The other night I saw the new high adrenaline thriller, Furious 7. I always get to the theater early because I’m a movie junkie and actually enjoy watching trailers. While sitting there watching some of the mindless swill soon to be released, I saw the red-band trailer for Straight Outta Compton. This looks like a promising movie which does more than focus on the rise of the popular “Gangsta” rap group N.W.A. Judging by the trailer, the film attempts to tie sexual commercialism and the brutal beating of Rodney King to the environment which produced groups like N.W.A. The link above will take you to the trailer.
In the trailer for Straight Outta Compton O’Shea Jackson Jr., who is playing a younger version of his father Ice Cube, states that “Our art is a reflection of our reality.” The character utters those trending words in response to the accusations that the group’s music glorifies violence. When I heard that quote, I thought about the protests in Baltimore and the riots in Ferguson last summer. It made me consider what “our reality” looks like.I think there is a legitimate argument in that people who are not black, simply do not understand the long term struggle that produces the anger and rage that is currently televised in Baltimore. White privilege is a very real thing. Which means that “our” reality, is actually “their” reality for white people. Their reality is currently on display in Baltimore. Since the end of World War II, Baltimore has seen a decreasing population. This was exacerbated by a period of disintegration in the 1960s and 70s during the Civil Rights movement. Droves of people left the city for the suburbs taking fortune and investment with them and leaving poverty and depravity behind them.
With failing school systems, underfunded infrastructure due to a poor economy, and a police department currently under investigation; what was supposed to happen after the untimely death of Freddie Gray? What a lot of people do not understand about these events is that Gray in Baltimore, and Brown in Ferguson, are simply trigger points. They are the immediate events which led to the riots. That does not mean that those immediate events are necessarily the reason for the riots. However, many Americans looking on see anarchy and disruption which feeds a subconscious racism that they themselves may not even be aware of. Then, Americans find out that some of the untimely deaths of young black Americans are justified, such as the Michael Brown incident in Ferguson, which embeds their preconceived beliefs. The riots however, are bigger than Baltimore and Ferguson.
Just to be clear, I do not condone the violence. I’m simply looking for an understanding of it. What I do understand, is that there are over 7 million people currently under the supervision of adult correctional authorities and over 2 million incarcerated in the U.S., much higher than any other country. Of that, black people make up over 50%. It is often cited that black people are incarcerated at a rate of six times greater than white people. Although drug use has become rampant among all races, black people are arrested for drug crimes 10 times the rate of white people. There are definitely factors that contribute to these higher numbers: inner city crimes prompted by social and economic isolation; “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies; finally the prison system does not rehabilitate anyone, it makes non-violent criminals worse. With so much weight bearing down on a community, it’s easy to see why one moment, one act, will trigger that rage and anger. That, reflects the reality.
My U.S. history classes recently finished up a unit on the Civil Rights Movement. In that, we talked about the urban riots that took place in the 60s and how socioeconomic factors contributed to the unrest as well as a century of black people being treated as second class citizens. Naturally, my students were more drawn to what happened in Ferguson and drew parallels. So I asked, well, with all of the civil rights legislation of the 60s and 70s, why was there not liberation for the black people? Why didn’t those laws help eradicate the weight that bears down on the black community? This led to a decent discussion about the effects of campaigns for civil rights throughout American history. I told them that equality before the law seems to be a fight that comes in waves. Each new generation either gains ground or they lose ground. Perhaps one day you will have full equality before the law; but equality in people’s minds is a different story.