Don't Be Like That by Kelefa Sanneh
Does black culture need to be reformed?
It was just after eight o'clock on a November night when Robert McCulloch, the prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County, announced that a grand jury would not be returning an indictment in the police killing of Michael Brown, who was eighteen, unarmed, and African-American. About an hour later and eight hundred miles away, President Obama delivered a short and sober speech designed to function as an anti-inflammatory. He praised police officers while urging them to "show care and restraint" when confronting protesters. He said that "communities of color" had "real issues" with law enforcement, but reminded disappointed Missourians that Brown's mother and father had asked for peace. "Michael Brown's parents have lost more than anyone," he said. "We should be honoring their wishes."
Even as he mentioned Brown's parents, Obama was careful not to invoke Brown himself, who had become a polarizing figure. To the protesters who chanted, "Hands up! Don't shoot!," Brown was a symbol of the young African-American man as victim- the chant referred to the claim that Brown was surrendering, with his hands up, when he was killed. Critics of the protest movement were more likely to bring up the video, taken in the fifteen minutes before Brown's death, that appeared to show him stealing cigarillos from a convenience store and then shoving and intimidating the worker who tried to stop him-the victim was also, it seemed, a perpetrator.
After the Times described Brown as "no angel," the MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry accused the newspaper of "victim-blaming," arguing that African- Americans, no matter how "angelic," will never be safe from "those who see their very skin as a sin." But, on the National Review Web site, Heather MacDonald quoted an anonymous black corporate executive who told her, "Michael Brown may have been shot by the cop, but he was killed by parents and a community that produced such a thug." And so the Michael Brown debate became a proxy for our ongoing argument about race: where some seek to expose what America is doing to black communities, others insist that the real problem is what black communities are doing to themselves.
Sociologists who study black America have a name for these camps: those who emphasize the role of institutional racism and economic circumstances are known as structuralists, while those who emphasize the importance of self-perpetuating norms and behaviors are known as culturalists. Mainstream politicians are culturalists by nature, because in America you seldom lose an election by talking up the virtues of hard work and good conduct. But in many sociology departments structuralism holds sway-no one who studies African-American communities wants to be accused, as the Times was, of "victim-blaming." Orlando Patterson, a Jamaica-born sociologist at Harvard with an appetite for intellectual combat, wants to redeem the culturalist tradition, thereby redeeming sociology itself. In a manifesto published in December, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he argued that "fearful" sociologists had abandoned "studies of the cultural dimensions of poverty, particularly black poverty," and that the discipline had become "largely irrelevant." Now Patterson and Ethan Fosse, a Harvard doctoral student in sociology, are publishing an ambitious new anthology called "The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth" (Harvard), which is meant to show that the culturalist tradition still has something to teach us.
The book arrives on the fiftieth anniversary of its most important predecessor: a slim government report written by an Assistant Secretary of Labor and first printed in an edition of a hundred. The author was Daniel Patrick Moynil1an, and the title was "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action." At first, the historian James T. Patterson has written, only one copy was allowed to circulate; the other ninety-nine were locked in a vault. Moynihan's report cited sociologists and government surveys to underscore a message meant to startle: the Negro community was doing badly, and its condition was probably "getting worse, not better." Moynihan, who was trained in sociology, judged that "most Negro youth are in danger of being caught up in the tangle of pathology that affects their world, and probably a majority are so entrapped." He returned again and again to his main theme, "the deterioration of the Negro family," which he considered "the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community"; he included a chart showing the rising proportion of nonwhite births in America that were "illegitimate." (The report used the terms "Negro" and "nonwhite" interchangeably.) And, at the end, Moynihan called- briefly, and vaguely- for a national program to "strengthen the Negro family."
The 1965 report was leaked to the press, inspiring a series of lurid articles, and later that year the Johnson Administration released the entire document, making it available for forty-five cents. Moynihan found some allies, including Martin Luther King, Jr. ln a speech in October, King referred to an unnamed "recent study" showing that "the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling and disintegrating." But King also worried that some people might attribute this "social catastrophe" to "innate Negro weaknesses," and that discussions of it could be "used to justify neglect and rationalize oppression." Many sociologists were harsher. Andrew Billingsley argued that in assessing the problems caused by dysfunctional black families Moynihan had mistaken the symptom for the sickness. "The family is a creature of society," he wrote. ''And the greatest problems facing black families are problems which emanate from the white racist, militarist, materialistic society which places higher priority on putting white men on the moon than putting black men on their feet on this earth." This debate had influence far beyond sociological journals: when Harris-Perry accused the Times of "victim-blaming," she was using a term coined by the psychologist William Ryan, in a book-length rebuttal to the Moynihan report, "Blaming the Victim."
