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Be Thankful Their Only Riding: Black Youth, Dirt Bikes, and Strain Theory


"...He used to be like in the streets but when he got his bike he started changing his life.....His family was like kind of happy for him, he wasn't doing something that was extra positive but he wasn't on the corner as much cause he had his bike..."

Superman/12 O'clock Boy

There has been a phenomenon occurring it seems within in the past 10 to 15 years throughout America's cities, especially those located in the Northeastern part of the United States primarily places like Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, but also smaller cities in New Jersey like Trenton, Newark and Paterson. It has since further spread as far south as Florida and Atlanta. Rappers like Paterson's Feddy Wap and Philadelphia's Meek Mill have done much to bring the underground subculture out into the forefront. If you payed close attention to Ryan Coogler's Rocky film titled Creed he even gave the subculture a shout out as Michael B. Jordan ran through the Philadelphia streets, an artistic head nod if you will in the name of authenticity. I personally believe the arrest of rapper Meek Mill was more about a crack down on urban dirt bike culture if anything else. The stiff unreasonable punishment only makes sense if it was done to delivery a much larger message directed at a much larger audience.

Urban dirt bike riders are looked up to by youth culture for shunning conventional norms; however, for many commuters who are caught off guard their monotonous drive back to the suburbs becomes a little less monotonous. Their NPR radio broadcast is inconveniently interrupted by the loud sounds of dirt bike engines switching gears accompanied to the images of young black determined faces ranging in number from 50 to 100 riders. These riders are able to do incredible stunts like one-handed, or even no-handed wheelies and other mind boggling feats seemingly with ease as they speed by. Most of these college educated commuters, as well as law enforcement and local government officials are quick to label these black youth menaces to society, a sort of modern day pariah if you will. As I find myself teaching a sociology class this year my mind wanders as I wonder what sociologist like Emile Durkheim, Robert Merton, Albert Cohen, or W. E. B. Dubois would think about all of this?

It is obvious that for the urban dirt bike rider societal norms have gone out the window. In fact in many of America's cities it is illegal to ride a dirt bike on sidewalks or in the city street you will be either fined, or have your bike impounded if you are lucky. The worst case scenario is your bike is rear ended by the police during a high speed chase. The Eric Blair and Lofty Nathan documentary 12 O'clock Boys documented all of this including the challenge that law enforcement faces as they try to track down these daredevil riders who many believe are a problem and safety hazard to America's cities. The police have been warned not to give chase because it will only elevate the level of danger and harm that can occur. In 12 O'clock Boys we were shown that one such chase led to the controversial death of a rider that many consider a murder.

My goal is not to make the police the bad guy. The truth, more often than not, usually lies somewhere in the middle. To be certain dirt bike riders are not without their flaws. They often not only bring danger to themselves, but more than one innocent pedestrian was injured or killed when they were accidently struck by these riders. This was recently the case in Philadelphia when a 6 year old little girl and her grandmother were critically injured. The police have become pawns in one big bureaucratic chess game where they are the low hanging fruit following orders of apprehending delinquent youth made delinquent by the very same bureaucratic system that forgot about them. I am also careful to not overly romanticize the dirt bike riders who are clearly practicing a form of deviance; however, at the same time there is no denying their untapped talent and creativity that if properly supported could one day make them very productive citizens in our society. One must ask where are the motocross parks in the city? Who is offering summer lessons in bike mechanics and maintenance? I have no doubt if granted the opportunity they could successfully excel at motocross competition, or even become workers and owners of a garage. Not to sound too conspiratorial but the problem is that black youth and black people in general have not been able to properly pursue the American Dream. These are the same people who Dr. Marc Lamont Hill has described as "Nobodies." These are the faces at the bottom of the well that society has written off as either a lost cause to be warehoused in prison, or a permanent service class that no one seems to have the will or want of pulling up.

I believe the question for sociologist to ask is what is driving these young Black youth to disregard the law? I believe the fact that they are young, urban, and black allows societies racial reflexes and instinct to easily write them off as just some "morally dysfunctional black youth" that society needs to lock up and throw away the key. I'm old enough to remember a totally different response when white kids were on skateboards doing ollies down railings. Society was mad at them too but the response was so much more different. I wanted to try to look at this phenomenon from a place of objectivity, and try to figure out what is causing this form of deviance to take place in the first place and also societies response to black deviance as compared to white deviance. Make no mistake about it thrill riding dirt bikes through a densely populated city when the vehicle was clearly made for the off road is a definite form of deviance. What is the cause of young inner city youth seemingly rebelling against societal norms? Most people when they see a problem that they don't like the first thing they do is to attack the perpetrator which often times is nothing more than blaming the victim, but lashing out at an easy target is like addressing the symptoms of a disease with out attempting to find out the root cause.

