Orlando Patterson: Black youth have values consistent with mainstream America

50 years after the Moynihan report, renowned Harvard sociologist talks Ferguson, respectability politics and Cosby

Published February 25, 2015 11:28AM (EST)

Oscar Patterson         (C-SPAN)
Oscar Patterson (C-SPAN)

With their new anthology, "The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth," Dr. Orlando Patterson and Ethan Fosse, in collaboration with numerous scholars from some of the country’s most prestigious institutions, hope to reconcile the paradoxical condition of America’s black (male) youth: “They are trapped in a seemingly intractable socioeconomic crisis,” Patterson and Fosse write, “yet are among the most vibrant creators of popular culture in the nation and the world.”

The book tiptoes through precarious sociological terrain. Nearly 50 years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan published "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Policy Planning and Research, a report that left land mines in the field of sociology. Moynihan, stressing the depletion of black family life at the hands of virulent racism in every facet of American society, was accused of “pathologizing” the black poor.

Patterson and Fosse call the backlash to Moynihan’s analysis “by far the most virulent, inaccurate, and often grossly unfair,” arguing, “Moynihan was easily one of the most liberal councilors to advise a president and was deeply committed to the single most liberal policy agenda to aid black Americans in the history of the American government.” In "The Cultural Matrix," Patterson and Fosse insist that Moynihan “identified the economic and social consequences of single female-headed households, but further pointed out that this was the result of the racial and socioeconomic oppression of black Americans.”

The criticisms launched fervently at Moynihan, Patterson and Fosse believe, led to a dark period of revisionism within the field of sociology in which “all cultural studies, especially those on the poor, became suspect.” The fear of “pathologizing” their subjects became the hot spot on the stove for social scientists and sociologists, who responded by shifting their focus away from culture and toward structural problems. "The Cultural Matrix" seeks to refocus sociology’s analytical lenses and take a second look at culture, learning from the mistakes of the past. Patterson and Fosse write: "The social problems [black youth] face are too great and too important not to take culture seriously."

I chatted extensively with Patterson over the phone. Our conversation traversed the peaks and valleys of the cultural landscape, from Kanye West to Bill Cosby, from his book to respectability politics. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

In the book, your argument is that initiatives targeting black youth are not enough. What else do you think needs to be done?

One of the positions I take is that people seem to think cultural change is very hard; however, we really forget to emphasize that one should see culture in interaction with the broader socioeconomic context. You have to view the two together: You can't just go in and say, I'm going to change the culture because conditions may be such that even if people want to change they can't change.

My favorite example of that is that a lot of mothers may want to spend more time with their kids. They [sociologists] say it’s very important. But one of the single most important problems is that kids in the inner city are simply not being socialized or exposed to adult supervision enough. It's as simple as that; there is a viable period between 3 o'clock when school [ends] and 8 o'clock, when the sole parent is coming home from her second job or whatever, in which they [kids] are alone. Human beings need to be socialized by adults; it's as simple as that.

A mother may sit down and listen to all the advice we give about how to bring up kids and agree totally, 100 percent. But the point is that the economic environment is such that she can't do it because she's not with them. If she's not gonna starve, she's gotta work, and if she's working at a job that pays $7.50 or $8 an hour, she's gotta work two jobs. It's physically impossible for her to do and express and pass on the values that she may be in 100 percent agreement with. It's unrealistic to think that you can change people's behavior without changing the context which helps facilitate and enable that behavior, even assuming that people want to change.

On the other extreme, there's no use in providing the jobs and expecting that people are just going to turn up after a lifetime of hustling and having all the wrong attitudes, being hostile to authority figures and so on, and expecting that they're going to do the work.

You described how numerous social scientists have identified the problems facing black youth, but have failed to effectively deal with it or come up with a strategy to deal with it. 

One of the points I emphasize in the long, long chapter I wrote is that there's a real pernicious benefit to see the street culture as the whole of inner-city culture. But the inner city is a very complex culture: You've got middle-class folks there with mainstream values, you've got hardworking, working-class people with their well-established culture — which is more religious than any other group in America! These people are the most God-fearing group -- and I cite the evidence on that -- and work hard and so on, and that's a well-established tradition. And then, of course, you've got what used to be called the underclass, the “disconnected street culture,” and then you’ve got hip-hop culture. You've got a complex cultural mosaic there. However, the problem is that one of them makes life really miserable for all the rest of the 80 percent of law-abiding people. What we’re going to do about that is critical.

A lot of people say that inner-city culture is problematic and [it's] not. The tragedy is, the police think every youth in the inner city is like the 20 percent who are creating the problem so they start frisking everybody. What’s more, they see the problem entirely as just controlling that 20 percent of underground, street-culture types.

