Murder Was the Case

Matthew Birkhold
August 22, 2007

According to the Sunday, May 27 New York Times, Rodney Jones, 38, was killed in a drive-by shooting that, according to Stuyvesant-Heights community members, was in retaliation for breaking up a fight between groups of black youth. Apparently, Mr. Jones told the young men that their fighting was "senseless and meaningless" and that "they'd end up in jail" if they did not disperse.

On April 23, in Newark, according to the Times, the first of three homicides that week took place when "a fight among a group of girls ended with a 16-year-old boy putting three slugs into a 32-year-old former felon who may or may not have had a role in the melee."

In Philadelphia, increasingly known as Killadelphia, where, to quote local slang, "there are more dead bodies than days," there were more than 250 murders as of Aug. 7. Around the country murder rates are higher than they have been since the days of "crack fever" but fewer of the murders are drug-related. According to Philadelphia social justice activist and youth counselor Jay Woodson, increasingly youth murders are crimes of passion. Therefore, a link between the construction of masculinity and the emergence of murder as a way to prove manhood is worth examination.

Be a man

Men are constantly trying to prove their manhood. To do so they play sports, spend money or drive big cars; in order to feel empowered some degrade women and gay men. Others participate in violence. Antisexist activist John Stoltenberg has suggested that men's patriarchal desire to prove their manhood is often a betrayal of who they really are. Tupac Shakur once said that growing up he didn't feel like a man because he could cook and clean but didn't feel hard.

From a young age most men don't feel "hard" -- male slang for tough, impenetrable or stoic -- yet feel like they should. Consequently, they learn to deny whatever emotions they feel and may also refuse to participate in activities such as theater or ballet, even if they want to, because they don't make us feel "hard." Many men spend entire lives trying to prove their manhood, hurting others in the process.

W.E.B. Du Bois' 1935 classic text Black Reconstruction suggests that white men joined the Ku Klux Klan in what could be called the post-slavery origins of white supremacist patriarchal capitalism, to terrorize, lynch, and kill black men to keep them from entering the labor market. Consequently, white men secured jobs and the ability to provide for their families, which proved their manhood.

From Reconstruction until WWII, American history is filled with white-initiated race riots that resulted from black efforts to compete with white men for jobs and thereby limit white men's ability to provide and be men. Because of black exclusion from jobs, black unemployment rates have always been at least twice as high as whites. This has led many scholars to argue that African Americans have historically lived with gender roles different from whites.

Things done changed

By 1985 crack cocaine had begun to impact black communities in an unparalleled fashion. In 1983 there were 450 cocaine-related emergency room admissions in Detroit. By 1987, thanks to the introduction of crack, the number jumped to 3,811. With a 60 percent young black male unemployment rate, selling crack provided an opportunity to earn gross sums of money during the late 1980s. Because the sums of money were so gross, violence was often used to acquire and protect it.

From 1986 to 1993, the national murder rate for black men aged 18-24 increased from 109 per 100,000 to 184.1, while it jumped from 27.1 to 77.3 per 100,000 for black men aged 14-17. This unprecedented violence wad accomplished through an increase in the number of guns in the streets. According to Woodson, who commonly deals with violent offenders, the fact that crack-associated violence was seldom committed by individuals, but instead by black semi-organized crime groupings, has important repercussions.

Come test me, I never cower

According to Woodson, in the wake of crack and the U.S. military occupation of Iraq, Americans have become less sensitive to violence and black-on-black murder. According to him, this has an important influence on manhood for the youth he counsels. Woodson says that the crack-generated money and violence produced an influence of organized crime culture in black communities and facilitated the breakdown of historically important black cultural institutions.

"Organized crime has influenced working class adolescent or youth culture enough that the majority of youth accept the idea of no snitching. If people want to get away with a crime, they are protected by that street code," said Woodson via telephone. According to him, violent crime is often an expression of masculinity. After a confrontation, "Their ego can't deal with the fact that other people see them as being chumps or a coward, and they go into this mental space where they react in a violent way and perhaps get incarcerated or become the victim of retribution."

Importantly, the "gangsta masculinity" described by Woodson is not indicative of black pathology. Instead, according to bell hooks, because gangsta culture celebrates the material "dog-eat-dog world where you do what you gotta do to make it, even if it means fucking over folks and taking them out," it mimics the world of corporate America and is actually a crude expression of what she calls "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy."

One day it will all make sense

With a great deal of recent conversation concerning "a lost generation of black boys," gangsta culture, a consequence of patriarchal socialization combined with the impact of crack on black communities, proves that patriarchy is not only damaging to others but also to the men that practice it.

According to Vibe reporter John Kennedy, the recent Black Male in America conference was uniquely important because pleased-to-meet you smiles there replaced "ice grills" on the faces of black men that result from what Kennedy describes as the constant competition black males engage in with one another. Such conferences are powerful examples of challenging white supremacist patriarchal socialization that men of all races must learn from and take to our respective communities.


Matt Birkhold is a writer, educator, and editor of Elements: The Monthly Publication of the National Hip Hop Political Convention. He lives in Brooklyn and can be reached at birkhold AT gmail DOT com.


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According to Woodson, in the wake of crack and the U.S. military occupation of Iraq, Americans have become less sensitive to violence and black-on-black murder. According to him, this has an important influence on manhood for the youth he counsels. Woodson says that the crack-generated money and violence produced an influence of organized crime culture in black communities and facilitated the breakdown of historically important black cultural institutions.<br />
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