The Crack Epidemic: How Will I Make It in Harlem?


bigl43In the Post-Civil Rights Era, African-Americans are said to be progressing in society; institutional racism is written off as a sad social reality of the past, but now it is claimed that a window of opportunity is available for blacks. During Dr. Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month, Americans reminisce over how racist America used to be as King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech is routinely read and heard.  Society then reflects upon prominent African-American figures such as Barack Obama, and thinks to themselves how far America has come. In a song entitled “How Will I Make It?” Lamont Colemon gives narratives that profoundly challenge the sociological myth of black progress in the Post-Civil Rights Era. Coleman, who went by the name Big L, was not a politically conscious rapper like Tupac Shakur (who routinely drew links between capitalism and the plight of black Americans) or Nas (who constantly discusses fratricidal ghetto life and routinely draws links to the roots of institutional racism). As such, Coleman is free of all of the biases that may come from a formal study of Critical Race Theory and thus provides an organic insight on the status of black youth that disrupts the myth of steady progress.

Lamont Coleman in describing his upbringing states that, “I’m only at the age of 10 and life already seems to me like it’s heading for a dead end. Cause my Moms be smoking mad crack. My dad went out for a fast streetstruck34snack and never brought his a** back.” Coleman grew up fatherless and with a mother who was addicted to crack; the crack epidemic led to an uprising in violent crime as unemployed black youth who were discriminated against in the job market resorted to selling the cost-efficient cocaine derivative to move up the social economic ladder. This era produced an entire generation of neglected children subjected to pre-natal cocaine exposure (often referred to in the streets as “crack babies”), mass incarceration, and social decay in the black community. For Coleman in particular, at only ten years old, he states that, “Nobody knows how I feel, it’s quite ill Cause I had to steal to fill my stomach with a nice meal.” Reading this, one would think he grew up in a third world country, but in reality he was growing up in the heart of America. Heading into his teenage years, Coleman states, “Now I’m at the age of 15, no more fun and games it’s time to get cream… Now every day I creep with the heat, ain’t nothing sweet, I rob for meat. If I don’t steal, I don’t eat.” In such economically oppressive social conditions, Coleman had to resort to crime merely for food. As he lives a life of crime for mere survival, he laments that he may end up in jail but that he is forced into such activities through economic necessity. Nonetheless, he makes a very revealing statement:

“Where I grew up it was a living hell. Then I started to realize – I’m better off in a prison cell. Now I can sleep, now I can eat.” Being born into yk54poverty in the street of Harlem and realizing that being in prison actually makes it easier to eat regular meals is a serious indictment of the socio-economic system of America in the Post-Civil Rights Era. One in three black males can be expected to be under the tutelage of the criminal justice system either through prison time or parole throughout their lives. As prisons become increasingly privatized, rich white CEOS have begun profiting from the mass-incarceration of black youth who are funneled into a life of crime due to the economic conditions that they live in. Eventually, Coleman, after carrying out a robbery, was convicted; however, upon getting out, he quickly finds himself in the same social situation

“It’s getting crazy hectic

Cause I’m broke and can’t get a job cause of my jail record

Before you know it, I was robbing them same ducks”

From growing up in a poor black household, Coleman’s criminal pursuits to begin with had nothing to do with wanting to choose a life a crime, but rather it materialized from economic necessity to survive. Upon leaving jail, Coleman quickly finds himself in the same social situation. Prisons are less about reform, and even after leaving jail there have been no job training programs to steer him in the right direction. Coleman states, ”Either I’mma go to jail or get murdered, but do I deserve it? All I tried to do was live the one life that I got but it seems like I can’t get a fair shot.” Coleman was never given a fair shot due to one basic fact: he was born black in a white supremacist system and, like so many other black youth, either felt he was going to be killed xewk23at a young age or go back to jail.

When it comes to black-on-black crime, the conservative media often attributes it to bad behavior, a lack of morals, or the influence of Hip-Hop. They call for self-responsibility and simply saying blacks need to will themselves into doing the “right” thing. In his song ”Street Struck,” Coleman advocates self-responsibility for black youth in an interesting manner, stating, ”Some of my peeps are still in the game sellin ‘caine. If that’s what you gotta do to maintain, go ‘head and do your thang. But with the cash profit make an investment. And try not to go to the grave like the rest went.” Essentially, he recognized the inevitability of black youth turning to the drug market for survival, but encourages them to use profits from drugs and to turn it into a legitimate enterprise.


Tbig4544he real question is: when will whites began to take responsibility for the unjust social system their forefathers created that has resulted in the drug economy being the only way for black youth to have basic needs? When will whites take responsibility for having created the unjust prison industrial complex, partaking in redlining, and the discriminatory loans that targeted blacks and led to the subprime mortgage crisis and causing a crisis in the black community. The calls for “self-responsibility” among blacks by whites is a way in which they can absolve themselves from having to challenge the white supremacist power structure that they continue to benefit from; essentially, blacks must exercise supreme levels of discipline and responsibility, as they pull themselves out the hood by their boot-straps. Such a discourse also neglects that fact that due to institutional racism, whites who partake in self-destructive behaviors (alcohol, drugs, etc.) are less likely to be harmed by it than blacks due to their extensive social safety network developed from institutional racism.

In the midst of oppression and white scapegoating, Coleman – with no formal study of sociological issues, critical race theory, etc. makes a profound statement:
“In the ghetto, all you can wish for is a better tomorrow. It ain’t getting no better, it’s only getting worse, word up.”