Ironically, many of these police, especially in New York City, are low- to moderate-income minorities.

What you have here is people who are coming from the white communities. Most white Americans have pretty liberal views about race, but they're not the ones who become policemen. So you get a situation where the policemen are coming from that section of the white community, who tend to have very prejudiced attitudes toward blacks and who tend to not see the problem as 20 percent who are creating problems for the other 80 percent. They do not see their jobs as primarily protecting that 80 percent, but see their jobs almost as an occupying force who are after this 20 percent, to put them in jail.

But there's a lot of problems in terms of their attitudes, which then leads to the alienation of the entire youth group. The 80 percent who are law-abiding keep getting frisked, and then they become hostile to the police. The whole thing then becomes a downward spiral and the police feel like all the youth are against them and so [they] go after all of them. They make no distinction.

That's a big part of what racism is — treating a whole community as if they are all all criminals based on the actions of a few…

Yeah. One of the things we try to emphasize [is] a large number of middle-class black folks are in the inner cities. But more importantly, the great majority are working people. Also, one of the things that book tried to do is break down the stereotypes of the inner-city [and] the interesting paradox that inner-city youth have been so culturally creative.

You used this term to explain this paradox in a Times Op-Ed back in 2006, which I saw again in this book — the Dionysian culture. Could you explain what you mean by that?

I’ve been intrigued by this a long time. So why is it that 60 percent or more of the hip-hop market is white middle-class, upper-middle-class youth? What is it that whites find attractive and why? This is not new, and it’s important to note white folks have been obsessed with black culture from the 19th century or even earlier. In fact, studies by cultural studies types, who were more interested in the music more than the aesthetic side of interaction, pointed out minstrelsy, from a simple point of view, is racist — people in black face, mocking blacks and mocking their music. But more recent studies have said let's take a second look at what is really going on in minstrelsy. And what was really going on is that they were just co-opting black cultural productions. That’s what it was. They weren’t making fun of the productions, they were making fun of the producers, the people who had created it. But they loved the creation.

Also in 19th century town halls and so on, they’re playing black music. Except they didn’t want to acknowledge the creators of this music. In fact, they ended up mocking them in black face. The guy [Thomas] Rice, who invented the term “Jim Crow,” he used to go on field trips just like a musicologist down South to hear the latest stuff, write it down in musical scores, and then come back and play the stuff. So they were actually playing black music. But they were mocking the creators in their appropriation of it. And this was going on, black face, right through the 20s. Even the last black face is up through the 40s.

It’s the same thing with early jazz. You have the Jazz Age people. They were seeing in jazz and early ragtime and blues and so on, this was a way of getting into this Dionysian side of the culture. It’s a long history of this. And hip-hop, of course, is just a current version of the real cultural uses of black production, cultural production. Several people have written on this. Sometimes people like Jay Z and Kanye West are literally mocking these people (laughs). They are laughing it up. It’s all so completely orgiastic. What are they doing? I just find this Nietzschean explanation better than any other.

You listen to a lot of Kanye West?

I like him. I think he’s pretty good. The president doesn’t like him, but he’s fascinating. He’s a fascinating guy.

Who are some of your other favorites?

You know, the standard lot. I like Jay Z, even though Jay Z sometimes strikes me as a little crude. I like [M.C.] Hammer. I’m not up with the latest. They turn them out so fast. I can’t keep up. I read the stuff. I talk to some young people. They’re mentioning all sorts of new names.

It’s really an amazing situation. The creativity is in the language, but it is also in the production, in the performance. But it’s not just music. The big mistake is people think it’s just the music. Fashion has been so influenced by black youth. In fact, what’s going on now, a lot of fashion houses secretly take pictures of black youth to see what fashion they’re up to, and then take it back to headquarters and then use that as a basis for their own creative designs. This goes on regularly. So black youth are really fashionistas. They really have a strong influence. Increasingly, black designers are getting in.

You got this paradox that they’re in the ghetto, segregated, but they’re integrated culturally. That’s what’s fascinating about black youth. Where it’s going is anybody’s guess. But one of my questions is, of course, for every one that succeeds, thousand and thousands don’t. And the extent to which this Dionysian cultural production then may lead people, everybody, into thinking that they can get into it, then it becomes a diversion, unfortunately, from the boring sort of thing you’ve got to do to succeed in a market.

How does the infiltration of white artists and white listeners into hip-hop impact the cultural matrix?

