What does it mean for a black person to “sell out”? Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Tiger Woods and many more, are often branded as “sell outs” or accused of “acting white” because they speak understandable English, pursue learning and have racially integrated lives. What is overlooked, however, is that much of the hip-hop and rap world represents a different form of “acting white” and “selling out.” That is, hip hop culture can be traced to the urbanization of the southern “redneck,” or to use the more socially offensive term, “cracker” culture of the past.
Thomas Sowell, in his latest book, Black Rednecks and White Liberals , reminds us that what is often construed as urban black culture has striking similarities to the cracker culture of the old South. This cracker culture emerged in the American South through the immigration of culturally lowbrow English immigrants. In the antebellum era, about 90 percent of U.S. blacks were immersed in this expression of southern living. When blacks migrated into major northern cities, beginning in the early twentieth century, Sowell argues that they brought redneck culture with them.
The dominant social, moral, and cultural values among Southern rednecks that Sowell highlights, and that have been explained in works such as Grady McWhiney's Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South , include aversion to work, proclivity for violence, contentment with little to no education, sexual promiscuity, short-term thinking, drunkenness, an anti-entrepreneurial spirit, reckless pursuit of excitement, and wild music and dance. Rednecks had touchy pride, what you might call today a “bling-bling” vanity, a boastfully dramatized sense of self, and little self-control.
This “cracker” ethos of the past has been baptized into the hip-hop world with reckless abandon. When black kids call studious blacks “white,” or when black kids scold other black kids for sounding “white,” they have adopted a ghetto cracker mentality. Only a ghetto cracker would ridicule the pursuit of education, the speaking of correct English, and working hard. They boast of violent activities, sexual promiscuity, and “gettin' high and drunk,” “acting a fool up in da' club,” or bumping and grinding on the dance floor. The ghetto cracker celebrates being out of control and spending money instead of saving and investing.
Being a ghetto cracker, regardless of race, is the pursuit of a lifestyle of self-sabotage that undermines human dignity and despises the morality that undergirds civil society. Selling out one's dignity and future to regressive moral standards is the way of the ghetto cracker.
Hip hop magazines like Vibe , The Source , and XXL celebrate the ghetto cracker. In the July issue of Vibe , we find celebration of the strip-club lifestyle of rappers the Ying Yang Twins, affirmation of fighting to display toughness, and a picture of rapper Pitbul holding his toddler son while standing in front of two naked women painted red, not to mention a repugnant set of advertisements that would make all of our grandmothers gasp.
There is, however, an alternative vision of black American culture that recognizes the dual values of moral and economic responsibility. The July issue of Black Enterprise magazine does not promote misleading racial dichotomies but celebrates living wisely. The pages are filled with articles about investment strategies, starting businesses, homeownership, and a profile of black astrophysicist Neil Tyson, who received a PhD from Columbia University in 1991. There are ads featuring the Harlem Book Fair, the American Black Film Festival, and Morehouse College. Hard work, pursuing education, the virtues of prudence, integrity, self-discipline, humility, and the advantages of marriage and family are all part of the fabric that supports the activities celebrated in this alternative expression of the black community.
This is not “selling out”; it is “buying in.” Buying in to the fact that authentic blackness is not being a ghetto cracker. Buying in embraces a worldview that understands our common human nature and what it means to live in a way that is truly fulfilling--a worldview that promotes dignity, work, marriage, family, and healthy community. The real sell-out is the one who urbanizes counterproductive moral values and behaviors. They are people like Russell Simons, Puff Daddy, 50 Cent, the Ying Yang Twins, and others who encourage minorities to adopt the attitudes of the Southern, redneck cracker culture of the past while claiming authentic blackness. Being a chocolate covered antebellum redneck of the past is not being “black”; it is simply “selling out” disguised as hip hop.