Professor John Diop Williams, chair of the African American Studies Department of Marcus Garvey University, was in the middle of giving what he thought was a powerful lecture on Black-on-Black violence to a predominantly white middle-class audience when he noticed most of the crowd members were either checking their emails or nodding off. Frustrated, he randomly yelled out, “I’ve never been a stranger to homicide / My city’s full of gangbangers and drive-bys!” From that point on, the suddenly attentive audience hung on every word he spoke until he ended his lecture with an impromptu rendition of “All Eyez on Me.” 

While this story is just allegorical (courtesy of watching too many late-night Boondocks episodes), the scenario is familiar to many African American activists working to stop gun violence in our cities.

Back in 1959, there was a tearjerker of a movie called Imitation of Life about a light-skinned Black woman who gained entry into high society by passing for white. However, for the last 30 years, a surefire way to win the attention of middle America, if you are an African American male, is to be an imitator of “thug life,” a term popularized by the late rapper Tupac Shakur.

Recently, I attended a Stop the Violence meeting in Durham and engaged in what I hoped would be a deep conversation with an older white gentleman about a major problem facing our city. As I told him about the books I had read about violence in the African American community from authors such as Amos Wilson and Joyce DeGruy, he wasn’t overly enthused. His only response was, “Yeah, I just finished reading The Hate U Give (T.H.U.G.),” a novel by Angie Thomas.

Like my character Professor Williams, this was not the first time that I have tried to speak to white folk about gun violence only to have my rising crescendo of Black analysis deflated by the condescending question “So what’s it like growing up in the hood?”

The reality is, despite what you see in the movies, most Black men’s first experience with gang life comes courtesy of Hollywood or the music industry, not what we grew up seeing outside our front doors everyday. 

White America became infatuated with the gangsta lifestyle in the early ’90s as the popularity of groups like N.W.A began to capture the imagination of white Americans who vicariously lived the lives of LA gang members through videos on Yo! MTV Raps. In literary circles, books such as Monster by Kody Scott (who writes under the name Sanyika Shakur) and Dr. Michael Eric Dyson’s Between God and Gangsta Rap made hood stories become the bibles of the Black experience.

It’s troubling that places like Durham have turned the gangsta stereotype into public policy, as the idea that in order to reach Black youth you have to have shot somebody in a past life becomes a dream that million-dollar grants are made of.

Although well-funded groups like Bull City United and others that use former gang members to help steer young men away from the vicious cycle of street violence may be well intentioned, it gets problematic when they become replacements for community members who could offer an African-centered, scholarly critique of systemic white supremacy as the root cause of the socioeconomic factors that lead to criminal behavior and who do not pander to white liberal guilt. For those of us engaged in Black radical politics, the degree of separation is not wide enough for us to view the “street cats” as the proverbial “others.” They are us and we are them. As I walk through Durham neighborhoods every evening passing out free Black cultural books and giving impromptu history lectures to young Black men, I don’t see them as gangbangers. I view them as my brothers in the struggle. As the scholar and writer Dr. Dyson once reminded the audience at a lecture he gave at NC Central University many years ago, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Tupac Shakur, and the Notorious B.I.G. all suffered the same fate.

Durham, of course, has a history of Black middle-class success. Dr. E. Franklin Frazier, in his book Black Bourgeoisie, wrote in 1957 that at one point the Bull City was “regarded as the capital of the black bourgeois.” But a “get this money by any means necessary” attitude has resulted in a phenomenon that could only exist in a town with this kind of economic legacy. In Durham, this economic ideology has led to a gangsta-ized version of the lumpenbourgeoisie, which embraces middle-class money but rejects its traditional code of ethics. What makes members of this class problematic to a race suffering under systemic white supremacy is that they bypass revolutionary or even reformist ideology and, immediately, join the ranks of reactionary politics. Whether via the black market economy or grants from the nonprofit-industrial complex, instead of fighting the powers that be, they become part of them. 

Although there is much said about defunding the police, there is relative silence when it comes to defunding the nonprofit-industrial complex. (Read The Revolution Will Not Be Funded by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence for arguments for the exception.) Well-intentioned nonprofits bankroll negative stereotypes of Black men as gangstas instead of functioning as deterrents to crime; they aid in portraying that lifestyle as a necessary step to upward socioeconomic and political mobility.

This is most pronounced during election season when gangsta-ism is used for political leverage. What is sold to politicians and suburbanites is a false ideology known as street knowledge, or what Dr. Bobby E. Wright, in his book of essays The Psychopathic Racial Personality, called street sense, which propagates the idea that there is a sacred code of conduct that only gives someone who has spent at least seven years behind bars the street cred to inspire young Black men to turn away from a life of crime. In these scenarios, street knowledge requires no sociopolitical analysis, just a long rap sheet.

We will never stop the gun violence in the community with politicians and their nonprofit-industrial-complex homies promoting the nihilist idea that criminal behavior is some sort of rite of passage for young Black men. Unfortunately, in order to even enter into the marketplace of ideas, you have to play the role of a ’90s wannabe gangsta rapper.

To borrow from the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, as Black men in 2023, we wear the mask that grimaces and lies.

Minister Paul Scott is an activist based in Durham. He can be reached at (919) 972-8305,, or on Twitter at @truthminista. 

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