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Excerpted From: Donald F. Tibbs, Hip Hop and the New Jim Crow: Rap Music's Insight on Mass Incarceration, 15 University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender and Class 209 (Fall 2015) (84 Footnotes) (Full Document)


DonaldFTibbsWriting in 1944 about race relations in America in his famous study An American Dilemma, Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal claimed that the police officer, “stands not only for civic order as defined in formal laws and regulations, but also for 'White Supremacy’ and the whole set of social customs associated with this concept.” Further, he noted that beyond the police, other governmental institutions, particularly the judiciary, adopted a hands-off approach to constraining police misconduct thereby implicitly authorizing police officers to exceed their lawful authority in policing African Americans. Compounding this problem was another: the especially intense racial animus that white police officers exhibit towards Black men. “Probably no group of whites in America,” Myrdal claimed, “have a lower opinion of the Negro people and are more fixed in their views than Southern policeman. To most of them . . . practically every Negro man is a potential criminal. They usually hold, in extreme form, all other derogatory beliefs about Negroes; and they are convinced that the traits are 'racial.”’

Almost sixty-six years after An American Dilemma, another groundbreaking study about race relations was published compounding Myrdal claims. In 2010, law professor Michelle Alexander released her book, The New Jim Crow, detailing how the legacy of “white supremacy” in our criminal justice system continues the systemic historical practice of targeting, hunting, and capturing young Black men; as well as building a punishment industry around their mass incarceration. To be clear, as noted by Professor Greg Thomas, the words “white supremacy” do not appear in Alexander's book. Neither does the combination of words “anti-Blackness,” “racist Supreme Court,” or “hyper-policing,” although she speaks to each of those issues in a much less provocative way. Regardless, Professor Alexander's critique is timely, noteworthy, and deserving of the praise it has received. It has been regarded as a thoughtful and well-researched critique of the American War on Drugs that empirically delegitimizes the purity of American law in relation to people of color and further cements the reality that the “law-as-written” is different from the “law-in-action.”

Perhaps more startling to the nascent reader on race and criminal justice policy, The New Jim Crow proves that modern policing continues its brutal past of perpetuating a system of violence against young Black men in an unprecedented way. It details how race remains a relevant factor in the prosecution and incarceration of young Black men, and how the fallout of America's unethical drug war is a return to Jim Crow era racial politics that continue the process of excluding black Americans from engaging in a participatory democracy by disenfranchising a new generation of political actors.

But, like other great scholarly works, The New Jim Crow stands on the shoulders of a select group of predecessors: many of whom have laid the ground work for empirically critiquing prisons, policing, and the American drug war. I wish to add to that list of predecessors the luminaries of Hip Hop rap music because unlike the scholars who have an academic platform for their critique, this group of scholars rarely gets recognized for their contribution to our contemporary debates. Although Alexander devotes approximately three pages to integrating Hip Hop rap music into her analysis, she gives the genre as a whole short shrift when it comes to recognizing their contribution. She limits her critique to either lambasting Hip Hop rap music, particularly “gangsta rap,” as a minstrel performance of the worst stereotypes associated with black people or only mentions one artist when it is easiest to proffer their identity in a good light.

Thus, this essay is presented as an addendum to the arguments in The New Jim Crow through the lens of those most affected by Alexander's analysis: young Black men. My goal is to merge rap music and The New Jim Crow, to show how they are making the same claims, albeit using a different voice; and how the combination of those voices should be a centerpiece of our discussion about approaches to reversing mass incarceration.

Because of the breadth and depth of the subjects presented in The New Jim Crow, I am limiting my critique to Chapter 2 titled “The Lockdown.” I focus on this chapter because it presents arguments that bring together important issues related to race and the law and Alexander's claims about a racialized punishment system that has appeared in rap music since the early 1990's. After presenting Alexander's major concerns of race and policing, I will present a specific Hip Hop rap song along side of her critique in order to demonstrate how rap music has used the same words and text as a narrative on the epidemic of racialized policing in the War on Drugs era.

The value of my critique, and the arguments I present below, is the reality that far more young Black men, and music lovers around the globe will hear, memorize, and relate to rap music before they will read the first 50 pages of Alexander's book. This does not mean that The New Jim Crow should not be assigned reading for generations to come. In fact, at some universities it is. But, long before the assignment is either made or completed, the sheer power and global presence of Hip Hop rap music will take priority. Thus, for those who are looking for another method to “teach” about law and mass incarceration, I might suggest digging into the rich history of rap music to achieve that goal.

Truthfully, there are so many artists whose songs fit my paradigm that grasping one-line lyrics from multiple artists to make a point would overwhelm both the reader and writer. Additionally, it would, in my humble opinion, be intellectually dishonest. Thus, in the same manner that I am narrowing the scope of my review of Alexander's claims, I am also narrowing the scope of my choice of songs, using only three songs from some of Hip Hop's rap giants: West Coast superstar rap group N.W.A; Tupac Amaru Shakur, better known as 2Pac; and James Todd Smith, better known as LL Cool J. I chose these three artists because they each represent a sub-genres in Hip Hop rap music culture: Gangsta Rap, Political Rap, and B-Boy Rap. I suggest that their songs are the rap version of critiquing the arguments contained in the “Lockdown,” where, like Alexander, they argue that the law unconstitutionality targets young Black men in a manner that produces and reproduces mass incarceration.

[. . .]

But, going forward we can learn from our mistakes. As we consider a dialog about reversing mass incarceration, we must first address the lack of state accountability for racist police officers, unethical prosecutors, unprepared public defenders, and biased judges who have soiled their hands in the blood of the War on Drugs. We should carefully examine the victim-based testimony that appears in the lyrics of Hip Hop, since they are as important and relevant as top down critiques like those of Professor Alexander's. Simply, if we wish to eradicate American racism, change our criminal justice polices, and end the pipelines-to-prison that creates mass incarceration, I suggest that we merge the two worlds of rap music and academia into a solid critical mass. But, first we have to allow rap music the intellectual space to be brave, critical, and brutally honest, and to say the things that legal scholars, sometimes for various reasons, cannot.

Associate Professor of Law, Thomas R. Kline School of Law, Drexel University College of Law. B.A., Georgia State University, J.D., University of Pittsburgh, Ph.D., Arizona State University, LL.M., University of Wisconsin Law School.

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