racial equality has been achieved is clearly correlated with racial positioning. For example, the NAACP found that while 71 percent of Blacks believed that African Americans have not or will never achieve racial equality, 69 percent of Whites believed that racial equality had already been achieved or will soon be achieved for African Americans (NAACP 2007).
What complicates race matters further is that African Americans are a race divided. For example, according to a 2007 Pew Research Center study, 61 percent of African Americans surveyed said that due to significant value differences between poor Blacks and middle class Blacks, or "because of the diversity within their community, blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race” (Pew Research Center 2007). More than four-in-ten Blacks said the way African Americans are portrayed in popular culture hurts their image among the public. Sixty one percent of Blacks said hip hop music had a bad influence on society today, and singled out gangsta rapper 50 Cent (Curtis James Jackson) as having the worst influence. Blacks and Whites surveyed agreed that "the negative effects of rap music on society stem mostly from the use of bad or offensive language, the negative depiction of women and the promotion of violence or gangs. Among those who said rap is having a bad influence, majorities of Whites (51%) and Blacks (50 percent) cited bad or offensive language as the main reason…" (Pew Research Center 2007).
Given these social patterns—Whites thinking racism is over and Blacks being a race divided by class differences and popular consumer culture—it is understandable that ghettoization is not constructed as a pressing social problem. We are living in a time when racism has been declared dead by most Whites and when collective struggle has become largely a thing of the past. For many in the Black middle class, poor urban Blacks “acting ghetto” in and through popular culture is a frustrating hindrance, a kind of imagery that is deemed damaging to all Blacks, and so middle class Blacks understandably, to a certain extent, distance themselves from the racialized and commodified “Black ghetto.”
The Black Ghetto in the 2000s as Market Product. Today the Black ghetto persists in urban cores across the country, but is rarely contested by political leaders or by social activists as a source of racist oppression. And ghettoization is no longer a platform issue for either most Black leaders or youth-energized social justice movements. Rather, in a near-complete reversal of 1960s rebellious anti-materialist sentiment, the ghetto and the ghettoized are embraced from the inside and the outside as so many money-making or market opportunities. The ghetto and the ghettoized as “product” have become so many occasions for selling fads, fashions, and media. It is what sells coveted “authenticity” in a “society of the spectacle” where the market obliterates authenticity. Black Ghetto Cool exemplifies the vicious circle: the deprivation of authenticity because of the market and the selling back of it through the market as “ghetto cool.” Interestingly and provocatively, youth today are a lot like 1960s youth in that both generations are ones searching for something deeper, something more satisfying, meaningful, and compelling. The difference between the generations lies in the market context and the drastically altered market means for achieving it.
“Black Ghetto,” “White Suburbs,” “Boundary Crossing,” and “Authenticity.” In a colorblind society where it is assumed by the White majority that racism is a thing of the past and that all have equal opportunity, the ghettoized can be blamed for their own plight, for not taking advantage of institutionalized rights and opportunities supposedly available to all. In this conceptualization, the many that do not and cannot make it can be accused of lacking the will to move up and beyond, or for staying “ghetto.”
But at the same time, the ghettoized remaining confined in segregated inner city spaces have value. They are the spaces where Whites, including many who are the descendants of those who have taken flight from the dirty, crime ridden, and drug infested cities to the more beautiful, safe, and secure suburbs, may return. In fact, the authenticity value of the ghetto and the ghettoized depends precisely on a strategic drawing of boundaries, between those residing in the White Suburbs and those inhabiting the Black Ghetto. Boundary crossing requires two sides, two ways of life, and two geographically-separate spaces. Boundary crossing requires a place to escape to and a place to escape from. The reassuring thing for White suburban consumers of the Black Ghetto—that must be pointed out—is that boundary crossing, however enticing and enchanting, is not a real or committed cross-over. It is a market-fueled journey that ordinarily ends with an arrival back to the safety and security of the White suburbs.
