Monday, March 27, 2006

It's the culture, stupid !

In the wake of news about the young man who was beaten to death at a busstop in broad daylight, I wondered what a conservative perspective might add to the problems of violence and poverty in the inner city.

In the past, I have recommened John McWhorter's new book.

Yesterday, there was an interesting op-ed in the New York Times by an African-American sociologist at Harvard named Orlando Patterson. Patterson is decidedly not a conservative, but he does note the inability of liberal academics to propose anything that works in connection with the persistence of the black underclass, and the alienation from the mainstream of so many young African-American men. He writes:

"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.

After noting that the proposition that poverty and the lack of jobs is responsible for the persistent loss of young black men does not square with the evidence, Patterson, like McWhorter, places much of the blame on an "oppositional" subculture (McWhorter calls it therapuetic alienation), the idea that being authentically black means buying into a disaffected gangster culture. Patterson:

"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.

This diagnosis of the problem, while it challenges standard liberal nostrums, also challenges the presuppositions of, at least, libertarian conservatives in that it suggests that (at least) self- restraint on the part of the free markets and mavens of popular culture is in order.

Update: Elliott agrees and manages to call his the post the same, in retrospect somewhat obvious, name. Great minds think in alike cliches.


Seth Zlotocha said...

Patterson doesn't reject the economic explanations, he just says they're incomplete.

I agree that when you get into the subtleties of how crime operates in society, culture becomes a factor in creating expectations and norms as time goes on (although that doesn't make it a root cause).

This what Patterson is getting at when he writes: "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."

But you cannot separate economic factors from the analysis as a whole since they undoubtedly serve as a root determinant in the creation of the culture, which then in turn helps to perpetuate the existence of crime, over time.

Rick Esenberg said...

I wouldn't rule that out entirely, but the problem with placing too much emphasis on it is 1)African-American communities did not exhibit this culture in the past when they were much poorer and subject to far more discrimination and 2)economic solutions are unlikely to work without addressing cultural problems. That applies, I think, to both government transfer programs and enterprise zones.

Anonymous said...

“Self-restraint on the part of the free markets”.
Is that an oxymoron?

G.J. said...

Rick, your (and McWhorter's) argument is borne out in great detail by the new FX series, "Black. White." It's at least implicit and strongly indicated in the first four episodes I've seen; it will be interesting to find out how the show's producers eventually spin it:

THere's a lot of other interesting stuff going on in this series as well.

Rick Esenberg said...


Christians believe that freedom is for restraint.

I'll have to check out g.j.'s suggestion.

Anonymous said...

Would one call this playing the Christian card?
Just asking.