On the week of Thanksgiving, one of my colleagues wrote an article that attempted to provide insight on the Mike Brown situation through social commentary. He wrote:
The issue at hand is that the culture in urban communities, regardless of race, economic status, or any other status that one might choose to denominate, is one of disregard for the law.
I take some personal exception to this characterization (by strict definition, I am an urbanite), but I would like to dig deeper into urban culture. While there is undeniably a “gangsta” subculture, it is no different from the violent subcultures within other cultural groups. Equating the violence that occurs in cities to urban culture as a whole is no different from equating white supremacy with rural cultural. In both instances, it would be foolish to deny that the element exists, but it is logically unsound to allow the part to consume the whole.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics analyzes crime statistics reporting states (the states who report vary in number from 47 to 49 each year, depending on the dataset). These statistics give a compelling story.
Subject to Violent Crimes
The urban culture hypothesis begins with the belief that urban communities are more dangerous than suburban and rural communities are. If it is true, than violent crimes (murder, rape, robbery, etc.,) should decrease and level-off as you leave the cities. Nevertheless, violent crime and culture do not have a correlation in the data set. While less violent crime occurs in suburban communities (like Ferguson, MO) than urban communities, rural communities suffer the same rate of violent crime as urban communities. Rural culture and urban culture produce the same type of criminal.
Individuals living in rural areas and individuals living in an urban setting are equally as likely to be subject to a violent crime. The common factor in the two groups is economic class. A direct correlation exists between ones economic status and their victimization rate. The conclusion drawn in these reports is simple: violent crimes effect poorer individuals regardless of where they live.
Similarly, criminals target with an equal opportunity mindset. The victimization rate for poor urban blacks, poor urban whites, poor rural whites, and poor rural blacks are statistically equivalent. The outlier group for this trend is Hispanics, who–regardless of other conditions–are not targeted by criminals to the same degree.
Everyone’s chance of becoming a victim of violent crimes decreases as you distance yourself from poverty, regardless of where you live.
Committing Violent Crimes
The likelihood you could be a victim of violent crime is only half of the equation. Who commits the crime is another important question. According to the urban culture hypothesis, individuals who participate in urbanism are more likely to commit violent crimes. The theory targets rap and hip-hop because of violent lyrics in certain sub-genres (most notably, gangsta rap and hardcore rap). It then takes these aspects of urban culture and contributes it to acts of violence within all communities, especially in instances where the crime was committed by “thugs,” being a word directly associated with the urban criminal. Similarly, the correlation is not strong. There may even be evidence that the expression provided “at risk” populations a peaceful medium express their frustrations.
In many ways, hip-hop and rap provide a similar medium as hardcore rock provides other communities, a way to express pain, struggles, and anger against the status quo. The rise of these genres correlates with a decrease in violent crime. It is difficult to conclude, solely on the data, that these musical movements caused an increase in crime.
Still, many feel compelled to associate violent lyrics with violence proper. The argument is inherently unsound. Culture argument are based on unprovable premises because datasets do not divide people based on culture—only age, race, state, and sex. Some people try still. Using geographic and racial stereotypes, some argue people likely to be influenced by gangsta rap are incarcerated more for burglary and murder than those unlikely to be influenced by these genres. To illustrate the problem with this argument, consider this second argument. People likely to be influenced by pop and country are incarcerated more for rape. And, the correlation (relying still on these stereotypes) is stronger. Nevertheless, individuals making the first argument rarely make the second argument, nor do they call for the banning of certain pop and country lyrics. That is because these conclusions are based solely on false cultural prejudices and stereotypes; therefore, these arguments should be rejected.
The Complexities of “Urban” Culture
The hip-hop and rap medium, like other musical genres, is also a broad medium. Rap formed near the end of the civil rights movement to communicate frustrations of continuing racial and societal injustices. Today, the medium has remained true to its roots. Listening to rap and hip-hop is entering into the mind of the oppressed. It is a cry for empathy.
