Monday, February 18, 2013

“Who’s Your Daddy:” Our Creeping Cultural Crisis

The other day my wife and I pulled into a gas station where several others were already fueling up.  From all appearances, they were “good-ol’-boys”, friendly southern White folks who have risen above the old historically offensive and racially charged “redneck” culture.  Good-ol’-boys are light-hearted about their own culture and appreciate the cultures of others.  As we filled our tanks, an African American fella pulled up in his ‘hoopty’, gangsta rap booming so loud that it distorted his speakers.  With pants sagging, he promptly left his car with the ground shaker blasting, leaving the rest of us in the noise that required us to shout to be heard.  Everyone at the pumps was similarly affected and annoyed.

As we left the gas station with our ears ringing, my wife commented, “the ol’ redneck culture meets its progeny.”  (I’ll explain this in a bit.)  This incident caused the memory of Lil’ Wayne’s tasteless and insolent lyrics from "Future's Karate Chop" to intrude into my mind: "I’m gonna pop a lot of pills / [then] beat that p***y up like Emmett Till…" – disgusting.

The door was opened for this kind of madness when gansta rap with obscene lyrics was allowed to propagate openly under the cover of “Blackness.”  In 1990, Dr. Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr. successfully defended 2 Live Crew’s lyrics in “Nasty As They Wanna Be” against Florida’s obscenity charges.  He justified their lewdness as "great humor, great joy, and great boisterousness….”, “a joke” and “a parody” – “one of the most venerated forms of art.”  Gates portrayed this smut as an “exuberant use of hyperbole,” implying that “anyone fluent in [Black] cultural codes” should not be offended.  In other words, to take offense at these obscene lyrics brings into question one’s authenticity and renders an African American an “oreo.”

This led to a flood of gangsta-rap CDs containing similar lyrics.  The influence of this so-called musical genre has been a contributing factor to a growing African American cultural crisis. 

So ... what does this have to do with the ol’ redneck culture?  Plenty.

The roots of this crisis do not go back to Africa, but to the old South.  Few of us remember this, but at at one time, the dominant influence in the old South was a chaotic culture that came from pre-18th Century regions of the British Isles, namely, 1) the Scottish highlands, 2) the “midlands” – the anarchic region between England and Scotland and 3) what is now Northern Ireland.  Before the formation of the United Kingdom, these regions were unstable, lawless, violent and uncontrollable.  Most southern Whites can trace their roots back to these regions.

They arrived in the American South with this chaotic culture in tow, and the result was the ol’ southern “redneck” culture.  The values of this culture produced self-sabotaging, self-destructive behavior patterns, including: drunkenness, gang formation, “talkin’ trash”, a scornful attitude toward education and boisterous exhibitionism, to name a few.  These rednecks spent their energies on useless bling; wealth was used primarily for conspicuous consumption and reckless pursuits of pleasure and excitement. 1

A cavalier attitude toward marriage and family was a major component of the ol’ redneck culture, and instant sexual gratification led to single moms and fatherless children becoming the rule, rather than the exception.  When Africans arrived in chains, having been stripped of their native culture, many ended up absorbing much of this ol’ redneck culture.  This partly explains the plantation phenomenon of the “stud” that sired children but never fathered them.  Of course, many slaves never fully absorbed this chaotic culture.  As a result they continued to value marriage and family in spite of the hostile cultural and economic forces that surrounded them. 2

After emancipation, many African Americans who were devastated by the ol’ redneck culture eventually rose above it.  They became what I call “achievers.”  The values that governed their lives included: valuing work as a means of getting ahead, delayed gratification for the sake of a better future and goal orientation involving planning.  Those who participated in the great northern migration generally succeeded in spite of racial discrimination in housing and employment.

However those who continued to wallow in the ol’ redneck culture became what I call “non-achievers.”  Unlike the achievers, they generally did not succeed when they migrated to the urban North.  Thus, for many non-achievers, the ol’ redneck culture morphed into what we now recognize as “ghetto culture.”  The values that governed their lives included devaluing work as a means of getting ahead, instant gratification with a disregard for the future, and crisis orientation with no planning.

These cultures have produced two distinctly different outlooks on life.  For example, because achievers tend to see their role as contributing to society and earning its respect, they tend to see non-achiever values as a hindrance and self-destructive behavior as irresponsible.  Conversely, because non-achievers tend to see their role as critiquing society and demanding its respect, they tend to see achiever values as oppressive and self-destructive behavior as purely the fault of society.  Achievers tend to see social justice in terms of equal opportunity, while non-achievers tend to see it only in terms of equal outcomes.

These are only a few examples of the achiever/non-achiever clash of values and cultures.  Incidentally, the wild regions of the British Isles and the American South have largely risen above the old chaotic cultures – leaving the culture that produced the trash of Lil’ Wayne’s ilk as the strongest surviving offspring.

Contrary to popular assumptions, the achiever/non-achiever divide is ultimately determined by value systems, not by economic status or character.  In other words, not all poor people are non-achievers, nor are all who are middle class and above achievers; achievers and non-achievers alike have good and bad characters.  Take a look at Wall Street’s recent ethical failures – the irresponsible pursuit of greed that led to the financial meltdown, and you get the idea.

While achievers make up the overwhelming majority of African-Americans, too often the corporate media establishment continues to grow wealthy by trying to pimp us – presenting us with a non-achiever face.  The huge African American outcry and disgust over the recent threatened Oxygen network broadcast featuring rapper Shawty Lo and his 11 kids by 10 ‘baby-mamas’ was a prime example of the cultural dissonance triggered by this kind of illegitimate portrayal.  In the show’s trailer, his ‘baby-mamas’ talk about their situation as if it is normal.  To make matters worse, not even Shawty Lo himself could remember the names of all his kids.