With “authenticity” as its primary value, so-called Black Ghetto Cool depends upon a more specific cross-over, between pop cultural images of “ghetto” and the actualities of Black urban poverty. On the consumer side, this means that representations of the Black ghetto require certain realities behind them such as real thugs, real gangs, real gangbanging, real drug dealing, and real selling of women. In other words, the “authenticity” value of Black Ghetto Cool is contingent upon the harsh material realities of everyday African American inner city life. If they did not exist and products were not based in them, then the authenticity derived from them would be mitigated and thus lose value. On the production side, or from the side of real life gangstaz, pimps, and sex workers selling “ghetto” images, Black Ghetto Cool requires situating oneself in but not of the mainstream. "Staying true to the game,” as we see below, is a complex negotiation toward the assurance to self and to others of not losing oneself in the image and not "selling out."
The Production Side of the “Black Ghetto.” The pressure to "stay true to the game," to “keep it real,” or to remain loyal to "the life" is expressed concretely amid the material rewards rapper Snoop Dogg has acquired from his work as gangsta pimp. Rewards include millionaire status, ownership of a private jet, and a 5 bedroom, and a 3 and 1/2 bathroom MTV-featured "crib" with two pools, lush carpets, recessed lights, and a private recording studio, one of the two that he owns. Blending material success with loyalty to the “hood” and his “homies,” one of Snoop's recording studios has a “wall of fame” covered with signatures. He explained to MTV's “Cribs,” “It’s the wall of fame – every gang bang homie I got come through here and sign the wall – some of ‘em still alive, some of ‘em in jail for life, some of ‘em still on the streets but this what we represent right here–it’s gangsta rap.” On the "Cribs" video, the gangsta pimp rapper, in but not entirely of the mainstream, also made a point of revealing that his signature drink is Cristal, an exorbitantly priced wine (about 350 dollars a bottle). He said the refreshment is always in his refrigerator (Toure 2006).
The importance of "keeping it real,” or rather situating oneself in materialist culture while at the same time remaining “ghetto,” also can be exemplified in the Black Ghetto Cool style termed "Ghetto Fabulous." It is named and celebrated in rap music, as in Dr. Dre's song "Ghetto Fabulous," where the famous West Coast rapper rejoices in the extravagant lifestyle, the "best food, drink, and women that money can buy." Emphasizing what is most important, he continues, "Get in where you fit in, and never get your ghetto pass revoked / No matter how much money you make / Stay true to the game." Ghetto loyalty includes more particulars such as having the fortitude to wear "guest list terror clothes in jeans and tennis shoes, breakin your strict dress code." Finally, explaining the prioritization of making money in "getting over" while staying true, Dr. Dre spits, "Money make the world go round so let's handle this Ghetto, fabulous / Broadcastin live from Los Angeles…"
What must be elaborated on further about the production side of Black Ghetto Cool is that selling images of the Black ghetto, particularly packaged as the so-called “real niggaz” of gangsta rap, is largely the consequence of complex marginal positioning. Gangsta rap grew out of the social situation of the truly disadvantaged, and from those with heightened consciousness of outcast status. The situation for many gangsta rappers is "trying to get over,” "to do the impossible on a regular basis, to exist in a world where you have always known that you were not wanted." As Todd Boyd (1997, 14) put it provocatively, "I am convinced that were it not for popular culture, Black men, especially lower-class Black men, would have worn out their welcome long ago…The plight of Black men simply trying to exist motivates much of what constitutes the strength of American popular culture.”
In his book Am I Black Enough for You? Boyd (1997, 5) explains further that “excess sells….As far as cultural representations are concerned we are in a seller's market…Considering that excess sells in general, the more excessive the African American image, the stronger the likelihood that it will be accepted.” The challenge, then, for many rappers is the delicate work of not getting lost in the projection of excessive images of themselves as they attempt to "get over" and claim what is due to them in material culture.
