Progress or Peril?

By Orlando Patterson
Sunday, January 7, 2007

Personal responsibility, or victimization?

These two themes struck me as I read The Washington Post's "Being a Black Man" series. I was impressed with how the young black men profiled in the series acknowledged their plight and assumed responsibility for it. Their unsentimental realism contrasts sharply with the persistent victim arguments of the experts and specialists interviewed for the series, and those of many academics and social scientists, white and black alike, who think they understand black men and the solutions to their problems.

The Post's survey found that 60 percent of black men attribute their plight to their own personal failures and attitudes rather than to racism. They do not underplay the persistence of racism in the United States, but they refuse to explain away their troubles by blaming the system.

It is heartening to see that young black men, even more than whites, think that to "blame things on other people" is not only a false take on reality but a sure way to guarantee failure. The men interviewed repeatedly made the point that viewing the world as a victim can be self-fulfilling. Most telling is Rahsaan Ferguson's account of his father's mantra, "You are a black boy. That's two things you will always have against you." This, Rahsaan fortunately came to realize, was terribly disabling advice: "It kind of brings you down," he said. Indeed.

Rahsaan's father, nonetheless, can be forgiven for so badly misadvising his son, because his views are consistent with those of most members of the academic and professional community who interpret or work with blacks. Among such professionals, the overwhelming dogma is that blacks are victims and that racism -- personal and institutional -- is the main explanation for their troubles. It is striking that an overwhelming majority of the professional analysts interviewed for the series emphasized victimhood in their explanations.

"Even successful black men are victims of this crisis," argued Courtland Lee, a University of Maryland professor and former editor of the Journal of African American Men, in one of The Post's articles. "They know they walk around with a target on their backs."

This is nonsense. Other professionals to whom The Post spoke blamed the media for presenting "unflattering images of black men." Added Carl Bell, president of the Community Mental Health Council in Chicago: "We got this outside system putting this lens on black people, especially black men, that says 'toxic demon.' " More confounding foolishness. The mass media's role is, indeed, one factor in understanding the condition of young black men, but not because it portrays them as "toxic demons." To the contrary, the problem is that the media too enthusiastically reinforce a perversely favorable image of young black male culture; increasingly, the people producing these images are black media moguls and stars.

As The Post explained, it is black male behavior and role models that most influence the views that young blacks have of themselves as well as the media's stereotypes of them. The refusal of many social scientists to acknowledge any agency on the part of young black men in explaining their plight is extremely patronizing -- especially after The Post has shown that these young men take responsibility for their condition.

If one believes that the source of the problem is "the system" and racism, then the only policy prescription is the call to change the system and remove racism from the hearts of white Americans. How exactly we change a powerful capitalist system or purge the souls of the white majority is never explained. Revolution, maybe?

If one acknowledges that individual attitudes, values and behaviors are the main sources of the problems young black men face -- the undeniable existence of racism notwithstanding -- then the right strategy is to explore the nature of these values and to understand the factors that reinforce and sustain them.

There are many such factors, but the most important is the fraught nature of black male-female relationships and the fragility of their marital unions or cohabitations. The Post's series powerfully documents this issue, although mainly among the middle class. But if middle-class women have such problems, how much worse must they be among the poor? Stable unions are a fast-dying institution among African Americans and must be rescued before it is too late.

Surveys increasingly show that, especially among the poor, women even more than men are turned off by marriage because they expect so little from it. Blacks have the lowest rate of marriage of all groups in the United States; when they do marry or cohabit they have the highest rates of disruption; and when they divorce they have the lowest rates of remarriage. The result is both the highest proportion of adults living singly and the fact that the great majority of black kids are now being raised without a father.

The consequences for children have been long debated, but the consequences for adults have not. Poor single mothers bear double and triple burdens but, hard as life is, there is a positive side for black women: Single parenting imposes an emotional and social discipline upon them that -- if it does not overwhelm -- they can transfer to other settings, including the workplace. This admittedly harsh conditioning may well explain why young black women find better and more stable employment than their male counterparts.

On the other hand, there is overwhelming evidence that being single has devastating consequences for all men, but especially poor black ones. Unpartnered men are far more likely to engage in high-risk behavior and hence more likely to end up in jail; they are far more prone to poor health, including deadly diseases such as AIDS, and hence die much younger; they are more likely to be poor, homeless or unemployed. Social scientists often explain the low rate of black marriages by pointing to the relatively higher rate of unemployment, but the causal arrow may run in the opposite direction: Men are more likely to be unemployed or out of the labor force altogether because they are not in stable unions and hence not pressured to keep regular work to meet their duties at parents.

Explaining the plight of black men in terms of their internal cultural and behavioral problems does not imply some conservative agenda that absolves government of any role or responsibility. Indeed, the disabling values and behavior of poor blacks (especially their broken families and fragile gender relationships) are themselves largely the product of past enslavement, racial oppression and discrimination, all sanctioned by the U.S government. What blacks have a right to expect from their government is not reparation -- another piece of idiocy from self-styled experts -- but sound and committed public policy, whatever it costs.

A cultural understanding of black problems suggests social policies that reduce the exposure of young blacks to the streets, increase adult supervision during childhood and lessen the burden on black mothers, especially in light of welfare policies that oblige them to work. All this implies more, not less, government: high-quality day care for the poor, longer school days, well-organized and enriching after-school programs, greatly reduced summer holidays and a radical rethinking of the school curriculum in which students learn not only essential literacy and mathematics but also social and cultural skills -- the basic and often tacit understandings, attitudes and behaviors that are required for survival and competence in the world's most advanced and competitive society.

Orlando Patterson is a professor of sociology at Harvard University and author of "Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries" (Civitas).

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