Robert Merton was a Harvard educated American sociologist that taught for years at Columbia University. Merton was born in Philadelphia a city he loved. He attended Temple University as an undergraduate. It is fitting and ironic that he was born in the same city that has become one of the centers of urban dirt bike subculture. Indeed a documentary directed by Lamar McPherson debuted at Philadelphia's Ritz East theatre last year entitled The Last Ride : A Philadelphia Story, that highlighted the life of Philadelphia bike riding legend Kyrell Tyler. Tyler was murdered in an unsolved murder and hundreds of bike riders came to his funeral to show their respect.

The image of hundreds of black youth on dirt bikes riding through Americas first capital stunned city officials. Merton would have clearly linked the urban dirt bike phenomenon with his strain theory. Strain theory is the belief that strain exist when their is a gap between cultural goals like wealth and material and the means in which you can achieve it.

Many of the dirt bike riders like Baltimore's 12 O'clock Boys and Philadelphia's Hot Boyz come from working class backgrounds and even underclass backgrounds where struggle is an everyday reality. Life for inner city black youth is a vastly different reality from mainstream middle class society be it white or black. For many inner city Black Americans your dealing with higher unemployment rates which lead to higher rates in poverty. Underfunded and overcrowded school systems lead to a subpar education. Couple those factors with single family homes which contribute to a lower household income. Gangs and gun violence are an everyday reality where losing a friend to the streets is all too normal an occurrence. At the same time death from police brutality, or poisoning from lead is an equally sad reality. Michelle Alexander's well documented book The New Jim Crow and Eva DuVernay's documentary The 13th have shown us that Institutions like our judicial and prison system are unfair and partial in how they impart punishment and justice. Just think of how the mainly black crack epidemic was treated compared to how the mainly white opioid/heroin epidemic is dealt with and you get the point. Under those living conditions the level of strain and stress one feels is unimaginable. CNN correspondent, author, and college professor Dr. Marc Lamont Hill does an excellent job highlighting this alternative reality faced by many Black Americans in his book Nobody.

Forced to live under those kinds of pressures Merton has pointed out that people will innovate as a way to adapt to those conditions, for example one may sell drugs, or rob banks as a way of closing the gap between wealth, and the means in which one can attain it. Still others may rebel against the system entirely throwing out unattainable middle class norms like college and life in the corporate world for an inverted alternative set of norms in the world of the urban subculture of dirt bike riding.

As criminologist Albert Cohen has pointed out achieving wealth and material is not the only reason why one participates in a subculture like dirt bike riding or graffiti for instance, but one also gets a level of satisfaction and status from being "masters in their own universe." Dirt bikes also serve a good in a way because they actually are a minor form of deviance which behaves like a safety valve releasing pressure, so that the "metaphorical pipe" does not bust. Countless dirt bike riders often mention how if they did not have dirt bikes they would more than likely get involved in other forms of crime possibly something even more dangerous. On the one hand these roadsters are viewed as a nuisance, but on the other hand they may have prevented more serious crimes like murder, robbery, and assault because they offer an outlet which acts as a pressure relief. In Baltimore it is often said that dirt bike riders are one of the few groups that can bring both East and West Baltimore together.

When I see these young kids doing impressive tricks on these bikes up close as I did recently while in my Volkswagen SUV taking my kids to the Philadelphia Zoo rather than be upset by them I paused and asked the question has the city invested money in any motocross park the way they built skateparks when delinquent white kids were the nuisance and not some "dysfunctional black kids?" It all made me think about Harlem Renaissance poet Langton Hughes and his famous poem Harlem also known as a Dream Deferred. Hughes questions what happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun or does it fester like a sore and then run? In later lines Hughes ask maybe it just sags like a heavy load or does it explode? If we continue to chase these kids with helicopters, or as they say "birds" and "choppers" or if we continue to impound their dirt bikes, and give them no other alternative what happens then? We think we will be safer, but will we? Its interesting because this all made me think of another Harlem Renaissance philosopher W.E.B. Dubois. Dubois was the first African-American to graduate from Harvard with a doctorate, and was also the first American to conduct a scientific sociological study in the United States. The subject for his research was the Black community that was living along the South Street area of Philadelphia he linked their poverty and problems to the ever present pariah of racism that limited their upward mobility creating a circumference of poverty and strain for the people in that particular neighborhood. I wonder what he would think about all of this? Would Dubois place the blame squarely on the dirt bike riders themselves or rather society at large?

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