Hustling images of the Black Ghetto has proven profitable for both the truly disadvantaged and more privileged African Americans. For example, as Patricia Hill Collins has pointed out, one member of the gangsta rap group N.W.A. (“Niggaz Wit Attitude”), Ice Cube, "lives in a wealthy White neighborhood, in a gated home, with his wife and three children. He was raised in a two parent family in a middle class residential area of south central Los Angeles, has never been in prison, and graduated from the wealthiest high school in Los Angeles." Collins (2004, 160) further explained critically, "Unlike Tupac, whose childhood poverty and ongoing problems with the law exposed him not just to the representations but to the realities of his gangsta persona, apparently Ice Cube knew what a convincing gangsta performance could buy.” Thus, from the production side, extracting authenticity value from the Black Ghetto as a form of minority cultural capital depends on an actual or contrived—and typically excessive—“real” Black Ghetto populated with so-called “real niggaz.”
Back to the Consumer Side of the “Black Ghetto.” From the consumer side, there is also a complication, something less than pure when crossing into the “authentic” “Black Ghetto.” It is done not by actually going there, but through the safe and secure short cut of fads, fashions, and media. The improbable feat of extracting authenticity when boundary crossing into a marketplace of Black Ghetto is endeavored—but obviously not ever really achieved—when, for example, White kids, bored living in the superficial White Suburbs, venture into the exotica and excitement of an alternative form of prohibited linguistic expression (by using the N-word and adopting Ebonics), through adopting styles of dress (by wearing baggy saggy low hanging clothes, big chains, or backwards baseball caps), through playing “ghetto games” (such as the video game Grand Theft Auto), through indulging in gangsta rap (such as N.W.A, 50 Cent, Jay-Z, Ja Rule, Biggie Smalls, or DMX), through watching sundry films depicting Black gangstaz, pimps, or the “boyz in the hood,” and through indulging in the unrepressed sexuality of young Black women celebrities who flaunt their “bootylicious” bodies, sexual appetite, and skill.
Whatever its contradictions, boundary crossing by White suburban consumers is undertaken in search of the “real,” and as a refreshing escape from artificiality and repression, from sterility and tranquility, from perfectly pruned trees and trimmed lawns, from polite and well-mannered decorum, and from, in a word, the self-conscious and pretentious life of the White suburbs. Thus, and again, White suburban kids of today are not that different from 1960s youth. Like them, they seek something more meaningful, freeing, and authentic than offered by their suburban parents and suburban life. But the solution is finding it through the marketplace of safe and secure “ghetto” simulation, or safe urban danger.
“Colorblind” Correcting the Racist Sins of the Past. Venturing into the spaces of the Black Ghetto in and through popular consumer culture provides something more significant and unspoken for consumers beyond escape from the White suburbs and a market sponsored encounter with the “real.” It also offers an opportunity to correct for the racist sins of the past, to eliminate the color line, and to declare a “colorblind” society.
We see this intimated in films such as “Malibu’s Most Wanted” (2003) where the central character is a rich, blonde, blue-eyed, White, Jewish kid who speaks with a “Black” accent, contorts his fingers and wrists “Black cool,” and thinks he is “ghetto.” He hangs with his “homeboys” and “wigga” friends in a place where he says even police will not go (“da mall”), has a license plate that reads “D-SHIZNIT” (the shit), frequently speaks in Snoop Dogg izzle-speak (see gazoogle.com), and in defensive innocence throughout the film pleads with others, “Don’t be hatin’.” B-Rad G (B-Rad rather than Brad as an alternative to his alleged “slave name,” and “G” for gangsta) struggles with others who will not accept him for what he claims he is. B-Rad laments about his plight when the Black family maid, Gladys, is serving and cleaning up after him at the pool. The naïve White boy, who asks Gladys when she thinks “they gonna leave our people alone,” simply cannot comprehend that he is White.
