The welfare rap

September 03, 1996|By Bill Stephney

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.''

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