Politics (12)

By John Phillips 

In just the past few years, issues of civil rights have once again come to the forefront. The ruinous relationship between young black men and law enforcement has rapidly ascended to the height of public discourse and consciousness–at a level not seen since the 1960s and 1970s. Although there has been robust discussion regarding police-minority relations, a more comprehensive discussion of institutional racism in the media and the black identity it contrives has seldom been had.

Many theorize that this black identity may be a significant impediment to economic mobility within the black community, especially when many black boys will grow up either wanting to be like Michael Jordan or Tupac Shakur. Achieving that level of fame in athletics and music is clearly difficult to accomplish, so when these boys don’t make it, criminality can become a third path that is both viable and desirable. Critics of the black identity argue that possibly it is the legacy of the past that is reinforcing these career paths and preventing progress. Read on to learn about this criticism of the modern black identity, its roots in slavery, and its perpetuation in the media.


Courtesy of Cliff via Flickr

Succeeding in sports, particularly basketball and football, is a status symbol in American society as a whole, but even more so in the black community. As John Milton Hoberman states, “the celebration of black athleticism as a source of clan pride exists on a scale most people do not comprehend.” Athletic greats like Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Jim Brown and many other black athletes enjoy a high level of reverence in their cultural community and function as role models for young black males. From a young age black males, many of whom live in areas of poverty, view these athletes and their humble backgrounds as a way out of poverty and the ghetto. They then begin to define themselves in terms of their athletic ability.


As Professors S. Plous and Tyrone Williams of Wesleyan University point out, this emphasis on athletic prowess today is predicated upon the emphasis on physical capabilities which once made slaves valuable. Slaves who were stronger and more physically capable were more proficient in their labor. Similarly, in the 21st century, many argue that too many black teens are infatuated with physical abilities through the medium of sports. The importance of African-Americans being physically more capable began in slavery, but has since evolved into a norm and a source of pride in the black community. There’s a worry that today it amounts to deluding young black male teens into undermining their education in favor of an improbable athletic career. These critics of the modern black identity point out that slaves did not enjoy the luxury of an education. Therefore, quality education is the necessary first step to reform these stereotypes and place black youth on attainable paths to success.


Courtesy of Alex Const via Wikimedia Commons

Musical endeavors in the black community are also very common, however, as with sports, the music industry is a difficult field to break into. Nevertheless it is pursued vehemently by black youths. This emphasis on music, according to some, is also rooted in slavery. Slaves used music as a way to retain their African culture and as a coping mechanism to numb the pain of slavery. Author Megan Sullivan describes their negro spirituals as a type of “musical rebellion” in an essay writing,

Subsequent generations of Africans gradually became African-Americans as a rich culture infused with music developed under the harsh conditions of slavery. White Americans considered African-Americans separate and unequal for centuries, going to extraordinary lengths to keep Negroes oppressed and apart. Yet behind the strict, segregating curtain hung between ‘Black’ and ‘White,’ African-Americans created a distinctive music that sank its roots deeply into their American experience and drew from it an amazing evolution of sound that has penetrated that racist fabric and pervaded the entirety of American culture. Music became a way to remain connected to their African heritage while protesting the bleak conditions African Americans faced throughout history. Musical protest took on assorted forms and functions as Blacks strove to advance their social station while simultaneously retaining their cultural heritage.

These songs of slavery create an interesting parallel with rap and hip hop music, which also was conceived in a furnace of racial inequality and oppression, although in inner cities rather than cotton fields. Yet these critics of music’s preeminent role in black culture argue that we must acknowledge that the inner cities require a more nuanced approach to success, and not an insistence on past principles. They argue that historically music was utilized as a means of rebellion and defiance because it was absolutely necessary as millions were treated as subhuman. The argument follows that today’s music, specifically rap, is often used as a means of defiance, but is less needed as there are more constructive outlets now than in the time of slavery. This is especially true as some rap music continues to glorify and condone the third principle, criminality.


Criminality is certainly not praised and revered in the black community as musical or athletic pursuits. However, according to black identity reformers, when the two fail, criminal behavior in many black communities is not only seen as palatable, but glorified, as it represents a form of rebellion against oppression. The emphasis on music, particularly rap music, perpetuates this glorification of criminality and further validates the lawlessness.