B-Rad, whose single passionate aspiration is to be a rapper, cannot grasp his racial difference, despite parental protest and psychiatric intervention for “the most advanced case of ‘gangstaphrenia” the doctor said he ever witnessed. Also failing in dissuading B-Rad from his life’s goal to be “the biggest rapper there ever was” is a contrived, safely guided trip to the East aide of Los Angeles, a place B-Rad had never directly encountered. The strategy undertaken, to give B-Rad a taste of what thug life is really like and to scare him into acting “like a little White boy again,” is arranged by his father’s campaign staff and facilitated by hired Black actors who have difficulty acting “ghetto.” They try, with minimal success, with corn rows, guns, big chains, and “gangsta gear,” including a T-shirt that says “Thug Life” and Timberland boots with laces undone. And they practice the voice, attitude and swagger of an “oppressed Black man from the ghetto.”
B-Rad’s assertion that he is “just a rapper straight up” and a “hardcore nigger(!),” gets him thrown out of an underground rap club and into a dumpster filled with white Wonder Bread. Depressed because his rhymes were judged weak, B-Rad asks and laments nonchalantly, “My bad.” While the film concludes happily with B-Rad pursuing his dream, it is after confessing along the way that he “learned to be down” from BET (Black Entertainment Television) and to act like a gangsta from Grand Theft Auto 3.
Another film, Black and White (1999), deals more explicitly and seriously with the tension surrounding racial appropriation. This film centers on a rebellious teenager, Charlie, who, again, to the bewildered disappointment of her parents, defiantly escapes from the repressed and constraining world of White wealth and propriety to one where she adopts Black culture and lifestyle and learns to talk "Black." The film opens with Charlie and another privileged White girl in Central Park having a ménage a trois with gangster artist Rich (Oli "Power" Grant). In Charlie's words, and the words of others who share her “colorblind” view, the object is "to go there," to "do whatever I want. I'm kid." For Charlie, however, acting Black is not staying Black. Black culture is a fluid and unbounded phase she will likely outgrow, something she merely desires to share for a time. Questioning the “colorblind” view from a different racialized position, a rhyme in the film asks tendentiously, "Can you change who you are? Can you be ghetto without living ghetto?"
Like 1960s youth who aspired toward something more by spurning material comfort, White suburban youth today who cross over into the spaces of the Black Ghetto, often do so with disapproval. In traversing boundaries, Black Ghetto adventurers are ones who explore parts of the city their parents told them to avoid, meet characters rarely if ever encountered in everyday life, share in a “cool” urban sounding language, indulge in a mode of forbidden and erotic self-expression, and revel in a way of life otherwise unknown. Also like their 1960s counterparts, the boundary crossers of today, who cross into the “Black Ghetto,” join hands with the historically stigmatized and declare an end to racial separation. And like those who received bad treatment in the past for being so called “N-lovers,” boundary crossers take criticism for looking and acting “ghetto,” or for being “wiggaz,” poseurs, and “wannabes.” In and through all of this the boundary crosser is set free at last from the racist sins of previous generations and absolved from “White guilt.” In sum, the ultimate ideological triumph over the generations has been transforming the Black Ghetto from a vivid symbol of the White racist color line into a fluid market space for the colorblind.
Boyd, Todd (1997). Am I Black Enough for You? Popular Culture from the ‘Hood and Beyond. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Collins, Patricia Hill (2004). Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. New York, NY: Routledge.
Lewis, Oscar, Margaret Mead and O. LaFarge (1959/1979). Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty. With a foreword by Oliver La Farge. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Myrdal, Gunnar (1944/1999). An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Volume I. New Brunswick and London: Transaction.
Office of Policy Planning and Research. United States Department of Labor “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” March 1965. Available on-line at http://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/webid-meynihan.htm
Pew Research Center. A Social & Demographic Trends Report. Conducted in association with National Public Radio. "Optimism About Black Progress Declines: Blacks See Growing Values Gap Between Poor and Middle Class." November 13, 2007. Retrieved November 14, 2007 at http://pewsocialtrends.org/assets/pdf/Race.pdf.
Toure. “The Way of the Pimp.” Feature article, Rollingstone. Issue 1015, December 14, 2006. Pages 52-58, 138-139.
West, Cornel (2004). Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism. New York, NY: Penguin Press.
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Commodities & Consumption, Vol. 12(2) May 2011.