Conclusion: A Politics of Criminality?
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Conclusion A Politics of Criminality? Niggas been dyin’ for years, so how could they blame us? —Tupac Shakur His hoodie killed Trayvon Martin as surely as George Zimmerman did. —Geraldo Rivera The mark of crimi­ nality is an affectively charged generic regime of discourses about blackness that possesses formal consistencies and strongly malleable characteristics . During the late 1980s and 1990s, an emerging form of music called gangsta rap appropriated the mark of crimi­nality in the successful pursuit of staggering monetary gain. In the process, gangsta artists and producers also, and of­ten unwittingly, participated in a discursive battle over the meanings of race, gender, and crimi­ nality during the war-­ on-­ crime era that closed the twentieth century. Reading gangsta rap in such terms enables not only a more nuanced approach to a long-­ maligned form of black vernacular expression but also reveals the war on crime was a far more complex period in Ameri­ can pub­ lic culture than many scholarly accounts suggest. This has been the central argument of my book. If I have convinced readers of this, one could conclude that I have done my job. However, over two million adults remain behind bars in the United States and disproportionate amounts of them are ­ people of color. What, then, are we to do with these insights? To what extent do they enable new visions of antiprison activism that can resist the warehousing of black and brown bodies in America’s jails and prisons? More broadly, what is the proper po­liti­cal role of scholarship, rhe­tori­cal or otherwise? How do we determine if scholarship is sufficiently engaged? Is it enough to publish work that produces and refines criti­cal vocabularies? Is the scholarly monograph itself a salient site of criti­ cal reflexivity of­ten unavailable amid the tumult of po­ liti­ cal activism? Or should we long to make our work speak directly to social problems and translate into concrete po­ liti­ cal practice?1 While I do not presume to offer unequivocal positions on the po­ liti­ cal efficacy of my work, I subsequently describe where my reading of gangsta rap in particular , and the mark of crimi­nality in general, may lead us. Specifically, I outline 114 / Conclusion what I believe a politics of crimi­ nality might do. To this end, I advance three topoi: crimi­ nal imaginaries, hip-­ hop activism, and repoliticizing crime. By attending to the ways communities of struggle reckon with the meanings of crimi­ nality, how hip-­ hop and other domains of cultural production can deploy the mark of crimi­nality to more explicitly po­liti­cal ends, and the perils and promises of finding emancipatory potential in the crimi­ nal act as such, it becomes clearer how complicating the cultural history of crimi­ nality can inform criti­ cal praxis. Criminal Imaginaries In 1989, Charles Stuart (a white businessman from the affluent Boston suburb of Reading) told police that a black man with a raspy voice carjacked him and his wife in Boston. Stuart sustained a gunshot wound to the abdomen and his pregnant wife died from a bullet to the head. Several months later, police concluded Stuart had murdered his wife, and he committed suicide before they could make an arrest.2 Five years later, white South Carolina resident and married mother of two Susan Smith told police an armed black man wearing a wool cap forced her from her car and drove off with her two young sons, Michael and Alex. For over a week, law enforcement, friends and family, and local and national media searched earnestly for the boys and the anonymous black man who abducted them. Smith eventually confessed to murdering her own sons.3 During the 2008 US presidential election, Ashley Todd, a white campaign worker for Republi­ can nominee John McCain, carved a reverse letter B onto her right cheek and told police a black male supporter of Af­ ri­ can Ameri­ can Democratic candidate Barack Obama was responsible. The story collapsed two days later as Todd confessed to mutilating herself and contriving the story in hopes that it would hurt Obama’s campaign.4 While these events differ in important respects, all share a common, fictitious suspect: a black man. Furthermore, if for only a fleeting moment, the true culprit’s families and friends, law enforcement, and, crucially, local and national media sought this “black man” who existed only in their collective imaginaries of crimi­nality. By imaginaries, I am referring...


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