In the Lil’ Wayne incident, we see the irony come full circle: the misogyny of the ol’ redneck culture toward African Americans reflected in public vulgarity of the very ones the Civil Rights Movement was supposed to benefit – I see this as a great regression.

Lil' Wayne and Shawty Lo, who’s your cultural daddy?  You don't really know, do you? Psalm 85:10 says, “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other.”  But for you and those who idolize you, ‘self-sabotaging and self-destructive behaviors meet together; the ol’ redneck values and the misogyny of nihilism have casually hooked up’ – and the rest is becoming history.

Could it be that in the minds of many, authentic Blackness is now measured by ol’ style ‘redneck-ness?’

Looks like a creeping cultural crisis to me.
1 McWhiney, G. (1988). Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.
2 Fischer, D. (1989). Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


  1. Wow. All I can say is wow! This article totally makes sense, and as dark as the subject is, it gives hope too, that no matter how many (Black and White) suffer from and sadly, succumb to social evil, good still seems to keep bubbling back to the top. I am just so impressed with how right on spot you are. Will definitely follow.

    This from a good-ol'-Southern girl. Believe it or not, many of your white counterparts continue to suffer from the stereotypical redneck image. Some of them wear it like a badge. :(

    Thanks. I will follow.

  2. I'm not sure that the divide is as simple and bipolar as you have put it here though what you have written merits consideration. Within the different White subcultures from the old South were the themes of oppression and domination. In other words, we need to give abuse its proper due with respect to today's subcultures

    Even in the beliefs of those Blacks who believed in hard work and delayed gratification, feelings of inferiority and even impotence in the presence of Whites were common until and maybe even through the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. Testimony to this can be seen the PBS video on the Freedom Riders--a video to show to conservative Christians who believe that activism achieves nothing. And we need to ask how much of the self-destructive and lack of self-control attitudes seen in some inner city subcultures are due not just to the absorption of the dominant culture but of the experience of being oppressed. We do know when studying child abuse that abuse can lead to future abuse or a chain of abuse.

    In addition, we might also want to ask whether those who migrated to America from the Highlands, Midlands, and Northern Ireland were abused as well to see if there is some correlation between that abuse and ol-redneck values that came over on the boats.

    If we look at the hard working puritans, we see that many of them repeated the abuse and religious intolerance they suffered while in England. In addition, if you check out Chris Hedges' "Days Of Destruction, Days Of Revolt," you will see some linkage between our past and even present abusive treatment of the Indians and their current dreadful plight.

    In addition to abuse, the lack of optimism due to diminishing opportunities can also play a significant role in forming self-destructive attitudes that can permeate a culture.

    Not that we should blame everything on abuse but we should note the significant role it has played in dimming future expectations as well as causing those who were oppressed to imitate their oppressors--something we see in Israel after centuries of being oppressed by a "Christian" Western Civilization. In addition, when taking abuse into account, we should make more observations based on the law of averages rather than on the outliers.

    Curt Day

  3. I used to feel anger whenever a "black movie" began with gangsta rap and shots of the ghetto, as if African-American identity and experience are solely defined by so called hip-hop culture. I've never been shot or shot anyone. I've never sold or done drugs. I didn't grow up in "the ghetto." I did have a single mother, and we were struggling financially, but I don't believe these two things define my African-ness in America. But what does? This question plagued me for years, especially as I contemplated marrying my white wife. Would the brothers at Morehouse shun me? Would my mother and aunt? Would I shun myself? I came to realize that I no longer cared whether the brothers or sisters shunned me, nor did I or could I shun myself. Would Noah shun one of his grandsons for loving another one of his grand daughters? Most importantly, would God, their Creator, shun their love? Would these lose the identification of their skin's pigmentation? Your blog inspired all of these thoughts. I may simpy and copy and paste to make my comment a blog! Thank you Carl.

  4. Very interesting take. Thomas Sowell expressed very similar opinions on the origin of ghetto behavior in his book Black Rednecks and White Liberals.

    What we call "country" is indeed very similar to ghetto behavior.

    Nonetheless, ghetto behavior has a lot to do with economic opportunity as well. The globalization of manufacturing, New Federalism/neoliberalism, and African American dependence on charity all worked to diminish economic opportunity.

    The reason why "little Wayne" and Nikki Menage etc get away with egregious lyrics is because there is a huge market for the provocative. These rappers do not feel any allegiance to the African American community. They are out to make a buck. Stop downloading their music and the lyrics will change.

  5. This is very interesting. Good Job Dr. Ellis educating the public.

    The rationale behind ghettoization described here is similar to the explanation provided by Thomas Sowell in Black Rednecks and White Liberals. Indeed redneck cultural norms are very similar to ghetto behavior.

    Nonetheless, the ghettoization of African American neighborhoods has more to do with the absence of economic power and low self esteem as a community.

    The globalization of manufacturing, Neoliberalism/New Federalism, and African American dependence on charity has diminished the economic life chances of rank and file African Americans.

    Little Wayne, Niki Menage etc. are only responding to market demand which requires entertainers to be increasingly provocative. If we stopped buying their music, they will change their lyrics or fade away. I agree that their music is egregious and hopelessly negative. We should know however, that they only care about making a buck.

    Our self esteem as a community is so low that we continue to support that which degrades us.