A few weeks back, hip hop blogger Jay Smooth offered a fascinating analysis of rapper Charles Hamilton on Illdoctrine.com. Hamilton is a newly famous, up-and-coming rapper—so respected, in fact, that XXL profiled him as one of their top ten rappers to watch out for in ‘09. He doesn’t even have a record out yet, but he’s been able to generate quite a bit of buzz from his exploitation of free Internet promotion.
Yet, Hamilton has found himself in a bit of a media backlash as of late. First, he lied about stealing another producer’s beat—a big no-no in the music business. He lost a few rap battles (badly) to some no-name fans, and was clowned pretty hard for it across the Internets. But nothing hurt his reputation worse than a video showing Mary J. Blige’s stepdaughter punch him in the face after he made a few insensitive remarks about her promiscuity. If things couldn’t get worse, Hamilton recently claimed that J.Dilla would be the executive producer of his forthcoming album (Dilla is dead), and embarrassed himself further after countless journalists and bloggers exposed his lie. Recent rumors suggest that his record label, Interscope, has released him from his contract as a result of these damaging blunders.
Jay’s take on the Hamilton’s repeated missteps is smart, astute, and grounded in his own personal experiences. See, Jay used to work with kids a lot like Hamilton—kids with tough exteriors, disadvantaged backgrounds, and limited views of the wider world. These kids would seek out negative attention, in large part a response to the negative attention they received growing up—be it from parents, teachers, or law enforcement. In short, these kids’ worldviews were shaped by the structure of their neighborhoods and family life.
Later that week, Jay applied this same analysis to the rapper C-Murder. A security surveillance tape recently surfaced showing C-Murder (ironically? predictably?) attempting to murder a room full of employees at a Baton Rouge, LA club. On his Saturday night radio show, Jay lamented the frustration he felt watching rappers devolve to petty street thugs, even after they had achieved widespread stardom. But, he understood where those behaviors came from: cultures of distrust that emerge from profound poverty and isolation.
Jay’s comments on Charles Hamilton and C-Murder point to a hot topic in the social sciences: the interplay between structural and cultural forces in shaping behavioral and material outcomes. Social scientists have long debated which social factors best explain income, incarceration, and health inequalities, and the debate has largely boiled down to two distinctive camps: those that rely on structural explanations—referring to an individual’s social position in institutions such as the economy, polity, and education—and those that prefer cultural explanations—referring to the effects of shared worldviews, outlooks, and behaviors among individuals that occupy the same neighborhoods or social networks. In other words, “structural” explanations relate inequality to an individual’s position in the economy, education system, or electorate, whereas “cultural” explanations relate inequality to the behaviors and worldviews an individual shares with his or her family, friends, and neighbors.
As Jay argues, Hamilton and C-Murder may come from cultures of distrust and dishonesty, but that’s in large part a symptom of the structural conditions of inner-city poverty. A group’s culture is tempered by their employment opportunities and access to mainstream models of success. And when everyone around you is also socially isolated from employment and other opportunities, a mutually reinforcing system of distrust persists, prompting folks to adopt certain behaviors frowned upon by so-called “mainstream” society. Moreover, in the absence of formal mechanisms of social control—you know, like police—residents are forced to develop alternative methods of social organization. Often, respect is gained through violence, as sociologist Elijah Anderson has argued with his concept “code of the street.” In short, cultural adaptations emerge from the conditions of poverty and racial segregation.
Yet, culture can also have a mind of its own, so to speak. Even when certain structural conditions are lifted—like when C-Murder finds himself out of the ghetto and with some cash in his pocket—his learned worldviews may remain. Sociologist William Julius Wilson addresses this idea with great clarity in his new book More than Just Race. Here, he discusses where “codes of the street” come from, and how they persist:
Even though these codes emerge under conditions of poverty and racial segregation, once developed they display a degree of autonomy in the regulation of behavior. The behavior generated by these autonomous cultural forces often reinforces the very conditions that have emerged from structural inequities.In many respects, Hamilton’s antics are an adaptation, or response to the conditions of his childhood. But his behavior is also an autonomous force that limits his future opportunities. The same goes for C-Murder. His decision to shoot up a room full of people comes from a lifetime of experiences that taught him to equate violence with highly coveted respect in the streets. But such actions have shifted both Hamilton and C-Murder’s structural positions: Hamilton got dropped from his record label, and C-Murder is looking at serious jail time.
The cases of Charles Hamilton and C-Murder are illustrative of the long-lasting effects of structural inequities—the durable, longitudinal, and cumulative nature of inequality. The ramifications of under-funded schools, inadequate social services, decrepit housing and pervasive violence lasts generations. Accumulated disadvantage, as a result, may affect individual-level behavior long after structural barriers are lifted. But that doesn’t suggest we should blame individuals for “dysfunctional” culture; it simply means that inequality is nested in the structural arrangements of stratified American institutions.
Most Americans might be quick to blame black, “ghetto” culture for Hamilton’s missteps and C-Murder’s violent behavior. You can take the rapper out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of the rapper. It’s an easy answer, but an overly simple one. In reality, there’s a complex and complicated interaction between structural and cultural forces in shaping individual-level behaviors, worldviews, and life chances. The effects of poverty and inequality don’t just disappear when a rapper gets his first paycheck, nor do they dissolve once he buys a new house in a new neighborhood. Taking the rapper out of the ghetto leaves the physical ghetto intact. And it is this structural reality—not the resulting cultural responses—that represents the root of the problem.