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

From: David Preiss (
Date: Wed Apr 05 2006 - 08:48:15 PDT

Hi Mike,

Your posted reminded me of two contemporary movies: Syriana and The Constant
Gardener, which put their fingers on the issue of how global capitalism
shapes our lives in very microscopic ways and makes of the worlds' poor
majorities its favorite prey. In so doing, they explain things the opposite
way: economic -->cultural--> psychological explanations. Syriana is
pedagogical in the manner it portrays how oil corporations neglect of their
workers help to precipitate religious fundamentalism. The Constant Gardener
is a terrifying portrait of corporations’ abuse. And what can be done today?
Corporations are everyday more powerful, counterculture is failing and
ineffective in sketching solutions that are feasible, and these days
neo-resigned-socialism, at least in Chile and other places adopting Giddens'
third way, has become a matter for technocrats to manage. Meanwhile, third
world charities adopt the glamour of rock stars such as Bono and Hollywood
processes into the mainstream movies such as Syriana and The Constant
Gardener, and deactivates their message, their urgency, so we can keep our
social awareness trembling while things stay the same, and worst. We are
living on dangerous times. A new internationalism is needed, in science, in
arts, in education and life.

David D. Preiss Ph.D.
Profesor Auxiliar / Assistant Professor
Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile
Escuela de Psicología.
Av. Vicuña Mackenna 4860.
Macul, Santiago de Chile.
Teléfono: (56-2) 354-4605
Fax: (56-2) 354-4844.

-----Original Message-----
From: [] On
Behalf Of Mike Cole
Sent: Tuesday, April 04, 2006 8:09 PM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] comments on Patterson's op-ed: economism,cultural
explanation, emancipatory activism

Steve-- I don't have any answers to how to make headway in this poisonous
geo-political situation in which we are enmeshed and for which we bear our
1/nth of responsibility. I do not like psychological-->cultural-->economic
explanations in principle.

But I agree with Patterson about the following:

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.

The Russian Revolution did not solve this problem for the Russians, whose
rascism does not take a back seat to our own, nor does the will to power of
their leaders.

How do we collectively confront the current crisis of which the horrendous
situation of African American males is but one, very prominent, symptom? How
do we get Americans (add the French, the Germans, the Chileans, the folks in
Singapore..............) to
live within humanity's means on the planet earth while preventing the kind
of racial genocide that is all around us?


On 4/4/06, Steve Gabosch <> wrote:
> 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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