IN THE MOST talked-about black comedy performance since Eddie Murphy's "Raw," former "Saturday Night Live" star Chris Rock declares in his recent HBO special that there's "a war going on . . . black people versus niggas!"
In Takoma Park, in the heart of the Washington, D.C.-Prince Georges County black belt, Mr. Rock describes the two groups' divergent responses to the welfare bill passed by Congress. "Black people don't give a [expletive] about welfare; niggas are shaking in their boots!" Mr. Rock's monologue -- eliciting exuberant hoots and cries of "teach, brother," from an all-black crowd -- reflects what polling data from within the African-American community have said for years: The silent majority of black folk don't want welfare and its destructive effects.
In contrast to the rhetoric of the fiftysomething civil-rights leaders at the Democratic convention, you can hear a younger generation's rejection of "welfare culture" on the streets, in black newspapers, on black talk radio and in rap music.
Black female matriarchy
Take the lyrics from the recent hit single "If I Ruled The World," by Nas: "No welfare supporters/More conscious of the way we raise our daughters." Rap, for the most part, represents young black male anxiety over not just the white male patriarchy (police, racist employers, etc.) but also the black female matriarchy.
The misogyny articulated by the hip-hop generation comes from its marginalization by a welfare system that defines "family" as a woman with children and a check from AFDC or child support.
It's not just the demise of work in urban America that has alienated black men from the family-supporting and child-rearing positions they used to occupy with pride. It's a welfare/child-support system that has substituted for them. It's 30 years of black male dislocation that's moved us from the R&B; of 25 years ago -- "Ain't No Woman Like the One I've Got" -- to such lyrics as "Bitches Ain't Nuthin But Hoes and Tricks."
What are the responsibilities today for a 19-year-old male when his 18-year-old "shorty" becomes pregnant? Since Roe v. Wade (which some think black folk are too primitive to know about), the decision to bring a pregnancy to term is hers alone.
Once the child is born, according to most state paternity statutes, he has no rights to it (only the birth mother does). He does have immediate financial responsibilities for the mother and child, whether or not he marries her, even though black women are employed at a higher rate than black men.
What compelling reason does the 18-year-old woman have to marry this young man? Marriage will knock out the child-industrial complex she can enjoy, which can include AFDC, health benefits for her children, housing and energy assistance programs, day care, off-the-books employment such as baby-sitting, hair-weaving and backup singing, cash from new and old boyfriends, cash from her mother and relatives, cash and gifts from her homegirls.
I know of popular vocalists (men, for that matter, as well as women) who while still living in government-subsidized housing were making tens of thousands of dollars doing recordings, voice-overs and live performances. This "CREAM" scenario -- "Cash Rules Everything Around Me," in the words of the rappers Method Man and the Wu-Tang Clan -- is all these young men and women know. We have the money-for-nothing welfare mentality to thank for it.
The "African village"
For most black men from 1865 through 1965, it was a moral, ethical and spiritual relationship with their wives and their children that gave them the inner strength to fight racism and build their communities. Where marriages failed, the metaphorical "African village" of loving grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors stepped in. (Of the African-American women that I've dated over the past 17 years, I'd say 50 percent were raised by their grandparents.)
The boys and men devalued and replaced by the current welfare system have taken their dysfunction not only to the recording studio but to the streets as well.
According to a study in The Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency by Douglas A. Smith and G. Roger Jarjoura, titled "Social Structure and Criminal Victimization," single parenting correlates with violent crime much more strongly than does poverty alone. John Royster, accused of a terror spree resulting in one murder, a vicious rape in Central Park and two other attacks, told of a life where "he hated his mother" and "she hated him because he looked just like his biological father."
In 1960 (during the time of George Wallace and Lester Maddox), there were about 25,000 black men incarcerated in America, while 80 percent of black children were born to families with a married mother and father. Thirty-five years later, after Martin Luther King, busing, Black Power, Hendrix, Oprah, the Huxtables, the Congressional Black Caucus, Colin Powell, high-top fades and, sadly, 72 percent of black children being born to a single mother, I present these statistics:
Incarceration rate (1994) for white females: 50,700 inmates (60 per 100,000); for white males: 674,400 inmates (860 per 100,000); for black females: 52,000 inmates (435 per 100,000); for black males: 683,200 inmates (6,753 per 100,000).
Welfare: blow it up. Get rid of it. Americans deserve safety nets if the family is struck by unforeseen tragedy, not if the tragedy is by choice. Government should cease taking its political lead from spokespeople who couldn't run a successful lemonade stand in the Sahara Desert.
In 1978 there was no such thing as recorded rap music. Now it is a $2 billion entity, with dozens of young, black multi-millionaire businesspersons. The civil rights-big government coalition may spend the coming years fighting to restore the welfare/child-support system that this Congress and this president have taken apart. But, in other parts of the African-American community, we've moved on.
Bill Stephney is CEO of StepSun Music and the producer and co-creator of the rap group Public Enemy. This article first appeared in The New Republic.
Pub Date: 9/03/96