The Times follows up on last Tuesday's gloomy statistical portrait of black men in America with an op-ed piece by Harvard sociology professor Orlando Patterson. His theme - people are unwilling to invoke cultural explanations:
SEVERAL recent studies have garnered wide attention for reconfirming the tragic disconnection of millions of black youths from the American mainstream. But they also highlighted another crisis: the failure of social scientists to adequately explain the problem, and their inability to come up with any effective strategy to deal with it.
The main cause for this shortcoming is a deep-seated dogma that has prevailed in social science and policy circles since the mid-1960's: the rejection of any explanation that invokes a group's cultural attributes — its distinctive attitudes, values and predispositions, and the resulting behavior of its members — and the relentless preference for relying on structural factors like low incomes, joblessness, poor schools and bad housing.
This is all standard explanatory fare. And, as usual, it fails to answer the important questions. Why are young black men doing so poorly in school that they lack basic literacy and math skills? These scholars must know that countless studies by educational experts, going all the way back to the landmark report by James Coleman of Johns Hopkins University in 1966, have found that poor schools, per se, do not explain why after 10 years of education a young man remains illiterate.
Nor have studies explained why, if someone cannot get a job, he turns to crime and drug abuse. One does not imply the other. Joblessness is rampant in Latin America and India, but the mass of the populations does not turn to crime.
And why do so many young unemployed black men have children — several of them — which they have no resources or intention to support? And why, finally, do they murder each other at nine times the rate of white youths?
What's most interesting about the recent spate of studies is that analysts seem at last to be recognizing what has long been obvious to anyone who takes culture seriously: socioeconomic factors are of limited explanatory power. Thus it's doubly depressing that the conclusions they draw and the prescriptions they recommend remain mired in traditional socioeconomic thinking.
Prof. Patterson tells us why we are mired:
Why have academics been so allergic to cultural explanations? Until the recent rise of behavioral economics, most economists have simply not taken non-market forces seriously. But what about the sociologists and other social scientists who ought to have known better? Three gross misconceptions about culture explain the neglect.
First is the pervasive idea that cultural explanations inherently blame the victim; that they focus on internal behavioral factors and, as such, hold people responsible for their poverty, rather than putting the onus on their deprived environment. (It hasn't helped that many conservatives do actually put forth this view.)
...Second, it is often assumed that cultural explanations are wholly deterministic, leaving no room for human agency. This, too, is nonsense. Modern students of culture have long shown that while it partly determines behavior, it also enables people to change behavior. People use their culture as a frame for understanding their world, and as a resource to do much of what they want.
...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.
And finally we get to the "Dionysian trap":
So what are some of the cultural factors that explain the sorry state of young black men? They aren't always obvious. Sociological investigation has found, in fact, that one popular explanation — that black children who do well are derided by fellow blacks for "acting white" — turns out to be largely false, except for those attending a minority of mixed-race schools.
An anecdote helps explain why: 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.
I'm a bit surprised by his theme - I would have thought that problems with inner-city culture have been discussed for decades. Just for example, what have people meant by "babies raising babies", or by worrying about absent fathers?
MORE: This PBS chat between David Gergen and Orlando Patterson from back in 1997 is fascinating. Prof. Patterson whacks everyone for deliberately understating the progress we have made:
ORLANDO PATTERSON: Well, for the right wants to castigate the government for the failures of its--all its programs on behalf of the poor, the Afro-American poor. It makes sense they exaggerate the problem to show how we’re losing ground because of the horrendous government interference in policies, so that welfare dependency and so on is increasing and it’s increasing because of rotten government policies. For the left, the liberal group, exaggerating the problem, emphasizing that America is chronically racist seems--is mistakenly believed that this will keep the pressure up for government to intervene even more. And the criticism here is just the opposite of the right, which is that things are bad because the government hasn’t gone far enough, or there’s still, the place is still chronically racist, so there’s still a need for more government intervention.
And for Afro-American leadership emphasizing racism as being--America as irredeemably racist--enhances their broker role, obviously, and again mistakenly is based on the view that by presenting an image of almost no progress, you will increase the possibility of greater intervention. And it’s also partly due to the tragic commitment to the ideology of the victim, a very deterministic view, which I’m afraid most Afro-American leadership has adopted, which tends to assume that by perceiving of Afro-Americans as victims you increase the chance of intervention on their behalf. Now, unfortunately, this worked. This is the strategy of the 60's. It’s interesting that the great Supreme Court decision, which struck down school segregation, was based on a determinist view, i.e., social scientists were brought in to show that it created victims, rather than the view that this is the right thing to do.