Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Leonard Pitts and Chuck D tackle race, youth, technology, and so much more

Tonight at the Spark speaker series, Chuck D, Leonard Pitts, and moderator S. Craig Watkins tackled sometimes thorny issues like race, hip hop culture, politics, and technology.

Race in modern America

The panelists opened with observations on how Hurricane Katrina illuminated race and class differences in American society. Racism may not be as socially acceptable today as it was 40 years ago in the Jim Crow South, but it’s still woven into the fabric of our society.

“We as a nation find that kind of stuff very difficult to talk about,” said Pitts. But he added that race is part of our everyday news, whether we recognize it or not. It’s in the crime statistics, the drug wars, and the unemployment numbers that mask a deep divide in American society.

Chuck D commented that the civil rights leaders of the 1960s acted with an “intensity of forwardness” that’s missing today. But we all share in the fault for letting the racial divide fester and grow. Through our government, our media, and other social filters we’ve been part of the “dumbassification” of America.

Both panelists agreed that we live in a society where anti-intellectualism is rampant, and where complacency isn’t just accepted, it’s expected. “Eighteen percent of Americans have passports,” said Chuck D, citing just one example of our insularity, “and that’s a damn shame for a supposedly international country.” [According to Yale Univ. the actual figure is 21 percent.]

Overextended hip hop culture

To many white Americans, rap music represents black culture. And Pitts noted that in terms of commercial success and cultural influence, it is the rock and roll of today. But he added that listening to rap can’t help one understand the black experience any more than watching “I Love Lucy” can help one understand the white experience.

Chuck D blamed major record labels and cable TV for over-commercializing rap music and overextending its place in contemporary black and hip hop culture. Today, artists are made “slaves to their contracts,” and sales quantity is stressed over music quality. “Big businesses introducing culture is bound to make mutants out of people,” he added.

Young people and politics

Watkins shifted the conversation to politics, and specifically why so many young Americans seem willing to tune out politics altogether. Pitts offered that perhaps it’s because young people need something to identify with. Recalling his first voting experience and all the elections since, he said that he can’t ever recall a scenario where he’s voted for a candidate so much as voted against their opponent.

Chuck D said that young people need to realize that voting is “like washing your behind every morning” — it’s something you have to do, not something you’re going to get credit for doing. While it’s easy to say schools should boost civics education in their curricula, he’s not so sure that’s the answer. Baby Boomers aren’t encouraging young people to vote because they don’t see 18- to 30-year-olds as their peers. So young people need to take it upon themselves to engage in the political process and make their voices heard.

Technology eliminates barriers

Where young people rule is in the realm of technology. Pitts said that no matter how hard they try, parents can’t keep their kids away from technology. “Once they start walking,” he said, “they start walking away from you.” So parents should instead concentrate on teaching their children how to use technology properly.

Chuck D agreed, building the case for increasing technology education in schools to help kids distinguish information from misinformation. He pointed to growing concerns over Internet predators using MySpace to contact the teens and young adults who constitute the site’s core audience. But from an artist’s perspective, Internet and mobile technologies are beneficial in helping eliminate the middlemen who complicate traditional music creation processes.

Where do we go from here?

So how do we improve our society? Not by taking on the establishment as individuals working in isolation, but rather by gathering together like-minded people and experienced elders in our communities and together building a vocabulary that constitutes a unified voice strong enough to challenge the system.

Also, we need to improve our critical thinking skills. Pitts noted that such courses are available at the collegiate level, but suggested that they should be included in compulsory core course loads.

Furthermore, we need to build on our cultural and racial similarities while learning to acknowledge and even celebrate our differences. And we cannot ignore emerging global issues that will impact succeeding generations, like global warming and our over-dependence on fossil fuels.

Join the discussion

How else can we as individuals recognize our diversity, yet strengthen our national and global togetherness? What other issues do you see affecting our society in the coming years?

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