As I See It

Thug Culture Is a Cancer Destroying Black America

We know where yo' family live

Trust me you don't want me up in yo' crib

Wit' a ski mask on duct taping your kids

You can pray all you want

But I don't forgive

-- from "Hurt," by T.I., featuring Alfamega and Busta Rhymes

Clifford Harris Jr. would have been celebrated last Saturday night at the BET Hip-Hop Awards, had he made it to the ceremony. Instead, he was in police custody, charged with illegal possession of firearms.

The young rapper could have stood before a cheering audience in downtown Atlanta and accepted his award for Best CD of the Year, had he steered clear of machine guns and silencers. Instead, he was handcuffed, fingerprinted, photographed, incarcerated.

Harris -- whose stage name is T.I. -- should be riding the wave of his incredible success, enjoying freedom, fame and fortune. Instead, he's looking at the prospect of several years in prison. He was arrested Saturday afternoon after he was allegedly caught trying to take possession of the weapons from his bodyguard, who was apparently cooperating with authorities. Already a convicted crack dealer, Harris faces a potentially lengthy sentence.

Somewhere along the way, a cadre of young black men and women began glorifying violence, misogyny and thuggery, accepting incarceration as inevitable, resigning themselves to lives on the margins of mainstream society. They created a thug culture that has been commodified -- celebrated in music and movies, sold to poor adolescents in wretched neighborhoods as well as affluent teenagers in upscale communities.

But the violence isn't just playacting; it's not just teenagers trying on a rebellious facade. Young adults -- many of them men, most of them black -- get arrested. They go to prison. They die on the streets.

There is now a cottage industry dedicated to defending rap music, a group of enablers who glorify hard-core rap as a legitimate art form reflecting the bitter real-life experiences of ghetto inhabitants. But I have no patience for the academic exegeses. This so-called music and the lifestyle it glorifies is a malignancy destroying black America. What does it take for mothers and fathers, ministers and teachers, music executives and TV moguls to turn it off?

Plus I got a hundred goons wit me

Dressed in black

Fifty at the front door, fifty at the back

Half got 'Ks (AK-47s), half got macs (Mac 10s)

-- from "Hurt"

Last year, T.I. attended the funeral of Philant Johnson, 26, his best friend and personal assistant, who was shot dead in a gun battle among moving cars on I-75 near Cincinnati. Police said the gunfire followed an argument involving unidentified locals and T.I.'s entourage at a Cincinnati nightclub. If Harris had regrets about Johnson's death, they apparently didn't manifest as pacifism. He kept a small arsenal at his Atlanta home, according to police.

The criminal justice system -- notorious for grinding black men down -- gave the young rapper T.I. a second chance after he was convicted for selling cocaine. Not only has he launched a highly successful music career, but he has also won notice as an actor. He has a role in the new movie "American Gangster," starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.

But given that second chance, what did Harris do? If he had machine guns, as police say, at whom did he intend to point them?

Homicide is the leading cause of death among black men between the ages of 15 and 30. And it is a fratricidal enterprise. Young black men are killed by other young black men.

If white entertainers were making millions singing about the slaughter of black men and mistreatment of black women, city streets would clog with protesters. Demonstrators would pack the halls of Congress. Commerce would grind to a halt as black activists demanded boycotts. But somehow, the violence and misogyny of T.I., 50 Cent and Nelly are less inflammatory.

Yes, a lot of their music is purchased by white consumers, as a lot of it is marketed by white executives. But blaming The Man seems shallow and irresponsible when black Americans are abetting their own destruction.

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