Orlando Patterson thinks that, half a century later, it's easier to appreciate all that Moynihan got right. "History has been kind to Moynihan," he and Fosse write, which might be another way of saying that history has not been particularly kind to the people Moynihan wrote about-some of his dire predictions no longer seem so outlandish. Moynihan despaired that the illegitimacy rate for Negro babies was approaching twenty-five per cent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the equivalent rate in 2013 was 71.5 per cent. (The rate for non-Hispanic white babies was 29.3 per cent.) Even so, Patterson and the other contributors avoid pronouncing upon "ghetto culture" or "the culture of poverty," or even "black culture." Instead, the authors see shifting patterns of belief and behavior that may nevertheless combine to make certain families less stable, or certain young people less employable. The hope is that, by paying close attention to culture, sociologists will be better equipped to identify these patterns, and help change them.
In Moynihan's view, the triumph of the civil-rights movement made his report that much more exigent: he was sure that as long as the Negro family was unstable the movement's promises of economic advancement and social equality would remain unfulfilled. Of course, alarming reports about the state of black culture have a long history in America: sometimes the accounts of deviant behavior were meant to explain why black oppression was justified; at other times, the accounts were meant to explain why black oppression was harmful.
In 1899, the trailblazing Negro scholar W.E.B. Du Bois drew on interviews and census data to produce "The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study," which helped shape the young discipline of sociology. Du Bois spent a year living in the neighborhood he wrote about, amid what he later described as "an atmosphere of dirt, drunkenness, poverty, and crime." What emerged from this field research was a stem, unsentimental book; at times, Du Bois's disdain for his subjects, especially what he called "the dregs," seemed as great as his outrage at the discrimination they faced. He observed, in language much harsher than Moynihan's, the large number of unmarried mothers, many of whom he characterized as "ignorant and loose. "In this book, as in the rest of his life, Du Bois did not shy away from prescription. He concluded by reminding whites of their duty to stop employment discrimination, which he called "morally wrong, politically dangerous, industrially wasteful, and socially silly. "But he reminded Negro readers that they had a duty, too: to work harder, to behave better, and to stem the tide of "Negro crime," which was, he said, "a menace to a civilized people." His chapter on "The Negro Criminal," illustrated with charts and graphs, showed that Negroes were disproportionately represented in police records though he suggested that the police, too, were acting disproportionately.
In the years before Moynihan, other social scientists refined Du Bois's approach, most famously Oscar Lewis, who used the term "culture of poverty" to describe what he saw among the Mexican families he studied. In retrospect, it seems clear that what infuriated many of Moynihan's readers wasn't so much what he wrote (he was mainly summarizing contemporary research) as what he represented. He was a young white political staffer explaining what was wrong with black communities, so he had to be wrong, even if he was right. One of the most revealing and representative responses came from James Farmer, the director of the Congress of Racial Equality: "We are sick unto death of being analyzed, mesmerized, bought, sold, and slobbered over, while the same evils that are the ingredients of our oppression go unattended." Moynihan had stumbled into a quandary familiar to sociologists: sometimes your subject doesn't want to be subjectified.
The battle over Moynihan's report was a battle over the legacy of slavery, too, and Orlando Patterson was well qualified to join it. He earned his Ph.D. in 1965, with a dissertation on the sociology of Jamaican slavery, and in his best-known books, "Slavery and Social Death" and "Freedom in the Making of Western Culture," he broadened his focus to consider the institution of slavery and how it gave rise to the ideal of freedom. (He has also published a trio of novels set in Jamaica.) In 1973, as the anti-Moynihan wave was cresting, Patterson offered a partial defense: rebutting Ryan's rebuttal, he wrote that writers like Moynihan "in no way blame the victim." In fact, Patterson argued, Moynihan's report was overly "deterministic," portraying black Americans as the inevitable victims of a long and oppressive history. Even more than Du Bois, Moynihan stressed the debilitating legacy of American slavery, asserting that it was "indescribably worse" than any form of bondage in the history of the world. Although Moynihan's fiercest critics didn't dispute this, they found themselves arguing that slavery had been less destructive than Moynihan thought: they celebrated the resilience of the black family in its non-standard forms . (Moynihan's "illegitimacy" statistics couldn't account for the grandparents and other extended-family members who might help a mother bring up her child.) Patterson called these scholars "survivalists," in contrast to "catastrophists," and years later the survivalists' work can seem too transparent in its aims. A number of sociologists, wary of insulting their subjects, seemed content to settle for flattery instead, depicting the black family as an extraordinary success story, no matter what the statistics said.
