May '00 : The Ghetto Matrix

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by James Richards

The “Ghetto,” as we know it today, is a sham - a fabrication similar to the world created inThe Matrix. The contemporary ghetto is a virtual reality (or more accurately: an actual surreality) that its inhabitants have accepted, without question, as the actual reality of Black folks. When the marketing power of the ghetto was realized, it was quickly decided that it must be harnessed. It happened quietly. First, was the development of a cleaner cousin named “Urban.” Then, almost overnight all the old style, long-term measures employed to control the ghetto like drugs and violence and the new immediacy of popular culture and instant sex were coalesced into the creation of the “ghetto matrix,” a new way of reining in the population and generating revenue simultaneously.

Manipulating the generational rift that exists in all communities, the inhabitants of the ghetto matrix were split from their elders. The elders, alive before the creation of the ghetto matrix can perceive its existence, but don’t have the power to define it. The last two generations born within the ghetto matrix can’t imagine living without it. These last two generations, and all those to follow, have been born and bred solely to be harnessed for their power as producers and consumers of ghetto commodities, like the previous generations were born and bred to be slaves, then sharecroppers, then low wage service and factory workers, then…now. They are just like the crops of human beings that were powering The Matrix.

The inhabitants, in return for their output, get to live in a fantasy, a world of no personal responsibility. It’s a world ruled by the primacy of emotion, of action and not comprehension, where you can do anything you want to anybody you want (except leave). But in this matrix, like the one in the movie, all consequences ripple invisibly back to reality. The repercussions, although invisible, always hit the unsuspecting inhabitants hard. The ghetto is a profitable commodity. Its stifling poverty and artificially limited opportunities are a fertilizer for its inhabitants’ ability to produce and consume. The ghetto must be maintained in order to continue and increase the revenue it generates. The inhabitants are simply batteries charging the revenue machine.

Well, how can a place of often extreme poverty be worth so much money? If the cracked asphalt is the soil, and poverty the fertilizer, what grows in these conditions are the cash crop. The inhabitants are the crops, the commodity. Their physical bodies are the commodities. Their bodies generate income in the obvious way through the drugs or bullets that get pumped into them. Their bodies generate income through the satellite industries based around violence and the illusion of its prevention. Their bodies are the test subjects for pharmaceutical companies, looking for chemical solutions to the highly profitable market of crime control.

Their bodies generate income in the spaces they occupy whether in an overpriced slumlord’s apartment or a cell owned and operated by the rapidly growing private prison industry. Or a spot in the rapidly growing privatization of the public school systems, or a spot in a parochial school subsidized by voucher programs.

Their bodies generate income by the imagesthey create for the welfare verification ID card manufacturers or for the producers of low budgeted “reality-based” TV programs likeCopsorWorld’s Scariest Police Chases.Or the gun manufacturers who use these images to sell their products to the suburbs. Their images sell newspapers, books and magazines. Their bodies generate income by how they areadorned, whether it’s with the purchase of extreme jewelry or designer fashions, or by the development of fashion and cultural trends for the future, to be emulated and distributed by the outside world, then sold back to the inhabitants of the ghetto matrix. Their bodies are the crops and the fuel for new revenue streams. As long as the fertilizer of poverty is rich, the soil will always produce new and innovative industries.

When the battery is used up (or dies prematurely), the ghetto matrix is so well designed, it has already encouraged the inhabitants to reproduce, creating more batteries to replace the ones that have burned out. They are all of course, expendable. Companies are encouraged to use as many as they need to create greater and greater margins of profit. Like the Matrix in the movie, the ghetto matrix was developed to protect, maintain and enrich itself. It has evolved to be self-perpetuating, requiring little upkeep to stay functioning. It is not in the creators interest for the people to escape. The inhabitants are discouraged from leaving both physically and mentally. Substandard public education combined with an availability of guns, drugs, and sex and a omnipresent popular “urban” culture, beamed into the matrix that urges indulgence in all three, prevents the inhabitants from even looking for an exit. The inhabitants have no idea that the world they live in has been manufactured from the outside, and that their dreams and desires have been given to them.

The ghetto matrix’s deftest maneuver is convincing the inhabitants to believe in the unreality so strongly, that they exhort their fellow inhabitants to “keep it real,” to uphold the codes and subsystems necessary to maintain the matrix. Its influence is so powerful that those whose parents escaped before the ghetto matrix’s creation find themselves clamoring to get back in for fear of losing out on some authentic Black experience. Those who fail to “keep it real” are punished, by threats of violence or far worse, by being denied authenticity in the highly commodified (and profitable) realms of blackness. The tragic irony is that the so-called authenticity the inhabitants fight so dearly for has been designed and programmed into them by the creators of the ghetto matrix.

This has spawned an industry of well paid pundits - people who do not live in the ghetto matrix, but report on it, theorize on it, analyze it and philosophize on it. There are two types only: Those that attack the inhabitants and those that defend the inhabitants. Neither group has expressed any interest in the ghetto matrix itself. Both groups maintain the ghetto matrix in their heads. They have to, for fear of losing their authenticity. If authenticity is lost, then so is profitability.

Some “Pro-matrix” commentators, ambassadors to the realer world, even urge the outsiders to see the ghetto matrix as a “new” reality, that the inhabitants are actually pioneers in a rebellious, anti-mainstream, alternative lifestyle. While stopping short of beseeching the outside world to enter (that might be too dangerous) they do urge the purchasing of products that represent the lifestyle associated with the ghetto matrix. The ghetto matrix provides a fantasy in which outsiders can participate vicariously without risking the requisite dangers the inhabitants face every day. What else could explain the fact that 72% of the consumers of ghetto matrix music are from the outside? The distributors of ghetto matrix music know their consumers don’t want stories of ghetto love but stories of ghetto tragedy. It’s thrilling and they provide new and innovative artists to satisfy the demand. Outsiders are often overheard saying, “Human beings couldn’t really live that way,” while their children who are purchasing the CD’s and baggy jeans say; “I wish I could live that way.” All watch with unblinking fascination. A few brave souls actually enter the ghetto matrix on safari tours to interact with the inhabitants in their artificial environment knowing that they can leave whenever they wish. The inhabitants, programmed to perform, unknowingly give a great show day after day, thus completing the circle and maintaining the matrix.


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