Sunday, March 26, 2006

Is Black Culture Holding Black Men Back?

Is Black Culture Holding Black Men Back?

Professor Orlando Patterson of Harvard University has an interesting op/ed piece in the New York Times this week (courtesy of Ben Casnocha's feed).

In it, he argues that social scientists have failed to come up with effective solutions to the plight of America's black youth, especially young black men, because of an dogmatic unwillingness to look at a group's cultural attributes as a potential cause, preferring the usual explanations of low incomes, joblessness, poor schools, and bad housing.

These explanations, Patterson argues, have been discredited.

What has happened, I think, is that the economic boom years of the 90's and one of the most successful policy initiatives in memory — welfare reform — have made it impossible to ignore the effects of culture. The Clinton administration achieved exactly what policy analysts had long said would pull black men out of their torpor: the economy grew at a rapid pace, providing millions of new jobs at all levels. Yet the jobless black youths simply did not turn up to take them. Instead, the opportunity was seized in large part by immigrants — including many blacks — mainly from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Patterson tackles the reasons why scientists have avoided cultural explanations--the worries that they blame the victim and are deterministic, and the sense that culture cannot be easily changed--and demolishes them.

Indeed, he uses one of my favorite rhetorical techniques, which is to use a counterexample that the expected objectors cannot dismiss without revealing themselves as rank hypocrites:

Third, it is often assumed that cultural patterns cannot change — the old "cake of custom" saw. This too is nonsense. Indeed, cultural patterns are often easier to change than the economic factors favored by policy analysts, and American history offers numerous examples.

My favorite is Jim Crow, that deeply entrenched set of cultural and institutional practices built up over four centuries of racist domination and exclusion of blacks by whites in the South. Nothing could have been more cultural than that. And yet America was able to dismantle the entire system within a single generation, so much so that today blacks are now making a historic migratory shift back to the South, which they find more congenial than the North. (At the same time, economic inequality, which the policy analysts love to discuss, has hardened in the South, like the rest of America.)

While Patterson does not feel he has all the answers (he is arguing, after all, that social scientists need to do research in this area so that they can actually draw some conclusions), he makes the interesting argument that the reason young black males experience many of their problems is because of the mainstream culture which has a strong economic interest in glorifying the "cool" but devastating gangsta culture.

Several years ago, one of my students went back to her high school to find out why it was that almost all the black girls graduated and went to college whereas nearly all the black boys either failed to graduate or did not go on to college. Distressingly, she found that all the black boys knew the consequences of not graduating and going on to college ("We're not stupid!" they told her indignantly).

SO why were they flunking out? Their candid answer was that what sociologists call the "cool-pose culture" of young black men was simply too gratifying to give up. For these young men, it was almost like a drug, hanging out on the street after school, shopping and dressing sharply, sexual conquests, party drugs, hip-hop music and culture, the fact that almost all the superstar athletes and a great many of the nation's best entertainers were black.

Not only was living this subculture immensely fulfilling, the boys said, it also brought them a great deal of respect from white youths. This also explains the otherwise puzzling finding by social psychologists that young black men and women tend to have the highest levels of self-esteem of all ethnic groups, and that their self-image is independent of how badly they were doing in school.

I call this the Dionysian trap for young black men. The important thing to note about the subculture that ensnares them is that it is not disconnected from the mainstream culture. To the contrary, it has powerful support from some of America's largest corporations. Hip-hop, professional basketball and homeboy fashions are as American as cherry pie. Young white Americans are very much into these things, but selectively; they know when it is time to turn off Fifty Cent and get out the SAT prep book.

For young black men, however, that culture is all there is — or so they think. Sadly, their complete engagement in this part of the American cultural mainstream, which they created and which feeds their pride and self-respect, is a major factor in their disconnection from the socioeconomic mainstream.

The irony here is that "the man" is holding black youth down--by glorifying a self-destructive culture which whites then enjoy from a safe distance. I can't help but be reminded of Dave Chappelle's recurring sketches on the dangers of "Keeping it Real," where black men and women ruin their lives in an attempt to "keep it real."

P.S. A final thought: The first thing I did after finishing the article was to look up Professor Patterson's picture to see if he was black, because I knew that if he was white, Harvard was going to fire his ass. What does that say about racism and academia?

P.P.S. A group of black law professors at George Washington University have a group blog, and point out that what Patterson does not do is to tackle the question of what should be done about the issues he identifies. What Professor Adrien Wing points out is how the mainstream media focus almost entirely on athletes and entertainers, rather than the likes of Barack Obama and Colin Powell, or other success stories in business, education, the church, and just plain old ordinary life.

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