Home > Black American History > …I Voted for Shirley Chisholm

…I Voted for Shirley Chisholm

Although Hip-Hop can be traced back to the early 1970’s, 1980 is the year most people recognize as the emergence of the phenomenon, the start of the Ronald Reagan administration.  Thus, many have called Reagan the first Hip-Hop President.  Reagan’s legacy in Hip-Hop music is unquestionable because the policies implemented in his two-term presidency, and the effects they had on minority communities, created an atmosphere in the inner cities that birthed some of the most controversial music in American history.

 During the Reagan presidency, social programs and policies that were created to aid the urban poor were severely cut, leaving underprivileged minorities without much needed federal assistance.  The economic program that Reagan introduced, known as Reaganomics, drastically increased the gulf between the rich and the poor and wreaked havoc on Black and Hispanic communities.


 The administration’s policies deepened the worst economic recession since World War II.  By the end of Reagan’s presidency, the United States was more than $1.5 trillion deeper in debt than when he first took office.

 Reaganomics, the economic policy of the Reagan Administration, centered around the belief that if tax breaks and incentives were given to the rich, that it would loosen up the economy by increased spending and create more jobs for the American people.  This was in essence a reapplication of the trickle down theory, or supply-side economics.  The problem with this theory is that the jobs and money never trickled down to the rest of society.  According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States for 1986, the number of people living below the poverty level rose almost every year from 1981 to 1992.  Many people were divided about Reaganomics.  Before George H.W. Bush became Reagan’s running mate, he called Reagan’s economic policies “Voodoo Economics.”

 While the national unemployment rate rose into double digits, no place in America felt the effects worse than the Black and Hispanic communities.  By 1986, over 30 percent of the Black population had an income below the official poverty level, which was more than three times the rate as Whites.  By 1990, more than one out of every four Black men between the ages of 24 and 54 were out of work.  Overall, the Black unemployment rate was two–and-a-half times higher than White unemployment.  Without prospects for employment, reduced access to federal aid, and a presidential administration that seemed ambivalent to both issues, inner city communities became primed for volatility.

 Although the tax breaks and incentives that the Reagan Administration created were for all Americans, the benefits were clearly felt by the middle-class and upper-class communities.  Meanwhile, the divide between the rich and the poor widened.

Reagan and the Drug Epidemic

 It is within the realm of the drug trade that President Reagan may have made his most significant contribution to the industry of Hip-Hop. The effects of Reaganomics on lower middle class communities led to an increase in deviant behaviors.  Sociologist Robert Merton developed the strain theory to explain what happens when society socializes individuals to strive for cultural goals, i.e. material possessions, but denies large segments of the population access to achieve these goals.  One of the ways that people respond to denied access is to seek to attain these goals through deviant behavior.  Without having legitimate access to the “socially acceptable” ways of achieving material possessions, large numbers of young minorities sought to achieve these institutional means through illegitimate methods.  With diminished prospects of becoming successful in the boardroom via the ghetto, many young Blacks and Latinos took to the streets to pursue the American dream.

 By the beginning of Reagan’s second term in office, crack and cocaine sales in urban cities became immensely profitable.  The emergence of drug trafficking in the inner cities also produced a need for gun proliferation.  Whereas many assault weapons were previously unaffordable and thus unattainable, drug dealers could now illegally purchase arms quickly on the streets.  The burgeoning crack game and rampant dispersion of firearms became a recipe for disaster in Black and Hispanic communities.

 Crime rates soared as turf wars ensued over who controlled the right to sell drugs in urban neighborhoods.  Citizens became hostages in their own homes during the hostile takeover of entire communities.  Drug addicts committed crimes of desperation in order to acquire money to attain drugs.  Amazingly, the government did not respond to the rise in crimes caused by crack until law enforcement agents became victims of violent crimes.  In an attempt to stem rising crime rates from crack sales, stiffer penalties were handed out in crack possession cases.  Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988, which set a 100:1 ratio between powder cocaine and crack cocaine.

 The acts levied a mandatory minimum 10-year-sentence without parole for dealing 5,000 grams or more of cocaine and a 5-year-minimum sentence dealing 500 grams or more of cocaine.  However, the sentence for dealing crack was much stiffer, because Congress believed that crack was much more addictive, and thus more dangerous, than cocaine.  A person convicted of selling 5 grams of crack got the same 5-year-minimum sentence as a person convicted of selling 500 grams of powder, and a person convicted of selling 50 grams of crack received the same 10-year-minimum sentence as a person convicted of selling five kilos of cocaine.

 Simple possession of any quantity of powder cocaine is considered a misdemeanor, which receives a maximum punishment of one year in prison.  Simple possession of crack is considered a felony punishable by a five-year mandatory sentence.

 Since it was more likely that an African-American would be caught in possession of crack than cocaine, many people in the African-American community complained that Blacks were being unfairly targeted with harsher penalties.

 Inner-city police departments intensified their efforts to combat drug dealing within their sphere of patrol by doing drug sweeps and profiling young African-American and Hispanic men.  Meanwhile, the CIA intentionally allowed drugs to enter the United States to aid their foreign affairs.  When Los Angeles Drug King Ricky Ross was arrested and tried for drug trafficking, he testified at his trial that the CIA was supplying him with the drugs.

 Dennis Dayle, former chief of an elite DEA enforcement unit stated that in almost all of his investigations over his 30 year professional history, the major targets turned out to be working for the CIA.[i]

Reagan and the Iran-Contra Scandal

 Reagan’s biggest scandal may have also been the most costly to the African-American community.  In 1987, Congress began to investigate the Reagan Administration to determine if they had been selling arms to Iran and using the proceeds to assist the Contras in Nicaragua.  The Contras were an anti-communist guerilla organization in Nicaragua.  The Reagan Administration saw helping the Contras necessary in order to keep communism out of the Americas.  The problem the Reagan Administration had was that selling arms to Iran and funding the Contras was in direct violation of the Boland Amendment passed by Congress in response to human rights abuses by the Contras.