Effectively refuting the myth of black progress in the Post-Civil Rights Era, for black youth, the conditions are only becoming worse.






The Street Scriptures

The Street Scriptures

The vast majority of blacks across inner-cities find themselves born into violent, poverty-stricken neighborhoods, and everybody is struggling to make it out. Kids die young; crying mothers watch in horror as the carcasses of their dead sons, deformed by bullet holes, are hauled off. The face of desperation is illustrated on the face of disenfranchised youth who look to crime as the only way to have what others are given at birth: food, clothing, and shelter. Many don’t expect to live past eighteen years old. They live a life of brutality and profound misery; in the wealthiest nation on earth, they live in utter poverty. Hip-hop emerged within these impoverished social conditions and reveals vividly the plight facing these youth. Nas remarks, “Street scriptures for lost souls in the crossroads.” His one-time rival Jay-Z remarks, ”Never read the Qur’an or Islamic Scriptures, only Psalms I read was on the arms of my niggas.” In these oppressed neighborhoods, the music often conveys both the conditions of the people and the morals which come from the laws of the streets, not religious textbooks.

The album Illmatic served as a street scripture. Coming out in the year 1994, it combined profound lyricism with great vocabulary, a nasty flow, and stories conveying the realities of the streets. In “Represent,” Nas spits, ”Straight up shit is real and any day could be your last in the jungle. Get murdered on a humble, guns blast, niggas tumble. The corners is the hot spot, full of mad criminals… who don’t care, guzzling beers, we all stare.” The line, ”Anyday could be your last in the jungle” refers to the low life expectancy in the hood -many youth don’t see themselves living past 21. .  Nas further illustrates this with the line,” like “crews without guns are goners” demonstrating how difficult it is to survive without resorting to violence.  In the neighborhoods, the drug economy serves as the main source of employment due to the lack of job opportunities.  The hood is called the jungle because of the bewildered, sporadic nature of life there – gun fire, police brutality, and fist fights can occur at any time. There is no source of stability. “Guns blast, niggas tumble” refers to the dead bodies piling up from the various street conflicts. “The corners the hot spot, full of mad criminals who don’t care” is, of course, describing the mentality of the youth on the corner that live with no source of social mobility, causing their source of consciousness and ethics to dissolve.They can’t survive holding onto morals, so they simply don’t care who their violence or behavior affects.

98188-stashIn the classic intro to Stillmatic, Nas spits, “Stepped over dope fiends. Walking out the door, all of us poor. I learned the difference between the snitches, the real ones, and whose soft and the murderous hungriest crews, people jumping from roofs, shotguns pumpin, made it through my youth.” The hood produces many dope fiends – addicts to heroin- many turn to drugs as a coping mechanism for the pain and anguish they face every day in the hood. “All of us poor” refers to the ubiquitous nature of poverty among black youth living in these neighborhoods. Nas proceeds to distinguish between the various personality types he witnessed in the hood from the “snitches” to “the real ones.” Snitches are informants to the police who report drug dealing and crime activity – these individuals are not liked in the hood because their actions often result in youth being victimized by the prison industrial complex or police brutality. “The real ones” refers to the full-time gangsters who truly embody the laws of the streets; despite what was said earlier about “those who don’t care,” within intra-gangs (or the hood in general), attributes such loyalty and bravery are often promoted. The murderous crews Nas speaks of refers to various gangs who have entered into the drug economy seeking to protect their territory via the barrel of a gun.

In “My Block,” Tupac Shakur further elaborates on the social conditions in the hood. He begins saying, ”On my block, it never fails to be gunshots. Can’t explain a mother’s pain when her son drops.” In these neighborhoods, gunshots are not a rarity, but rather something to be expected. Further, Tupac goes on to say, “No rest forever weary. My eyes stay teary for all the brothers I buried in the cemetery. Shit is scary how black on black crime is legendary, but sometimes necessary.” In such impoverished living arrangements, though black on black crime is recognized, youth are pitted together as their only way to survive. Tupac makes this point when he states, “God help me cause I’m starving, can’t get a job. So I resort to violent robberies, my life is hard.” The chorus of the song simply states, ”hard times is all I see,” which demonstrates the ubiquitous nature of struggle that they are in. Then Tupac makes a very profound statement: “From the Start, I felt the racism cause I’m dark.” Nas makes a similar statement: “It seems like the darker you are, the bigger your problems.”

Though they have no degree in sociology, no knowledge of the scientific studies conducted on the correlation of skin color to social The Third World Inside of America: A Critical Look at the Southside of Chicago PT 1standings, nor have they have read a paper on the still prevalent nature of institutionalized racism (even in the age of Obama), they are largely aware of racism in our society because they are the ones who endure it. Indeed, all of the abhorrent conditions described in the street scriptures above are not the result of innate moral defiance within the people, rather, they are created by the legacy of Jim Crow and on-going institutionalized racism. In this society, which creates conditions in which crime is the only way to survive, the young black’s access to social mobility is severely hampered. These street scriptures spread awareness of the on-going legacy of Jim Crow and the systematic structural violence affecting black youth. By calling attention to these narratives, we can challenge the erroneous notion that the end of legal racism and the end of Jim Crow laws led to the end of “institutionalized racism” or real material benefit in the lives of African-Americans.