Kanye West and The New Jim Crow
By CJ Schriber
It is not every day I listen to a Kanye West song and think to myself, “Man, Kanye is really on the money with some of the stuff that is coming out of his mouth right now.”
But, that is exactly what I found myself doing when I listened to the song “New Slaves” off his summertime release “Yeezus.”
In the song, Kanye makes some frank commentary on the social condition of the youth, particularly the black youth, in America.
Anyone familiar with this song will know that West calls out this demographic for indulging in the materialistic, decadent culture of the twenty-first century: cars, clothes, and, most of all, money.
However, I have gained a new interpretation of the song ever since I have been placing its evocative lyrics in different contexts. It just so happens that “New Slaves” represents an unnerving paradigm that has emerged over the last 150 years or so: the social oppression of African-Americans in the United States.
While I am not readily certain of the message West was trying to convey by recording this song, nor am I willing to search and discover the many underlying messages one could pull from such an eccentric track, it is always fun to see the connection our current popular culture has with societal problems that have lingered through history.
While I was a junior here last year, a good friend of mine took a class involving the criminal justice system in America. For this class, he had to read a book by Michelle Alexander. The information that was contained within that text revealed a myriad of information that was both shocking and unnerving to both of us.
We always hear about how society has progressed so much since the Europeans took those first steps in establishing themselves on this continent. We always seem to overlook the morbid reality of this launchpad into American society; the early years of our beautiful country were marred by slave labor, an institution that provided for all of, if not most, the southern United States’ economy.
If it were not for these poor individuals being forced to work inhuman hours under grueling conditions, the country we now inhabit would be staggeringly different in more ways than one.
Although it has been longer than a century since African-Americans were declared free and capable of occupying the same sphere as the whites in the United States, a system of oppression still exists. There is free, but then there is “free.”
As frustrating and sad as it is to come to terms with so harsh a reality, many African- Americans find themselves under the latter categorization. Sure, black individuals have access to the same opportunities and aspirations as white people do; that is, even if this access is nominal at best.
A look at the powerful-yet-corrupt prison system in America constructs a different narrative all together though.
According to Alexander in her book “The New Jim Crow,” a text making the rounds in college classrooms across the nation, America has developed a caste system where African-Americans find themselves in the bottom rungs of the social ladder. With precursors ranging from a perpetual war on drugs to the popular spread of racial profiling as a viable sentencing device, there is no doubt that law enforcement is more likely to target people of color than a typical white, suburban family.
This, I add as a personal opinion, is not only disheartening but disgusting. If we step back from the situation that is unfolding in our country and look at it for what it really is, we will see the status quo is a product of backwardness derived from the first generation of the United States.
Humans are creatures of habit and will do anything in their power to make sense of the world. These internal doctrines of what society entails and the interactions that arise from this grand arrangement are what help us sleep at night.
Unfortunately, many of the stereotypes and ideologies we hold on to are problematic to say the least. It may make us feel safe to think that our next door neighbor, a white businessman with two cars in his driveway, would never turn to crack or cocaine for personal indulgence. Our view of the world drastically changes when we come to the realization that crack was never more popular than when in the grips of white folk.
Yet, eighty percent of African- Americans are sentenced on such charges. It is never safe to draw conclusions from controversial topics like these, but it goes without saying that there is some validity in facts like those.
Why is it that we allow our world view to get in the way of reality, whether that truth is beautiful or ugly? These days, it is a very ugly truth that African- Americans are being incarcerated at a ridiculous rate and outnumbering other races in a widening discrepancy of numbers. Yet, what is unfolding within the American justice system is a result of our American ideology: keep your eyes on the various commodities corporate America dishes out while turning a cold shoulder to the somber reality that we live in an extremely backwards society.
While Kanye declared that a generation of new slaves is being born in America, we cannot forget about the crushing oppression that is systematically destroying the spirit of African-Americans all over the country.