Interestingly, this is directly analogous to the conditions of slaves. As Sullivan mentioned, music was a means to organize rebellions and protest for slaves. Indeed the act of responding to oppression through crime as a justification for the lawlessness is also rooted in slavery. In the days of slavery, it was criminal for a black slave to seek liberty and equal rights as delineated in the Declaration of Independence. Since black slaves were strong willed and conscious of their inalienable rights, many valiantly and fearlessly sought liberty even though at that time this constituted criminal behavior. In the same manner that criminality was conceivably deemed desirable by the black slaves seeking liberty, criminality continues to be deemed acceptable by some black Americans today fed up with their disparate equality of liberty, relative to other members of American society. Of course, according to proponents of fundamentally altering the black identity, there is a difference. They argue that in the past civil disobedience and criminality were morally justified, but today are morally ambiguous if not reprehensible.


According to reformers, media plays a big role in the black community’s continued emphasis on physical and musical capacities, as well as criminality. Possibly some of the most prevalent black individuals on television are athletes and rappers, that latter of whom then-Senator Barack Obama stated, “move our young people powerfully.” Given that poor children–many of whom are black– watch significantly more television than their peers, the types of people they see on television play a more imperative role in their process of socialization.


Media also plays a role in reinforcing the criminality of black males. Stephen Balkaran describes this bluntly saying, “media have divided the working class and stereotyped young African-American males as gangsters or drug dealers.” The portrayal of black males as criminals is already destructive enough in the context of news and film, but it becomes further amplified when artists choose to focus on themes which are criminal in content.


These three identities are not mutually exclusive, making it difficult to eradicate one without eradicating the other. This is observable with rappers who also serve as gangster icons, or black athletes who emulate criminals and rappers themselves. Making distinctions between the three becomes exceedingly difficult, as they are in some ways monolithic and unified; seemingly cornerstones of black culture.

Yet the individuals who embody each precept hardly pay the price, because they are rich, successful, and most of all, lucky. It’s the young teen who attempted to act out the rap lyrics to his favorite song that gets tried as an adult, and it is the 25-year-old former high school basketball star who gets stuck working a low wage job who ultimately suffer. Therein lays the deceptiveness of media portrayal of the three principles. These figures on television are conspicuously wealthy and successful, yet when young impressionable teens attempt to emulate the behavior, they end up disappointed and disadvantaged.


No one is suggesting that a complete rejection of athletics or musical pursuits is necessary or welcomed. Obviously music and athletics are essential components of black culture and of American culture, generally. However, according to this theory of the black identity, the black community may need to recognize that the ubiquitous emulation of athletic ventures, music, and criminality, is not helpful.


In the face of the widespread institutional racism that continues to pervert Americans culture and disadvantage blacks, a more inclusive definition of blackness is needed–one which leaves room for black intellectuals and professionals to serve as apt role models. Once children expand their horizon and realize they are not limited to a binary decision, we will begin to see a widespread economic ascension in the black community that is advantageous to all members of society. America is a multicultural society and there exists social tensions; but no group rises or falls on its own accord.



Stanford Ethics of Development in a Global Environment: Portrayal of Minorities in the Film, Media and Entertainment Industries

Cornell: African-American Music as Rebellion: From Slavesong to Hip-Hop

Wesleyan University: Racial Stereotypes From the Days of American Slavery: A Continuing Legacy

Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race

              History is a Weapon: Slavery and Prison – Understanding the Connections


              History is a Weapon: Slavery and Prison – Understanding the Connections

CBS News: Barack Obama Clarifies Views On Rap

Huffington Post: Watching TV Can Lower Children’s Self Esteem, Study Finds

The Atlantic: The Data Are Damning: How Race Influences School Funding

NCAA: Probability of Competing in Sports Beyond High School

Mother Jones: Obama Encourages Students to Abandon Hopes of Becoming Great Rappers

    City Journal: How Hip-Hop Holds Blacks Back


Source : Law Street Media https://lawstreetmedia.com/issues/entertainment-and-culture/perverse-black-identity/

In the wake of the United States Civil War (1861-1865) fought for the emancipation of enslaved Africans and the elimination of chattel slavery, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution were passed, with the latter—the 15th Amendment, passed in 1870—guaranteeing African American men the right to vote by declaring that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Despite this Amendment, enacted on the graves of over a half million soldiers, this guarantee of voting rights for African Americans had to be reemphasized, once again, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965, which sought to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote under the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution.

