On The Zimmerman Verdict and The Dichotomy of The Black Male Existence
What does it mean to be Black and male in America? When I was 11 years old, I was stopped by a Los Angeles County - Altadena Sheriff deputy while walking home from school. A backpack on my arm and a saxophone case in my hand, I was stopped and interrogated about what I was carrying and from where I was coming? Ordered to sit on the ground, one of the deputies rummaged through my stuff. Before departing and driving away without even a suggestion of apology, the officer dumped all of my items (including my saxophone) on the ground. What was my crime which resulted in my being stopped and interrogated? What was the probable cause for my being profiled and searched?
I, like many others whom I grew up with was a young Black male walking in my neighborhood minding my own business. While I was not wearing a hoodie, my skin was and is the same as Trayvon Martin's. What does it mean to be Black and male in our current climate?
The recent acquittal of George Zimmerman regarding his slaying of Trayvon Martin, a young Black male, reflects the reality of what it means to be Black and male in America. The acquittal of Zimmerman sent shock waves throughout Black America and in the hearts and minds of countless others throughout the nation, notwithstanding ethnic variance. Despite the particulars of how the case was argued (on both sides) or how the incident went down immediately before the time of the shooting, the idea that a young Black teenager can be profiled which eventually results in him or her being shot and killed when simply minding their own business is horrifying for an array of reasons; this notion is all the more horrifying when there is little to no recourse in the justice system.
What the Zimmerman verdict evoked for a generation of post-civil rights African Americans is akin to what many during the civil rights era must have felt with the unjust deaths of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers and countless others. No doubt these were frightening and uncertain times; yet, these were moments that seemed to galvanize and unify the majority of the race.
Trying and horrible experiences is what united the Hebrew people together while in exile in Babylon or in captivity in Egypt. Feeling a sense of vulnerability and hopelessness can lead to fatalism if not anchored in a hope greater than self (e.g., God).
The dichotomy of what happened to Trayvon Martin at the hands of Zimmerman is both similar to and different from the death of these same Black boys at the hand of other Black boys (i.e. Black on Black crime). It is here that I am curious about what hip-hop culture has to say to Zimmerman and larger culture in general. When I was an elementary school teacher in the Pasadena school district, one of my African American fifth graders ran into the classroom to inform me that her Armenian classmate called her the 'N' word. Obviously concerned, I decided to investigate the matter. The young Armenian boy told me that he heard a group of African American girls using the 'N' word among themselves – rapping the latest lyrics of a hip-hop song; he decided to chime in. I was taken aback; I was dismayed, not so much because of the boy's use of the word, but because he had heard these girls using it among themselves, promoting it and perhaps in a way (or at least in the mind and interpretation of this Armenian boy), inviting its use as okay.
What does hip-hop culture or segments of rap promote and invite non-African Americans to embrace, say or act out? What attitudes and behaviors do African American hip-hop artists evoke within society? What is the hypocrisy that many of our own brothers and sisters espouse? I often hear racially explicit language (primarily the 'N' word) in the lyrics of African American rappers while driving through the streets of Atlanta or here in Southern California. I am saddened when I notice a white, Hispanic or other non-Black driver listening to this music and bobbing their head to the beat (like my Armenian fifth grade student).
The dichotomy of what it means to be Black in North America at the same time is espoused by a hip-hop culture that unfortunately does not seem to galvanize Black leadership to march, protest or call for a boycott to this industry (another form of hypocrisy).
When I was a coach serving at a local Pasadena high school, one of my student athletes assumed that I liked rap. She (being of Vietnamese descent) appeared surprised when I expressed my dislike for rap. She even commented on how I did not talk like most Black people (that I did not use curse words or slang).
The assumption of what it means to be Black in American, today, largely is branded by young hip-hop culture and rappers. This is a culture where if we are not aspiring rappers, we have our eyes set on sports. We are tattoo wearing, pants sagging individuals that (as depicted in the D.W. Griffin film "Birth of A Nation") are to be feared, hence justifying our being profiled. While it is true that this was an early stereotype put forth by a dominant racist white population (along with the institutions they set up), many young African Americans have embraced these caricatures.
The ignorance of a brand of hip-hop which espouses self-racial epithets reflects psychological pathos. This brand of hip-hop continues to infect Black youth culture and the general public alike; self-degrading attitudes are behind that which results in Black on Black murder in cities like Chicago, L.A. and Atlanta. Killings in Chicago have become so bad that some city officials are requesting the National Guard be called in. Like the parody of Clayton Bigsby, a Black Klansman, as portrayed from a segment on the Dave Chappell's Show, some within our own community, similarly uphold implicit white supremic views - promoting our own stereotypic images. The attitudes and behavior behind a segment of the hip-hop movement has resulted in nihilism (i.e. pessimism and negativism) yielding to self-hatred. Yes Zimmerman should be on trial in the court of public opinion, but many of us (i.e. many hip-hop artist, gang bangers and Black leadership) should be on trial next to him. This is, after all an attempt to hold our sons a little closer to us.
[Dr. Jamal-Dominique Hopkins is Director of J.D.Institute is the author of "Thinking Out Loud","Ten Things Every Christian Should Know" and "The African American Evangelical's Identity" in the Journal of African American Christian Thought (2009). Hopkins is available for preaching, lecturing, speaking or conducting workshops or seminars. You may contact him at 626-354-8438 or jdinstitute.weebly. com.]