Jason Petty (professionally known as Propaganda), a Christian, communicated the hope beautifully:
That Crimson Cord is one rope made from many strands
And each its own color, but now it clearly stands
Dyed the color red from our Savior’s blood shed
And a rope finds its strength from multiple lines wrapped
Around each other until they’re all perfectly intertwined
So let’s just call it even and walk through life knowing
That a Three Cord Bond is not easily broken
The concept is that a true society is strongest when the cultures of each person is able to contribute positively to society. The prayer is that everyone will be able to empathize with them. In this particular song, empathy is not a one-way street. Everyone—black, white, Hispanic, etc.,— lives within their own subculture, holding an equal respect for the subcultures of others. Empathy is the central point and the unifying cry.
The protests are, in fact, directly connected to this emotion and the healing the genre desires. The facts of the case are irrelevant because they are not protesting the decision; they are protesting the remaining oppression in our system. The lack of connections many people have because their families could not get in the door at most companies until recently. The fact most people in “urban” culture believe they cannot actualize their ideal because they don’t know anyone who has succeeded. To quote Derek Minor (f.k.a. PRo):
The only way our nation will heal is if people begin to empathize with one another. We don’t have to agree, but we can hear each other out. We don’t have to understand each other’s hurt, but we can be there to console one another.
Trip Lee, another rapper, echoed Derek Minor’s sentiments:
For my friends that don’t understand, please take the time to listen and sympathize. Being “quick to listen and slow to speak” is a mark of humility and maturity. Before you object, take a moment to hear from those who are hurting.
Nationally acclaimed rapper Lecrae spoke from his experiences:
Part of my testimony is how I was harassing people with a pellet gun as a 13yr old and was apprehended by police. But I’m still ALIVE! I wasn’t shot down. Those cops did a good job. One officer decided not to arrest me years ago but instead challenged me to get in my bible.
Thank God for His grace.
Conservatism and “Urban” Culture
The ironic conclusion of a thorough understanding of “urban” culture is it has a very conservative message. The idea of people living together and helping each other–regardless of race, religion, or creed–in a voluntarily constructed community is the ultimate hope of “urban” culture. The idea is not that a culture czar will maintain order because of lack of empathy within that society. Forced compliance is not justice. Justice is where everyone understands their neighbor’s scars and everyone voluntarily addresses them in a spirit of love. These scars transcend time and require everyone to recognize history. It requires every conservative to face the reality that some people still feel hurt and pain from things that happened during and before the civil rights movement. It requires every conservative to face the reality that some people still faced prejudice after the civil rights movement. It requires us to acknowledge that until people feel accepted, the legal reality is ultimately meaningless. Some things, to this conservative’s disdain, transcend datasets.
Often, conservatives replace this with ignorance of the past, as if ignoring the causes that led to the current state can magically change the reality. That thinking is counter-productive: it ignores the premises of the current cause of unrest.
Conservatives mirror Job’s friends in the worse way possible. We are asked to behave with empathy, like they first behaved:
11When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. 12When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. 13Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.
We skip this critical step, and instead go straight for their error. We attempt to explain their struggle, like Job’s friends attempted to explain Job’s struggles. All of Job’s friends eventually repented for giving their advice. When conservatives suggest that the way to success is ignoring your past and the pain you feel, and to transcend your situation like many people have throughout history, we are offering terrible advice.
The actual complaint is not that Mike Brown was a saint who was killed by an evil police officer and supported by evil officials. It is the evidence that everyone involved, including many of the social commentators, do not seem to feel their pain. It is not addressing the actual complaint, a lack of empathy, and it shows that we are not listening–which is further proof we lack empathy. A more proper action would be to stand by their side as they suffer, in calm reflection, weeping with them. Sadly, we all–including myself–ultimately fail at remembering this when we enter the realm of politics.
Conservatives, who often find themselves tied to datasets, statistics, literature, and economics more than most American subcultures, have good reason to support our policy propositions: these sources of authority ultimately provide a better long-term future and stability for all Americans. However, if we lack empathy, no one will trust us to use that data wisely. As time progresses, we will become irrelevant. The result of poorer policy decisions, which produce at best no change, is more demonization, more identity politics, and more division in America. If conservatives allow this to occur, as we appear to be allowing, than we will never have the opportunity to live out our ideas.