The United States Department of Justice is a federal executive department, responsible for the enforcement of the law and the administration of justice. As such, its legal basis lies in Article II of the United States Constitution. To aid in these duties to enforce the law and administer justice, the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), a subsidiary of the U.S. Department of Justice, was established in 1930 — as the agencies web page states — to “provide more progressive and humane care for federal inmates, to professionalize the prison service, and to ensure consistent and centralized administration of federal prisons” (“About Us”, 2016).

With 20 US Penitentiaries, 65 Federal Correctional Institutions[1], 13 Private Correctional Institutions[2], seven Federal Prison Camps[3], 19 Administrative Facilities, and 15 Federal Correctional Complexes, and multiple state and local prisons, jails, and detention facilities, the United States currently detains over two million prisoners each and every day, the world’s largest prison population on earth. China, with 1.3 billion total population compared to the US population of 321 million, is second with 1,548,498 prisoners (United States vs. China, 2016; World Prison Populations, 2016).

While “an estimated 65 million people in the United States have criminal records,” Blacks and Latinos comprise 71.4% of the total US federal prison population (Prison Statistics, 2016; Hernández, et al., 2015). As of September 2016, there are a total of 192, 628 federally-confined inmates, almost an eight-fold increase since 1980, with 156,778 inmates confined in BOP-operated facilities, 21,834 in privately-managed facilities, and 14,016 in “other types of facilities” (Prison Statistics, 2016). Since less than two hundred thousand inmates reside in federally-operated facilities, this means that of the two million plus total US prison population, over 1,800,000 inmates are housed in state and local detention facilities.

Four general theories have historically been advanced as justification for sanctioning the punishment of criminal behavior: deterrence, just deserts, incapacitation, and rehabilitation. The impetus behind deterrence is to make crime too costly for criminals to engage in it. Just deserts introduce the notion of proportionality such that one’s punishment should be commensurable with the moral gravity of the crime committed. Incapacitation, i.e. incarceration, removes law breakers from society, either permanently or temporarily. If incarceration is temporary, then offenders are deemed to have “done their time” and “paid their debt to society” for the offense committed and may now, once again, enjoy the rights and privileges of citizenship. As such, temporary incarceration suggests the possibility of rehabilitation (Muhlhausen, May 27, 2010). Societal chastisement, in the form of incarceration, is thus a penalty exacted from those who transgress the law, on the theory that humans are capable of learning from their errors.

While temporary incarceration and the theory of rehabilitation exist in the US criminal justice system, it is notable that ten US states permanently bar felons from ever voting once convicted, even after their sentences are completed. Twenty states restore inmate’s voting rights after they have served their time, parole, and probation; four states restore voting rights after inmates have served their time and parole; 14 states after incarceration is served; and in two states, viz. Maine and Vermont, felons may vote absentee while in prison (State Felon Voting Laws, 2016).

Recently, in the state of Virginia, Governor Terry McAuliffe (D-VA) restored voting rights to more than 200,000 former felons in April of 2016 only to see that state’s supreme court, only three months later, in July of 2016, agree with Republican legislators who had filed a petition accusing the governor of exceeding his authority. As Horwitz and Portnoy state: “The Democratic governor’s decision particularly affects black residents of Virginia: 1 in 4 African Americans in the state has been permanently banned from voting because of laws restricting the rights of those with convictions” (Horwitz and Portnoy, April 22, 2016). Thus, what is the basis for the non-restoration of voting rights once a criminal has served her or his time? Is there any merit to this denial or is it simply another method of racial discrimination?

In Virginia, as with so many states, the U.S. criminal justice system operates largely on a racialized basis, not only to maintain the class divisions within the larger society, but, as well, to divide prison populations amongst themselves. Because a disproportionate number of African Americans and Latinos are incarcerated in the United States and denied voting rights once their prison sentences are served, this effectively disenfranchises much of the working class in America, thus allowing the controllers of capital to rule with few checks to their aggrandizement of power and wealth. As such, the stigmatization of felons by permanently rescinding their voting rights in a number of states, constitutes a key indicator of how class rule is maintained in the United States.




[1] The five Federal Correctional Institutions in the State of West Virginia include prisons in Beckley, Gilmer, Hazelton, McDowell, and Morgantown. It is interesting to note that compared to West Virginia’s five federal correctional facilities, California has a total of six and New York has only two.

[2] These private FCIs are run by either Corrections Corporation of America, Management and Training Corporation, or the GEO Group, Inc.—the latter which maintains facilities in North America, Australian, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

[3] West Virginia hosts one federal prison camp at Alderson, WV.

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