Patterson sometimes implies that the Moynihan affair chastened sociology forever, but the culturalist impulse didn't go away. In 1978, William Julius Wilson popularized the term "underclass," to describe the non-working poor who have been left behind by the disappearance of blue-collar jobs, but he also came to believe that "social isolation" helps create ways of living that perpetuate poverty. (Wil- . son argued that declining professional prospects made some black men less marriageable. Patterson thinks that declining marriage rates had more to do with the increased availability of contraception and abortion, which eroded cultural norms that had once compelled men to marry the women they impregnated.) And in 1999, on the hundredth anniversary of Du Bois's classic, Elijah Anderson published a new sociological study of poor black neighborhoods in Philadelphia, "Code of the Street," which took seriously its informants' own characterization of themselves and their neighbors as either "decent" or "street" or, not infrequently, a bit of both. In "The Cultural Matrix," Patterson updates and expands Anderson's taxonomy, listing "three main social groups" (the middle class, the working class, and "disconnected street people") that are common in "disadvantaged" African-American neighborhoods, along with "four focal cultural configurations" (adapted mainstream, proletarian, street, and hip-hop). In general, though, "black youth" means "poor black youth;" since poverty is what gives a project such as this one its urgency.
The contributors to "The Cultural Matrix" strive to avoid technical language, in what seems to be a brave but doomed attempt to attract casual readers to a book that is nearly seven hundred pages long. Some of the best cultural sociology draws its power from careful interviewing and observation. Anderson's "Code of the Street" was influential because it was widely read, and it was widely read because it often resembled a novel, full of complicated people and pungent testimonials. (One "decent" woman's account of raising five children had a nine-word opening sentence that no writing workshop could have improved: "My son that's bad now-his name is Curtis.") Some of Patterson's contributors have a similar facility with anecdote. A chapter about resisting the influence of poor neighborhoods includes a startling detail about a tough but crime-averse young man named Gary: "He pats people down before they get in his car to make sure they are not carrying anything that could get him arrested. "This, apparently, is what staying out of trouble might entail for a young black man in Baltimore.
Among the most important essays in the new anthology is Jody Miller's account of sexual relationships in St. Louis. An eighteen-year-old informant named Terence talks about participating in a sexual encounter that may not have been consensual, and his affectless language only makes the scene more discomfiting:
INTERVIEWER: Did you know the girl?
TERENCE: Naw, I ain't know her, know her like for real know her. But I knew her name or whatever. I had seen her before. That was it though.
INTERVIEWER: So when you all got there, she was in the room already?
TERENCE: Naw, when we got there, she hadn't even got there yet. And when she came, she went in the room with my friend, the one she had already knew. And then after they was in there for a minute, he came out and let us know that she was gon', you know, run a train or whatever. So after that, we just went one by one.
Miller knows that most readers will find this appalling, so she follows Terence's testimony with an assurance that incidents such as these reflect a legacy of racism-she mentions, for instance, "the gross 'scientific' objectification of African women in the nineteenth century." This is a common technique among the new culturalists: every distressing contemporary phenomenon must be matched to an explicitly racist antecedent, however distant. This distance is what separates the culturalists from the structuralists. Patterson and the others are right that cultural traits often outgrow and outlive the circumstances of their creation. But often what remains is a circular explanation, description masquerading as a causal account. African-American gender relations are troubled because of "cultural features" that foster troubled gender relations.
