The USA's younger generation is being wooed by the flashy hip-hop lifestyle, which has gone increasingly mainstream - from baggy fashions and bejeweled 'grillz' to 'pimp and ho' slang. But a growing chorus of cultural critics is wondering "At what cost?"
Journalist Cora Daniels (pictured above) stumbled on the first raw material for her new book quite literally on her Brooklyn doorstep, where teenagers found it terrifically fun and "ghetto" to play cards, drink beer and cuss into the wee hours on school nights.
Several months and a few thousand miles later, she argues in Ghettonation that a "ghetto" mind-set - which she says celebrates the worst of human nature - has taken hold coast to coast.
"Ghetto" styles, from wearing gaudy jewelry to using the n-word in ordinary conversation, have caught on with teens and young adults who aren't black, yet who seem to enjoy imitating famous hip-hop artists such as 50 Cent and Three 6 Mafia.
The "ghetto-ization" of America, which includes everything from baggy clothes to racial slurs and slacker attitudes, is triggering concern far beyond urban neighborhoods. Last week, white radio host Don Imus lost his job at CBS after he used "ho" (hip-hop slang for "whore") on the air, and drew widespread condemnation.
Meanwhile, some worry that white youth are getting too comfortable adopting hip-hop norms, which, in the wrong hands, seem to mock the culture of poor blacks.
Daniels, who is 35 and black, worries about a downward cultural spiral where suburban boys work as pimps, middle-class girls aspire to dance like strippers and dropping out of school is often seen as a badge of honor.
Others have noticed a blurring of urban and suburban youth cultures: A 2004 Manhattan Institute for Policy Research report concluded that "suburban public high school students have sex, drink, smoke, use illegal drugs, and engage in delinquent behavior as often as urban" students.
Daniels believes "the bar has dropped so low (for acceptable behavior) that we don't even know where it is anymore." She emphasizes that "this is not a black thing. It's a national thing."
"This behavior is celebrated. It's now something folks don't have shame about," Daniels says. "Our expectations have gotten too low."
Beyond the media spotlight, Daniels argues, "ghetto" is a staple of many youth subcultures. What troubles certain onlookers is when youthful fans not only listen to the urban sound of hip-hop but also borrow from certain rappers' attitudes and lyrics, freely using words such as "mofo," "ho" and numerous unprintable others.
Ramon Ramirez knows the phenomenon firsthand. Growing up in South Austin, he and his friends listened to hip-hop, and Hispanic kids routinely addressed each other by the n-word.
Even now, as a senior at the University of Texas-Austin, Ramirez says non-black students will playfully call out, "hos in the back!" when jumping in a car with women. Nobody takes offense, he says, because they're just joking around.
"Most people take rap with a grain of salt," says Ramirez, music editor of The Daily Texan, the campus newspaper. When they talk or act like rappers, he says, "it's very much tongue-in-cheek."
But at times, white college students have crossed into racially offensive territory. For Martin Luther King Jr. Day, students at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, held a party where they dressed in faux gang apparel, ate fried chicken and drank from 40-ounce malt liquor bottles in paper bags. Similar events have taken place at other schools.
Undercurrents of racism and class prejudice are never far away when middle-class people dress and behave like poor blacks who've briefly tasted a type of success through hip-hop, says William Jelani Cobb, a professor of American history at Spelman College. "Periodically, American popular culture gets back to its minstrel roots (when whites) take an exaggerated caricature of black folks and play it up," he says.
Others, however, see less harmful dynamics at work. Bakari Kitwana, author of Why White Kids Love Hip Hop and a convener of campus dialogues on hip-hop culture, says suburban kids forge their own identities through hip-hop culture and often mean no offense by claiming "ghetto" styles.
What's more, he says, today's youth and young adults reflect strong moral values in surveys and life. His example: out-of-wedlock births have declined with this generation. Even so, he says, people have never been perfect, and now their foibles are on display because young people today are generally less inhibited than their parents.
"I think the values have always been there and were suppressed" before hip-hop made it OK to celebrate materialism, Kitwana says. As a society, "we've taught young people that money is more important than anything else. Then we expect them not to act like that?"
Some worry that a younger generation is setting itself up for disaster by failing to heed traditional norms for respect and restraint. Theology professor Anthony Bradley, for instance, wants young people to recognize the link between self-control and dignity.
"This generation has no moral compass to see that this ('ghetto' style) is not good for them," says Bradley, of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Institutions such as marriage, education and the church "are no longer valued."
Yet where institutions may be absent, hip-hop devotees are stepping up with an encouraging word. Jerod Couch, a senior at the University of Texas-Austin, uses his public access TV show ATX Most Wanted to discuss hip-hop culture - and offer moral correctives when necessary.
"My biggest concern is how hip-hop degrades women and makes them seem like objects," says Couch, who is white. "I've encouraged people to treat every woman as if she was the best woman on earth - as if she was your mother, deserving of respect."