Archive for May, 2007

Not Snitching: An American Tradition

May 1st, 2007

Recently the subject of snitching (or not snitching) has become a hot topic in the media. Much of the media attention has focused on the African-American community, more specifically on hip-hop culture, street culture and urban communities. The truth is that the concept of snitching can be found in all communities and throughout history. Judas was perhaps the most reviled snitch in biblical history, perhaps one of the most demonized characters of all time because of his snitching on Jesus to the authorities of the time. In the annals of American history few figures are more vilified than Benedict Arnold for his treasonous acts against the United States. Part of Arnold’s treason was his snitching to the British. While Benedict Arnold’s treasonous acts are extreme by comparison, the concept is the same. In most cultures giving aide and assistance to governing powers when not required to do so, is frequently scorned. The argument it appears could be a matter of degree.

The concept of snitching is a complex issue; this is particularly true in the African-American community. No one can deny that this community has unique challenges, idiosyncrasies and an extraordinarily diverse eco-system. However, if we look closely into the larger African-American community we find a strict code that is often very compliant with government and American traditions and values. American Black folk are by and large very law abiding, church going people who share the values of the larger culture in America. Yet, one would be remiss to suggest that every person in the African-American community trust government (particularly law enforcement) completely and implicitly. There is an unspoken code among African-Americans, whereby it is often understood that there are times when it is not only acceptable, but prudent to be silent. Is this phenomenon exclusive to the African-American community? Absolutely not! This idea and practice is found throughout many communities, with people from every ethnic group, every culture, and every class base, adopting it when they feel it is appropriate and/or necessary.

Snitching is an old and often confusing term. The word, as it stands today, means not to inform, tell, or testify against perpetrators and/or transgressors. In order to understand the mentality that says don’t tell, one must first understand the relationship between those that adopt this philosophy and the government agencies they so often do not trust. What prompts a person, or group of people to believe that they are better off not cooperating with agencies that are supposed to protect and serve? Despite the simplistic view that many would offer regarding this phenomenon one must question the validity of the position. Is there some validity to someone refusing to snitch? How did an entire community come to believe that this practice is not only acceptable but preferable?

The CBS television news program 60 Minutes recently did an expose on the subject of snitching. One of the focal points of the program was the murder of a young man that was working as a bodyguard for the hip-hop artist known as Busta Rhyme, who as of this time, has refused to assist police in solving the crime. The show went on to interview another young hip-hop artist (Cam’Ron) and a group of African-American youth from New York regarding the topic. The consistent point with all of the young people interviewed was that snitching was unacceptable.

The connection the 60 Minutes program made to violence, unsolved murders and other maladies frequently suffered in the urban African-American community had merit. As noted earlier however this practice is not exclusive to urban African-American communities. One must ask, is it any different when this same position is adopted by members of another ethnic group or from a different community? Has the city of New York and other cities not had members of their Italian, Jewish, Chinese, Arab and other communities reluctant, unwilling and/or unable to work with law enforcement? In the movie, A Bronx Tale, the character played by Robert DeNiro is an upstanding citizen, a hard working taxpayer and family man. When his young son witnesses a murder in front of their Bronx apartment, DeNiro refuses to assist the police in the investigation. After being interviewed by the police the child proudly says to his father “I didn’t snitch dad, I did good didn’t I? the father though obviously anguishing over lying to the police replied yes son, you did good. This theme is definitely not exclusively black, this is a practice often used by people out for fear of reprisal as was the case in the movie. In understanding the reality of snitching, I found the 60 Minutes expose questionable.

If we are to effectively discuss the issue of snitching why are we not looking at the matter in its entirety? Why did the show not include questions regarding the cover-up in the Catholic Church involving the sexual abuse of reportedly hundreds of children over the years at the hands of Priests? Was the failure of members of the United States Congress to reveal information regarding a pedophile colleague failing to snitch? If the President of the United States chooses not to reveal information regarding crimes committed by members of his administration he is allowed to invoke executive privilege. Physicians, attorneys, police officers, military personnel, business people all have codes whereby they do not reveal information about colleagues, is this too considered failing to snitch?

In my opinion, a show that was so important should have provided broader and different perspectives of this phenomenon. During the program Jeffrey Canada, a national educator and leader in today’s non-violence movement gave some hardcore facts about how this dilemma is taking its toll on the African-American pantisocracy. Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly talked about the dilemma the NYPD faces in getting African-Americans to assist in bringing in serious offenders. While the views of both of these distinguished gentlemen are valid, this issue is much more complex than just bad guys vs. good citizens.

In the 3rd City the perception by many is that the larger culture says do as I say, not as I do.Compounding the problem is the very real threat of reprisal for snitching; reprisal does not only come in the form of physical harm. Oftentimes reprisal is being ostracized, and being ostracized in an already dangerous and potentially hostile environment is not a good thing.

Whether we like it or not, there is often validity to a person’s lack of cooperation with powers that be. The practice can be found throughout every culture and every society, at every level… whether it is right or wrong seems less important than the fact that it exists and to single out one group for their application of such a practice is irresponsible and unfair.