The Black Harvard sociology professor Orlando Patterson published an important op ed piece in Sunday's New York Times, asking why young black men continue disproportionately to fail. He offers lots of questions and answers, all of which carry big implications. Yet there are troubling aspects to his analysis.
I do give him high marks for courage. He makes controversial pronouncements that are bound to infuriate lots of people – especially black Americans and most sociologists. (Not me, but the rest of them.) He and Bill Cosby may not exactly see eye to eye, but both of them are provocative in the extreme and probably have paid a high price in the black community for their forthright comments.
Patterson asserts that many young black males display a self-destructive life style that social scientists can no longer explain by referring to socio-economic deprivation. There are plenty of job opportunities nowadays, but black guys let them pass by, dropping out of school instead, hanging around idly, fathering children for whom they cannot provide, and spending years in prison. It’s immigrants who take the entry level jobs and begin climbing the social ladder. Patterson boldly asserts that social structural factors cannot explain this pattern. Black culture is the only explanation that holds water, though traditional social scientists dislike cultural accounts. This, he says, is mainly because any criticism of a group’s culture is regarded as “blaming the victim,” which decent people naturally avoid doing. But, he suggests, that’s nonsense. You can criticize black culture without criticizing blacks themselves.
Really? That’s a hard distinction to keep in mind, though surely Patterson could explicate it if pressed to do so. Probably he just means that a group’s culture comes from its history, and that no one can be blamed for the distant past. He himself is scathing in depicting black male youths’ shiftless ways, but he could trace that cultural pattern backward in time, showing it as the moral legacy of slavery for males. Irresponsible habits may be transmitted for generations, long after the original conditions have changed. After all, continuity of custom is what we mean by culture. Fair enough; I can accept that argument. (But Bill Cosby may not. His own criticism of black culture is also scathing but, unlike Patterson, he frankly blames black parents for not holding their children to high standards.)
But Patterson leaves us with numerous unanswered questions. For example, why do young black females go on to college when the males drop out? (Can the historical situation of female slaves explain this present cultural difference between the sexes?)
Apparently, however, it is not just the past that explains present culture. Patterson argues that some current factors lend appeal to black culture. The young males do not readily give it up because their lifestyle is regarded as “cool” even by the wider white culture. These irresponsible habits are characteristic of many famous black athletes and entertainers whom young white guys also admire, he says, though in a limited way. The whites are selective, knowing when to turn off the Hip-Hop and study for their SAT exams, whereas the black guys recognize no such limits. Indeed, the admiration of whites explains the puzzling self-esteem of blacks, which is higher than among whites, regardless of their achievements or failures.
Nice try, Professor Patterson, but this argument is unconvincing. Surely black males do not harbor the delusion that their white classmates envy their leisurely, laid-back ways, their joblessness, or their frequent sojourns in prison. I cannot explain the high self-esteem of young black students (which I too discovered in research forty years ago) but it cannot plausibly be attributed to the high prestige that whites accord to blacks in America.
In defending his preference for cultural explanations Patterson makes one point that I do like. He writes that it is often assumed that cultural explanations are wholly deterministic, for cultural patterns cannot change. This is nonsense, he insists. “Indeed, cultural patterns are often easier to change than the economic factors favored by policy analysts.”
He’s right – and that’s a good starting point. What is needed most is sociology that shows how to introduce cultural change in a predictable way. In fact, we need a whole new approach to sociology that will focus on the pragmatic project of changing mass culture. Lots of studies have explained, after the fact, how a particular innovation took root, but there are no handbooks advising practitioners how to accomplish such feats in a systematic way. What would such a handbook look like?
I think it would begin by exploring the psychoanalytic notion of the “ego ideal.” Young black males will change when they identify with someone whose lifestyle they admire and believe that they can successfully emulate. If they don’t have fathers in their own lives, they must have a different adult male to “look up to.” This will probably not be Bill Cosby or Orlando Patterson, who are both so far ahead that the working class youth cannot imagine following in their footsteps. Mike Tyson is more likely a figure whom they could hope to emulate — and Tyson exemplifies the existing black American culture. Every major cultural change is started by a hero. What has to be established is how to make an outstanding man seem heroic to young black males, yet also potentially within the range of their own aspirations.
I think movies and television offer that potential. If black society offers too few living ego ideals to capture the imagination of boys, then it is possible to create new fictional ones on millions of screens across America.
Yes, culture is created by past history. And it’s also created by the future too – images of a future possibility, images showing how a black man in America might live well.