For nearly an entire week, the Chris Brown/Rihanna alleged abuse incident has dominated major news media headlines. Unfortunately, these sensationalized reports did less to elucidate the national epidemic of violence against women and more to cement into our national psyche the idea that the new face of domestic abuse is young, Black and hip-hop. Instead of accepting sole responsibility for one of America’s most neglected pathologies, young Americans should turn this tragedy into an opportunity.
In the last two election cycles, hip-hop led the way in making involvement in national elections fashionable among youth. Hip-hop political organizers could do the same in extending that influence into the arena of public policy with the goal of establishing an innovative solution to abuse that shifts the way the nation thinks about its treatment of women.
The election of President Barack Obama, with young people across race supporting him long before even the African American community’s vote was solidified, marked the first political victory for this generation. Two-thirds of the 23 million young Americans 18-29 who voted in the 2008 presidential election voted for Barack Obama. These same young people taking the lead on a public policy solution to end dating violence would be an important second act.
Contrary to public opinion the hip-hop community has a long history of resisting the status quo of domestic abuse, misogyny and gender inequity. From books like Tracy Sharpley-Whiting’s Pimps Up, Hos Down and films like Aishah Simmons’ No! The Rape Documentary to organizations like the Center for Young Women’s development and Industry Ears, Inc., there is an emerging hip-hop generation leadership that has its finger on the pulse of a change agenda for women.
Such an agenda is reflected in the nearly 5000 comments posted on Blackplanet.com responding to Chris Brown and Rihanna newsone.com updates. The overwhelming mood of these comments was that the Black community needed to separate itself from stereotypes of domestic violence. Blackplanet.com members even spontaneously created online discussion groups to address the issue.
The media’s obsession with the Chris Brown/Rihanna incident, alongside a new administration that seems to take the debt it owes young voters seriously, offers young political organizers a rare opportunity for this generation to take the lead on dating and domestic abuse.
Although hip-hop didn’t create America’s gender problem, its mainstream dominant representations certainly helped reinforce it. Today’s young Americans—especially those in the Chris Brown and Rihanna age group and the legions of even younger fans who idolize them—have come of age consuming a steady diet of these images. Few would argue that they are healthier or wiser as a result.
At the same time, there are very few places in our culture where we require young men to learn appropriate behavior for engaging their female counterparts, especially when relationships turn sour. (Rhode Island and Virginia law for high school instruction on dating are rare exceptions.) This advancing the status quo, alongside our failure as a society to entrench a workable solution into the fabric of our culture, is a deadly combination.
A recent report from the Bureau of Justice found that 1 in 3 girls in the US is a victim of physical, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner. 13 percent of teen girls say they were physically hurt or hit and 40 percent of teenage girls 14-17 years old say they know someone their age that has been hit by a boyfriend. And a 2003 nationwide survey from the Center for Disease Control of 15,000 9-12 grade high school students found that nearly 9 percent experienced physical dating violence, with rates among Black females (14 percent) nearly twice their white counterparts (7 percent). The rate for Latino females was 9.3 percent.
Now is not the time for young people inspired during the last election cycle to fall back into complacency. Instead this energy should be channeled into the creation of a concrete national agenda committed to ending domestic violence.
This certainly will require an institutional approach. In the same way that sex education worked its way into our schools, we need a similar curriculum from the earliest grades upward to change the ways Americans think about dating violence, domestic abuse and gender equity. At a bare minimum, this curriculum must teach boys that physical and emotional violence toward their girlfriends or any boys or men toward women is never an option.
Such a move would have several benefits: it would help create the major societal shift needed to curtail violence against women; it would allow hip-hop to reveal to the world that it has a moral center; and it would solidify a new movement for a new generation. All are important steps on the road to transforming America into a county that reflects, more accurately than our media representations, the generation currently preparing to inherit it.
Bakari Kitwana is the co-author of the forthcoming Hip-Hop Activism in the Obama Era (Third World Press, 2009) and a visiting scholar at Columbia College’s Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media.