Introduction: Rhetoric, Race, and Gangsta Rap in the War-on-Crime Era
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Introduction Rhetoric, Race, and Gangsta Rap in the War-­ on-­ Crime Era While the United States has always, to one degree or another, waged war against crime, the period comprising the late 1980s and 1990s was a watershed of racialized moral panic regarding the perceived threats that crimi­ nality posed to civil society.1 At that time, politicians in both the Republican and Democratic Parties increasingly staked their po­liti­cal destinies on their capacity to be “tough on crime” by pursuing unprecedentedly harsh penal policies that led to staggering increases in the nation’s prison population. Activists of­ten refer to the resulting network of tough-­ on-­ crime policies, sensationalistic rhetorics of fear, and private corporate interests as the prison-­industrial complex. Po­liti­cal leaders and culture warriors justified such policies by enlisting a range of rhe­ tori­ cal strategies that almost always appealed to pub­ lic fears of racialized bodies and communities . Young black men were distinctly singled out as a threat to civilization in need of constant surveillance and frequent confinement.2 This cultural politics of law and order delivered staggering electoral fortunes to those officials who staked their po­liti­cal capital on their predominantly white voting base’s fears of a savage, racialized crimi­ nal threat. However, the devastating collateral consequences of the war on crime are manifest to this day. As I write, the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its adult population than any other nation on earth. Increasingly, states and the federal government are coming to terms with the cold truth that the overcrowding of prisons places paralyzing strains on government budgets and violates many inmates’ human and civil rights. Furthermore, while the nation’s prison population has increased by 500 percent since the 1970s, such growth does not correspond to fluc- 2 / Introduction tuations in crime rates. A recent study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that more than three-­ quarters of prisoners released in thirty states were arrested again within five years. This is in no small part attributable to the fact that individuals with prison rec­ords experience what legal scholar Gabriel Chin describes as civil death; they are of­ten denied employment, lose their right to vote, and are generally stigmatized in spite of even the sincerest efforts to reenter society. In short, the Ameri­ can prison sys­ tem is an unmitigated disaster.3 While the prison-­industrial complex impacts all Ameri­cans in important ways, the racial dimensions of mass incarceration are particularly troubling. Accord­ing to the Pew Center on the States study that reported the United States’ status as the world’s leading jailer, ethnic minorities remain particularly vulnerable to imprisonment today. For instance, one in thirty-­ six Latinos ages eighteen or older are behind bars, whereas one in fifteen black men of the same age group are incarcerated (compared to one in 106 white men). The study also found that the nation imprisons one of every nine black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-­ four. While the United States imprisons fewer women than men, similar racial disparities exist among female inmates.4 Studies of capital punishment reveal that cases involving white victims are significantly more likely to result in a death sentence than those involving a minority victim, suggesting that prosecutors and juries are less sympathetic toward victims of color.5 Furthermore, in her highly influential book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander documents the numerous ways incarceration haunts ethnic minorities after their release. A conviction for even a nonviolent felony virtually erases one’s job prospects; limits access to welfare, student loans, and other services; and, in most states, results in a temporary or permanent loss of voting rights. Because black Ameri­cans are so overrepresented in the prison system, the collateral consequences of mass incarceration on black communities are especially damaging. As I demonstrate in the following pages, the prison-­ industrial complex in particular and the cultural politics of crimi­ nality in the United States in general are fundamentally racialized.6 The Mark of Criminality: Rhetoric, Race, and Gangsta Rap in the War-­ on-­ Crime Era attends to the rhe­ tori­ cal dynamics that helped fig­ ure blackness as an inherently crimi­ nal category in Ameri­ can pub­ lic discourse. Carol Stabile writes, “No other ethnic or racial group has been singled out for the wholesale criminalization to which Af­ ri­ can Ameri­ cans have been subjected during the last...