Tuesday, March 28, 2006

It's the culture, stupid!

Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson writes quite convincingly in the New York Times about social scientists' inability to explain pathological and self-destructive behavior among black males. He believes that people need to rely less on socio-economical explanations and more on those that are based on the actual culture of black men.
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.

His op-ed is not without its faults, however. For example, he writes, in attempting to defend studies of culture:
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.

Why would it be impossible? It is pretty well-known that even during slave times and Jim Crow, blacks married at very high rates, children had two parents who were married, and fathers did not shirk their responsibility at the rates that they do now. Certainly the rates weren't as high as for whites, but not nearly as bad as they are now. A recent op-ed in the Washington Post by Joy Jones underscores this point. So, if slavery or the collective consciousness of blacks is somehow a central explanation for the current problems facing black men, why did these factors creep into the collective consciousness 40 years hence?

Despite this small disagreement, his op-ed is quite good and highly recommended reading. (Via Ann Althouse)


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