Shortly after Julie and I moved to South Gate the movie Straight Outta Compton hit theaters. Having grown up on NWA, I decided that the only appropriate thing for me to do was watch Straight Outta Compton in Compton (only a few minutes away). Problem was, as one church member from Compton quickly informed me, there wasn’t a movie theater in Compton–not a single movie theater. Wait what? Yeah, that’s right. That meant that anybody from Compton who wanted to watch the movie had to go straight outta Compton to see it!
When I finally did see the movie–in Long Beach–I was struck by the fact that the members of NWA weren’t so much gangsters as they were artists protesting the struggles of young black men in America. As a kid, I didn’t pick up on that as much. It began to dawn on me—even though I’ve been able to quote the lyrics to “_ _ _ _ the Police” since I was as an angry white teenager, I still had a lot to learn about what they actually meant. This was a wake-up call. For me, as a follower of Christ seeking to love my neighbors as myself, I was going to have to start really listening to them and trying to understand their struggles from their point of view.
In the aftermath of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, Harvard professor Cornel West wrote the book Race Matters. He argues that we are living in one of the “most frightening moments in the history of [the United States of America].” Historically, democracies tend to be rare and short-lived because they are undermined by two factors—poverty and paranoia. Poverty generates despair and paranoia gives rise to distrust. West contends:
Race is the most explosive issue in American life precisely because it forces us to confront the tragic facts of poverty and paranoia, despair and distrust… the degree to which race matters in the plight and predicament of fellow citizens is a crucial measure of whether we can keep alive the best of this democratic experiment we call America.
Serious public dialogue about the role of race in American society, in West’s view, must to be reframed because the current conversation fails to comprehensively address the issue. The bottom line for West is that, for liberals, black people are to be “included” and “integrated” into “our” society, and for conservatives, black people need to learn how to behave in a manner that gains them acceptance into “our” society. In both views, black people are implicitly understood to be outsiders to American life rather than essential elements of that life. He wants to expose and then talk about how race really functions in America.
West offers two key insights for understanding what’s going on: First, nihilism is at the core of the current crisis in black America; second, unchecked market-driven capitalism tears down the buffers to nihilism. Before we stop listening and dismiss West as just some kind of communist (how dare he offer a critique of our economic system!) let’s remember that our economic system is just another human system—The Wealth of Nations is not the 67th book of the Evangelical Scriptures. Surely our economic system has flaws! What if West is right about one? We’ll have to keep listening with an open mind to find out.
West defines nihilism as, “the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.” Humanity in general grapples with the problem of nihilism; as far back as the days of king Solomon people realized that life seems meaningless; the writer of Ecclesiastes writes, “meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.” West argues that contemporary, consumer-driven, American culture has devastated any sense of hope or meaning the black community once had (more will be said about this below). This is a critical issue because, “without hope there can be no future… without meaning there can be no struggle.”
West describes culture as, “what human beings create… in order to convince themselves not to commit suicide.” As shocking as his rhetoric is, he may have valid point here. What else is human culture but a human project that attempts to fabricate some sense of meaning, value, and purpose for those who share it? While it can certainly be argued that contemporary American consumer-culture is toxic for all Americans (and I would argue that it is), it is especially toxic for African-Americans. Consumer-driven capitalism has eroded and failed to replace the institutions that granted and sustained hope and meaning in the black community for centuries—institutions such as the once vibrant and influential black church. West contends that corporate marketing institutions have a disproportionate amount of wealth and power and exercise a disproportionate influence on how culture is shaped in America. Their prime motivation is to make profits and their basic strategy is to convince Americans to consume. When hope and meaning are tied to one’s ability to consume, where will those who do not have the means to consume find hope and meaning? West concludes:
Like all Americans, African Americans are influenced greatly by the images of comfort, convenience, machismo, femininity, violence, and sexual stimulation that bombard consumers. These seductive images contribute to the predominance of the market-inspired way of life over all others and thereby edge out nonmarket values—love, care, service to others—handed down by preceding generations. The predominance of this way of life among those living in poverty-ridden conditions, with a limited capacity to ward off self-contempt and self-hatred, results in the possible triumph of the nihilistic threat in black America.
West offers an intriguing perspective. Has American market-driven capitalism and consumer culture disproportionately oppressed and impoverished African-Americans? Before Rap music sold-out to the consumer-culture and began reinforcing the nihilistic cycle, rap artists used to regularly confirm West’s views from the streets. Anthony Criss, better known by his stage name “Treach” of Naughty by Nature, writes:
A ghetto bastard, born next to the projects
Livin’ in the slums with bums I said now why Treach
Do I have to be like this, mama said I’m priceless
So I am, I’m worthless, starvin’, that’s just what being nice gets
Sometimes I wish I could afford a pistol then though
To stop the hell, I woulda ended things a while ago
I ain’t have jack, but a black hat and knap-sack
War scars, stolen cars and a blackjack
Drop that, and now you want me to rap and give
Say something positive, well positive ain’t where I live
I live right around the corner from west hell
Two blocks from south shit, and once in a jail cell
The sun never shine on my side of the street see
And only once or twice a week I would speak
I walked alone, my state of mind was home sweet home
I couldn’t keep a girl, they wanted kids and cars with chrome
Some life, if you ain’t wearin’ gold, your style was old
And you got more juice and dope for every bottle sold
Hell no, I say there’s gotta be a better way
But hey, never gamble in a game that you can’t play
I’m gonna flaunt it, gonna know when, know when and not now
How will I do it, how will I make it, I won’t, that’s how
Why me huh? (Ghetto Bastard, 1991)
I’ve been able to quote Treach’s lyrics ever since I was as a kid too. I suspect I might still have something to learn about what they mean as well.
My faith in Christ moves me to listen to, learn from, and show love for my neighbors–especially for those who struggle. I plan to keep working on that.