 During the Reagan Administration, the CIA allowed drug traffic to accelerate into the United States in order to appease foreign allies in countries such as Panama, Columbia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Haiti, and Afghanistan.  Unfortunately for Reagan, cracks in the drug dealing system exposed a leak to the American public.  During the Iran-Contra Scandal, much of the funding that the Contras received came via large shipments of cocaine coming into the U.S. using U.S. government aircraft and U.S. military facilities.[2]

 Gary Webb, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, broke the story of the CIA involvement in drug trafficking in 1986.  His article, which alleged that CIA and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency agents and informants sold drugs to Crips and Bloods gang members in Los Angeles during the 1980’s, caused a furor to rise up in the African-American community.

 Senator John Kerry led congressional hearings which produced the Kerry Committee Report.  In the report, the committee found that the U.S. State Department had financed drug traffickers, and that individuals who had supported the Contras were involved in drug trafficking.[3]

Reagan and the Rise of Hip-Hop Music

 Hip-Hop music has always been a vehicle for social commentary.  Though songs during the early days of the art form were usually about partying and having fun, there was also a sense of social consciousness within the music.  Artists like Kurtis Blow (The Breaks), Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (The Message, White Lines), The Fearless Four (Problems of the World Today) and Run-DMC (It’s Like That) created songs that spoke about social conditions in American society.  With the institution of Reagan’s social policies, the plight of the Black and Hispanic lower class, and the rise of the illicit crack epidemic, the social conditions of America’s urban societies began to influence the sound of Hip-Hop music.  Hip-Hop was the sound of the streets, so as violence took over the streets, it also took over the music.  The music captured the violent images that defined a violent society.  Rap artists began to focus their lyrics on discussing the elements that shaped their surroundings: drugs, sex and violence.

 Sociologically, the adverse effect of racism on African-American males has led to a negative image of self in many young black males.  White males, who control the power structure of the country, have defined the image of manhood in American society.  Being a man means to be a good provider for your family and taking care of responsibilities.  White men have served as gatekeepers to the access of economic opportunities in America.  Blacks have been subject to racism in America for over 400 years, with extreme psychological damage being charged to African-American men.

 Without access to economic resources, African-American men have reduced opportunities to provide for their families, which cause emasculation and a negative self-image.  Finding the road to success blocked through traditional means, some young Black men seek success through the road less traveled.  Masculinity thus gets measured in acts of bravado, promiscuity, and procreation.  These themes were brought to world focus through the mediums of radio and television.

 Many young inner-city males do not see education as the vehicle through which success can be attained.  Instead, many view the road to success being traveled through sports, Hip-Hop, or drugs.  Those are the only means through which many envision receiving money, power, and respect, which have traditionally been the three things Black men in America have been denied.

 With the choice of pursuing illegal methods to attain these ideals, large numbers of African-American males wind up spending time incarcerated.  Since African-Americans are targeted more aggressively for drug related crimes, they are more likely to be arrested and convicted for these types of crimes.  After incarceration, the already diminished prospects for gainful employment decrease drastically.  With conventional means to success blocked, ex-convicts saw Hip-Hop as the only way to earn a legal living doing something that they understand and, in return, embraced them for who they are.       

 The Reagan Administration gave birth to the rise of “Gangsta Rap” in that it sowed economic depression into the inner-cities by under funding significant social programs.  This created an environment in inner-city communities which led to the social conditions that set the atmosphere for “Gangsta Rap.”  “Gangsta Rap” music was rap songs which gave an account of the negative, destructive behaviors which took place on ghetto streets spoken of in first person form.

Hip-Hop music gave a voice to the socially mute.  As small independent rap record labels began to forge distribution deals with major record labels, rap music started to gain a larger audience.  Whereas drugs, violence, unemployment, poverty and other malignant social issues were once seen as inner-city minority maladies that could be ignored as long as it didn’t affect the rest of society, Hip-Hop music brought it to the attention of mainstream society.  Suddenly America became appalled by the disturbing images that were filtering into their homes through their children via the inner-city conduit of rap music.

The effects of Reagan’s Administration were felt long after his presidency ended.  The Bush Administration tried to pick up where the Reagan Administration left off.  It was the social and economic conditions that the Reagan Administration created and left in South Central Los Angeles which set the stage for the infamous destruction that took place during the 1992 Rodney King verdict riots.  During his campaign against Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Presidential election, Reagan asked Americans if they were better off then than they were before Carter took office.  Many voters made a personal assessment and decided that they weren’t and voted for Reagan.  Amazingly, if many African-Americans living under Reagan’s leadership were asked the same question, they would overwhelmingly make the same personal assessment.  From unemployment, to cut social programs, to drugs, African-American communities felt the brunt of the fall-out from Reaganomics.  It is possible that Reagan didn’t care much about how his policies affected African-Americans since he never received overwhelming voter support from the community. In retrospect, perhaps Biz Markie summed up Black voter attitudes toward Reagan in his 1986 song “Nobody Beats the Biz” by stating bluntly, “Reagan is the Prez, but I voted for Shirley Chisholm.”

[1] Scott, Peter Dale & Marshall, Johnathan. Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America. Berkeley: U. of CA Press, 1991, pp x-xi.

[2] Cockburn, Alexander & St. Clair, Jeffrey. Whiteout, The CIA, Drugs and the Press. New York:Verso 1998.

[3] Ibid

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