One difference between the current era and Moynihan's, or Du Bois's, is that contemporary sociologists have a new potential culprit to blame for the disorder they see: hip-hop. The anthology includes a careful history of the genre by Wayne Marshall, an ethnomusicologist, who emphasizes its mutability. But Patterson, brave as ever, can't resist wading into this culture war. In one exuberant passage, he compares MC Hammer to Nietzsche, uses an obscure remix verse to contend that hip-hop routinely celebrates "forced abortions," and pronounces Lil Wayne "irredeemably vulgar" and "all too typical" of the genre's devolution. And yet he is a conscientious enough social scientist to concede that there doesn't seem to be decisive evidence for a "causal link" between violent lyrics and violent behavior. Writing in 1999, Anderson mentioned hip-hop only in passing, suggesting that it supported, and was supported by, "an ideology of alienation." (He was nearly as critical of "popular love songs" and "television soap operas, "which he judged to nourish girls' dreams of storybook romance. "When a girl is approached by a boy," he wrote, "her faith in the dream clouds her view of the situation.") Now hiphop has achieved cultural hegemony, but Patterson doesn't seem to have noticed that the genre has become markedly less pugnacious in recent years, thanks to non-thuggish stars like Drake, Nicki Minaj, Macklemore, Kendrick Lamar, and Iggy Azalea. The next wave of culturalist analyses will surely be able to explain how this music, too, is part of the problem.
The most provocative chapter in "The Cultural Matrix" is the final one, an exacting polemic by a Harvard colleague of Patterson's, Tommie Shelby, a professor of African and African-American studies and of philosophy. Shelby accepts, for the sake of argument, the idea that "suboptimal cultural traits" are the major impediment for many African- Americans seeking to escape poverty. He notes, in language much more delicate than Moynihan's (let alone Du Bois's), that "some in ghetto communities are believed to devalue traditional co-parenting and to eschew mainstream styles of childrearing." Still, Shelby is suspicious of attempts to reform these traits, and not only because he is wary of "victim-blaming." He thinks that the "ghetto poor" have a right to remain defiantly unaltered. In his view, a program of compulsory cultural reform "robs the ghetto poor of a choice that should be theirs alone-namely, whether the improved prospects for ending or ameliorating ghetto poverty are worth the loss of moral pride they would incur by conceding the insulting view that they have not shown themselves to be deserving of better treatment." For Shelby, opposing hypothetical future government programs is also a way of registering frustration with past government action, and inaction. "Given its failure to secure just social conditions," he writes, "the state lacks the moral standing to act as an agent of moral reform."
This "moral standing" argument is too powerful for its own good, because it would invalidate just about everything done by the U.S. government, or any other. The crucial question is not whether the state has the "moral standing" to reform cultural practices in the ghetto but whether it has the ability. Politicians love to call for such reform; Obama could have been channeling Moynihan when he said, in his famous 2008 speech on race, that African- Americans needed to take more responsibility for their own communities by "demanding more from our fathers." But a demand is not a program. Patterson, in the essay for the Chronicle, suggested that "cultural values, norms, beliefs, and habitual practices may be easier to change than structural ones." And yet a chapter in the anthology, about a federal relationship-counselling program called Building Strong Families, provides less reason for confidence. In most cases, the follow-up reports suggested that the program had little or no effect on tl1e relationships it sought to help; in one city, Baltimore, couples who received counselling were markedly more likely to split. (The authors, looking for good news, voice a faint hope that the demise of those relationships "may lead to better repartnering outcomes.")
A few years ago, in The Nation, Patterson responded to some disappointing statistics showing high unemployment and persistent segregation by urging African-Americans to "do some serious soul-searching." But part of the problem with calls for cultural reform is that the so-called "ghetto poor" tend to agree with the kinds of messages that outsiders, whether tough-love politicians or self-conscious sociologists alike, would urge upon them: work matters, family matters, culture matters. Ethan Fosse draws on a number of recent surveys of tl1e "disconnected"-the term refers to young people who are neither employed nor attending school and finds that they adhere more strongly to various mainstream cultural values than their connected counterparts do: they are more likely to say that having a good career is "very important" to them, and seventy-four per cent of them say that black men "don't take their education seriously enough," compared with only sixty-two per cent of connected black youth. Surveys also suggest that disconnected young people are more likely to agree with Patterson's critique of hip-hop- the people most susceptible to the genre's influence turn out to be the ones most skeptical of it. In an overview chapter, Patterson wryly notes that results such as these may pose a conundrum. "Sociologists love subjects who tell truth to mainstream power," he writes. "They grow uncomfortable when these subjects tell mainstream truths to sociologists. "But none of this offers encouragement for people who think that cultural change is a key to social uplift.
