Rap imagery, Trayvon Martin and why Bill O’Reilly is half right

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Is it me, or does it feel like open season on the black community?

Just weeks after the George Zimmerman verdict wreaked emotional havoc, causing many African-Americans to question whether American society truly values the lives of young black men, Bill O’Reilly of Fox News verbally attacked black America. O’Reilly’s diatribe effectively blamed the ills facing black America on out-of-wedlock pregnancies, absent fathers, poor parenting and popular black rappers.

To add insult to injury, our very own Don Lemon’s only criticism of Bill O’Reilly is that O’Reilly did not go far enough.  In addition to wholeheartedly supporting O’Reilly, Lemon seemed to suggest that, if African-Americans would simply pull their pants up, stop using the n-word, stop littering, finish school and stop having babies out of wedlock, then there would be no more racial disparities and all African-Americans would live happily ever after. Both O’Reilly and Lemon seem shocked that their comments have caused outrage.

RELATED: Don Lemon and the rage of a privileged class

Who would disagree with encouraging marriage, responsible parenting, higher education, lack of use of racial epithets, cleanliness and concealment of underwear?  I certainly would not.  But what Lemon and O’Reilly fail to understand is how infuriating it is that they have failed to acknowledge how structural racism impacts the current reality of African-Americans.

What Bill O’Reilly gets very wrong

O’Reilly lambastes black single mothers and defends the mass incarceration of black men that has rendered them single.  But according to Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking work The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the mass incarceration of black men through the war on drugs has little to do with drugs and much to do with racial oppression.

According to her research, the war on drugs was initiated during a time of declining drug use. Plus, drug use among young whites is both more prevalent and more debilitating than drug use among black youths, a finding substantiated by a 2011 study. This study, based on interviews with 72,561 adolescents, found that 39 percent of white teens reported using drugs, as opposed to 32 percent of blacks. It also found that 9 percent of whites versus five percent of blacks interviewed suffered from a substance abuse disorder. The study included the use of prescription drugs as well as so-called “street drugs.”

Yet, “Black youth are arrested for drug crimes at a rate ten times higher than that of whites,” writes Time.com journalist Maia Szalavitz about how drug crimes are prosecuted.

Alexander theorizes that the image of black urban drug abuse as the reason for the war on drugs was just a ruse to retrench the gains won by African-Americans during the civil rights era. Sadly, it appears to have worked.

Stigma appears to be wide-reaching

The large numbers of African-Americans convicted of drug crimes has given birth to an under-caste of darker-skinned Americans who are often discriminated against with respect to voting, housing, employment and much more.  Further, because the rate of HIV among people in prison is five to seven times higher than the general population, the mass incarceration of African-Americans has contributed to a major health crisis in the black community.

Unfortunately, even for those African-American males who do not find themselves on the wrong side of the law, prospects are not so rosy. A 2008 Princeton University experiment in which white men and black men were sent out to look for jobs with identical resumes and, in a few cases, phony criminal records, revealed the following. The experiments were conducted in Milwaukee, WI and New York City.

“Among those with no criminal record, white applicants were more than twice as likely to receive a callback relative to equally qualified black applicants. Even more troubling, whites with a felony conviction fared just as well, if not better, than a black applicant with a clean background,” the authors of the study report. “The young black men posing as job applicants in this study were bright college kids, models of discipline and hard work; and yet, even in this best case scenario, these applicants were routinely overlooked simply on the basis of the color of their skin. The results of this study suggest that black men must work at least twice as hard as equally qualified whites simply to overcome the stigma of their skin color.”

What Bill O’Reilly and Don Lemon get right

Bill O’Reilly and Don Lemon are irresponsible for failing to acknowledge this evidence.  But they are right about the danger of the images of black men popularized in much of popular rap.

O’Reilly states that black rappers who rhyme about dealing drugs and perpetuating violence get rich while the kids who “emulate their lyrics and attitude destroy themselves.” Indeed, many black, hip-hop artists and their predominately white-run record labels and associates have made billions by promoting and glamorizing an image of young African-American men as criminals.

If we want to be honest about what contributed to Trayvon’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal, we have to confront that.

Zimmerman might have referred to Trayvon as a “punk” during his non-emergency call to authorities on the night of the shooting in part because of the dominant images of young black men in rap, who are portrayed as drug dealers willing to protect their trade with violence. Yes, he expressed concerns about previous robberies in his community. Previous reports were that they were allegedly committed by black men, but why would he project the acts of those individuals on Martin?

Consider this: if Trayvon had been the same gender and age, but white or Asian, Zimmerman might not have been concerned by his presence. If Trayvon had been the same age and color, but female, the deadly incident probably would not have happened. The teen likely would not have been perceived as a threat, and Zimmerman might not have trailed him in his car. If Trayvon had been sixty years older, Zimmerman might have offered Trayvon a helping hand, if he thought an older black man was wandering in the area “lost.”

An image impacts reality

But the dominant media image of a black male between the ages of fourteen and forty is that of a criminal to be feared. I believe that this is what made it easier for Zimmerman to assume Martin was similar to others who had robbed homes where he lived. It is a perception that rap has helped perpetuate.

It is this fear that the Zimmerman defense could rely on. In picking jurors, the defense’s jury consultant Robert Hirschhorn said that they picked women because they would more easily understand the fear that George Zimmerman said he felt when he shot Trayvon Martin. I believe that the fear the defense wanted the jurors to empathize with is the fear of black boys and men, glamorized in the criminal image they hold in popular rap.

Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s lead defense attorney, also used images of Trayvon that appeared to dovetail with a “thug” image to characterize Martin as dangerous. These were mere pictures, rather than substantial evidence based on the actual character of the deceased teen. Deflecting focusing from the kindness evidenced by Trayvon’s treatment of his friend Rachel Jeantel, O’Mara showed the jury blown-up images of Trayvon shirtless, in a baseball cap, and brought up evidence suggesting that he had used drugs — all tropes from popular rap.

RELATED: Rachel Jeantel talks Travyon Martin, Don West (and ‘haters’) with theGrio

The strategy appears to have worked. Zimmerman was acquitted of charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter, and one juror said that she would actually feel comfortable having Zimmerman on her neighborhood watch, presumably to protect her from the dangers posed by certain black boys and men.