[xmca] comments on Patterson's op-ed: economism, cultural explanation, emancipatory activism

From: Steve Gabosch (sgabosch@comcast.net)
Date: Tue Apr 04 2006 - 06:48:34 PDT

I was thankful Mike suggested that NY Times op-ed
article by Orlando Patterson the other day
(appended below). After reading his article I
did a little follow up on Patterson's work via
Google. There is much to look at in Patterson,
clearly a very able researcher and writer. At
the same time, some of the passages in his op-ed
piece evoke more stereotypes than
explanations. My reaction in a nutshell is the
bias the articles seems to be steeped in is not
so much white against Black but middle class
against marginalized working class. To put this
a little more precisely, I saw in Patterson's
article a strong sense of the intolerance of the
established middle class toward lower
petty-bourgeois trends in the marginalized and
underemployed layers of urban Black male working
class youth. One form this bias seems to take is
dismay at the apparent unwillingness of a layer
of Black youth to occupy the lower paying jobs
that were supposedly available to them in the
Clinton years. Patterson chastizes them for
choosing a "cool-pose culture" instead.

Methodologically, Patterson seems to be
contrasting the bottom-up (reductionist) approach
of economism, the paradigm where economics
directly generates culture, with the top-down
(holistic) approach of what he calls "cultural
explanation", a paradigm where psychology largely
creates culture. Patterson focuses, for example,
on concepts such as "fulfillment" and
"self-esteem" to explain cultural trends and even
employment patterns. In my opinion, both
approaches are missing some essential entities in
the middle of the fray: mass movements for
social change, mass social, class and political
consciousness, and emancipatory-minded political leaderships.

I personally find Patterson's "cultural
explanation" approach as flawed and one-sided as
the economism he critiques. I see it flawed both
as a method of explanation and as a program for
social change, but at the same time, not without
insights, cynical and stereotyped as some
passages might be. The "socioeconomists," as
Patterson calls them, also have insights, but can
be equally guilty of displaying cynicism,
stereotypes and middle class biases. What they
share in common is ruling out a fundamental role
for mass movements, an inquiry into the
psychology of emancipation, an analysis of
liberation leaderships, and the role these play -
and this is very significant, the role their
*absence* plays - in today's youth culture, in
today's "culture of poverty," or in, as Patterson
scornfully describes it in the title of his
article, "A Poverty of the Mind." That today and
for some time there has been no mass Civil Rights
movement, Black Power movement, Malcolm X, etc. -
or a Vietnamese liberation movement, Cuban
Revolution, etc. as part of the international
turning point in history those times were - is
not considered an important factor by either
perspective. What is missing is mind, culture, and education.

According to both these trends in sociology, mass
movements for fundamental social change certainly
happened in history, but should not be expected
to be the norm today. The norm should be,
according to Patterson, for US male Black youth
to learn math and English, successfully compete
for jobs with immigrant workers, and in doing so,
get over participating in "self-destructive"
sub-cultures. Patterson is urging the
"disconnected fifth" of Black youth to educate
themselves and better seize the available
advantages. The "socioeconomists" criticized by
Patterson for their part suggest educating
society about more fairly distributing
advantages. At the end of the day, such
explanations boil down to complaining that
certain people - pick your gripe, whether it is
in the realm of competing or sharing - just aren't educated enough.

In contrast, in my opinion, CHAT and the
Vygotskyists have the tools to build better
explanations and to outline more effective
programs - and point toward the kind of
leaderships needed - for building the kinds of
mass movements that can fight for the material,
social and cultural needs of the oppressed, for
social change, and for social
transformation. After all, cultural-historical
psychology was forged in what Luria called the
Great Revolution, in the hope of transforming
humankind and creating a socialist future. What
better foundation could there be to build upon a
full explanatory system of human activity - and
its essential counterpart in human history, emancipatory activism?

~ Steve

The New York Times
March 26, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor

A Poverty of the Mind


Cambridge, Mass.

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.

Harry Holzer, an economist at Georgetown
University and a co-author of one of the recent
studies, typifies this attitude. Joblessness, he
feels, is due to largely weak schooling, a lack
of reading and math skills at a time when such
skills are increasingly required even for
blue-collar jobs, and the poverty of black
neighborhoods. Unable to find jobs, he claims,
black males turn to illegal activities,
especially the drug trade and chronic drug use,
and often end up in prison. He also criticizes
the practice of withholding child-support
payments from the wages of absentee fathers who
do find jobs, telling The Times that to these
men, such levies "amount to a tax on earnings."

His conclusions are shared by scholars like
Ronald B. Mincy of Columbia, the author of a
study called "Black Males Left Behind," and Gary
Orfield of Harvard, who asserts that America is
"pumping out boys with no honest alternative."

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.

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.

One oft-repeated excuse for the failure of black
Americans to take these jobs that they did not
offer a living wage turned out to be
irrelevant. The sociologist Roger Waldinger of
the University of California at Los Angeles, for
example, has shown that in New York such jobs
offered an opportunity to the chronically
unemployed to join the market and to acquire
basic work skills that they later transferred to
better jobs, but that the takers were predominantly immigrants.

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.)

But this argument is utterly bogus. To hold
someone responsible for his behavior is not to
exclude any recognition of the environmental
factors that may have induced the problematic
behavior in the first place. Many victims of
child abuse end up behaving in self-destructive
ways; to point out the link between their
behavior and the destructive acts is in no way to
deny the causal role of their earlier victimization and the need to address it.

Likewise, a cultural explanation of black male
self-destructiveness addresses not simply the
immediate connection between their attitudes and
behavior and the undesired outcomes, but explores
the origins and changing nature of these
attitudes, perhaps over generations, in their
brutalized past. It is impossible to understand
the predatory sexuality and irresponsible
fathering behavior of young black men without
going back deep into their collective past.

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. The same cultural patterns can frame
different kinds of behavior, and by failing to
explore culture at any depth, analysts miss a
great opportunity to re-frame attitudes in a way
that encourages desirable behavior and outcomes.

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.)

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.

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.

Of course, such attitudes explain only a part of
the problem. In academia, we need a new,
multidisciplinary approach toward understanding
what makes young black men behave so
self-destructively. Collecting transcripts of
their views and rationalizations is a useful
first step, but won't help nearly as much as the
recent rash of scholars with tape-recorders seem
to think. Getting the facts straight is
important, but for decades we have been
overwhelmed with statistics on black youths, and
running more statistical regressions is beginning
to approach the point of diminishing returns to knowledge.

The tragedy unfolding in our inner cities is a
time-slice of a deep historical process that runs
far back through the cataracts and deluge of our
racist past. Most black Americans have by now,
miraculously, escaped its consequences. The
disconnected fifth languishing in the ghettos is
the remains. Too much is at stake for us to fail
to understand the plight of these young men. For them, and for the rest of us.

Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at
Harvard, is the author of "Rituals of Blood:
Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries."

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