Just how dire is the situation? Moynihan worried that "the Negro community" was in a state of decline, bedevilled by an increasingly matriarch al family structure, which led to the increasing incidence of crime and delinquency. Much of Moynihan's historical data was scant or inconclusive, but, when it came to violent crime, he guessed correctly: in the fifteen years after he published his report, the country's homicide rate doubled, with blacks over represented among both perpetrators and victims. America, and Negro America in particular, was at the beginning of a years-long catastrophe. But what happened next was even more surprising: beginning in the early nineteen-nineties, the homicide rate, like other rates of violent crime, began to decline; today, African-Americans are about half as likely to be involved in a homicide, either as perpetrator or as victim, as they were two decades ago. Patterson and Fosse write that, in the years after Moynihan's report, a "discrepancy" developed between the optimistic scholarship of sociologists, eager to emphasize the resilience of black families, and "the reality of urban black life," which was increasingly grim. But the contemporary era has been marked by the opposite discrepancy: even as the new culturalists were restirrecting Moynihan's diagnosis, the scourge of crime was in retreat.
Patterson, committed to his critique of African-American cultural life, can't bring himself to celebrate this news. Hiphop is important to him because it fuels his suspicion that, despite the drop in crime, black culture is in trouble. Fosse seems to share this pessimism, reporting "an alarming increase in the percentage of black youth who are structurally disconnected over the past decade. "He uses survey data to create a fitted curve, showing that "nearly 25 percent" ofblack youth were disconnected in 2012, while the white rate "has remained below 15 percent." (The curve is not included in the book.) In fact, the data suggest that percentages of disconnection among black and white youth have been rising at about the same rate over the past decade; what's most alarming is not the recent increase but the ongoing disparity. Among Patterson, Fosse, and their peers, the ten.dency to write as if black culture were in exceptional crisis seems to be what a sociologist might call an unexamined injunctive norm: a shared prescriptive rule, one so ingrained that its followers don't even realize it exists.
And so the good news on crime gets downplayed. "By focusing too much on the sharp oscillation period between the eighties and late nineties," Patterson writes, "social scientists working on crime run the risk of neglecting the historic pattern of high crime rates among blacks. "But this hardly justifies the fact that these sociologists, otherwise so concerned with the effects of crime and the criminal-justice system, aren't more interested in this extraordinary rise and fall, which defied Moynihan's suggestion that crime and "illegitimacy" were inextricably linked. Apparently, this great oscillation neither required nor induced any great changes in black culture, and it has inspired nothing like a consensus among criminologists looking for a cause. Fine-grained cultural trends and well-meaning cultural initiatives often seem insignificant compared with the mysterious forces that can stealthily double or halve the violent-crime rate in the course of a decade or two. A chapter on "street violence" mentions the homicide drop only in passing, in its final paragraph.
In our political debates, as in cultural sociology, it can take some time for the stories to catch up to the statistics, especially because it takes a while to decipher what the statistics are saying. There is some evidence that, after years of rapid expansion, the African-American prison population levelled off, and may even have begun to decrease. But that hasn't made the recent arguments over race and the criminal-justice system any less urgent. The outrage in Missouri was followed, a week later, by outrage in New York, when a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict a white police officer who caused the death of an unarmed African-American man. In the aftermath, as some other commentators talked about America's legacy of racism, Patterson dissented. In a Slate interview, he said, "I am not in favor of a national conversation on race." He said that most white people in America had come to accept racial equality, but added that "there's a hard core of about twenty per cent which still remains thoroughly racist." The startling implication is that, even now, blacks in America live alongside an equal number of "thoroughly racist" whites. If this is true, it may explain the tragic sensibility that haunts Patterson's avowedly optimistic approach to race in America. He contends that black culture can and must change while conceding, less loudly, that "thoroughly racist" whites are likely to remain stubbornly the same.
There is a paradox at the heart of cultural sociology, which both seeks to explain behavior in broad, categorical terms and promises to respect its subjects' autonomy and intelligence. The results can be deflating, as the researchers find that their subjects are not stupid or crazy or heroic or transcendent-their cultural traditions just don't seem peculiar enough to answer the questions that motivate the research. Black cultural sociology has always been a project of comparison: the idea is not simply to understand black culture but to understand how it differs from white culture, as part of the broader push to reduce racial disparities that have changed surprisingly little since Du Bois's time. Fifty years after Moynihan's report, it's easy to understand why he was concerned. Even so, it's getting easier, too, to sympathize with his detractors, who couldn't understand why he thought new trends might explain old problems. If we want to learn more about black culture, we should study it. But, if we seek to answer the question of racial inequality in America, black culture won't tell us what we want to know.
New Yorker magazine, February 9, 2015.