I always am curious about what really goes on in their heads when they are altering these almost lewd kind of lyrics and so on. For them it’s kind of like these are just musical phrases, the words themselves. In some cases, they have meaning in the sense that it is a way of expressing, as I said, the Dionysian part of themselves. It’s one way of sort of indulging that side of themselves which has been repressed, so it’s like therapy. But the discipline from parents, from school, from community, from peer group, is such that it's not going to get out of control. When it’s time to get out the test book and so on, they know how to do it. And they do it. So in a way, it provides them with a counterbalance. These kids have incredibly overscheduled lives.

It is the very opposite of the ghetto experience. The ghetto experience is that they don’t have enough scheduling, they don’t have enough adults. The upper class and upper middle class — white and black — experience is [that] there are almost too many adults. I mean, they’re overscheduled. Every moment of their life there’s a grown-up. The culture is such that it’s hard to get away from it. I’ve got a young kid. I’ve got a 10-year-old, and I consciously would love to have her less scheduled. But the culture forces you, this upper-middle-class culture, to schedule them. Every moment of the kid’s life is something. So they’ve got structure. And so for them, getting into this lewd stuff, the ho stuff and all the rest of this, is kind of Dionysian therapy, a sort of balance to the extraordinary, highly structured life they have, which will of course propel them into success. But it doesn’t mess them up. If anything, it does them some good to use the F-word and talk about “motherfuckers” and talk about “hos” and “bitches” and all the rest of it. They can do that and it’s not damaging them, it’s almost kind of Dionysian release. But they can step back from it into the structure, and they know that’s where they’re going.

Michael Brown had aspirations of being a rapper and he was very much attached to hip-hop culture. What did you make of his situation?

That was tragic. He had aspirations, they all have aspirations. I think if you go into an inner city and do a check, you will be amazed at how many of them have aspirations in that regard. And the interesting thing about modern culture, and the chapter by William Marshall on hip-hop makes this point well, is that the entry is wide open, which encourages a lot of people. Everybody thinks they can be a rap artist. And the cost of entry is low, that is to say that anybody can get up and buy the necessary equipment and get on YouTube. You don’t need to be found by a scout or persuade somebody at a studio to take you on. You don’t need that anymore. So the cost of entry is low. Which means the competition is even better, which means that everybody thinks they can do it. That’s good for the people who finally make it, it’s good for the Jay Zs. But for the 99.9 percent it’s not so good, because they’re spending all their time doing this instead of opening a textbook.

What did you think about the demonstrations against police violence in the wake of the Ferguson and Eric Garner killings?

That was necessary. That was necessary. Things have gotten out of hand. Even the Economist had a cover story saying something’s gone wrong with American police. They’re militarized, they saw themselves as an occupying force. I think those demonstrations did a world of good because this thing could have carried on. You did get some earlier publicity over the Bloomberg police frisking and so on. But even that was dying down. So you had a judge saying this is wrong, people were not paying attention it. With these demonstrations, people said enough, and the whole nation had to pay attention that there was a problem there and in that sense I think it did a world of good. And the president took it very seriously. The attorney general took it very seriously. Even some conservative folks. When you pick up the Economist and read the cover and they’re saying the police are really screwing up in America. They were citing cases [where] the police are trigger happy, just shooting persons, asking questions later. I think that situation had really become dangerous.

There might be another very good consequence of this, which I think is interesting. The incarceration rate, which is bizarre, outrageous, you know. We incarcerate more people than any other society in the history in the world. We got more people than Russia, or any other totalitarian state. We jail more people that Argentina and Brazil did at the height of the general’s control. This is ridiculous. I think the debate that was generated from the demonstrations kind of segued into the whole question of this absurd and really cruel incarceration rate. People are beginning to really address that now. And here’s the most interesting part of it, a few conservative people have now begun to ask questions. Some of them because it is so damn expensive. But others like the libertarians are now coming out and saying this is too much. I think Rubio, Rand Paul, they’re serious. I think we have an opening here of seriously cutting back on this, because the incarceration stuff has become a major counterproductive thing. It was creating its own problems. You have locked up people come out and they can’t get jobs. They sort of get exposed to the prison cultures. If they weren’t violent, they end up being violent. You are creating the problem, and it becomes a self-generating disaster. That is just outrageous. I think people think the demonstrations pushed people to not only consider policed youth, but also the wider issue of incarceration, which for me is an enormous problem. My answer is that those demonstrations did a world of good, and I think they should keep the pressure up so that people really have to say this has got to stop. So that’s been fantastic.

Do you think that a sustainable political movement can be built from these events? If so, by whom?

Well, I hope so. For one thing it’s energized the president who has taken it seriously. But a lot of young people are taking it seriously. One of the tragedies of Ferguson that has not been sufficiently emphasized is that this is a majority community; they could kick out these people if they went to the ballot box. They could kick out those bunch of racists who were running the city, and have an almost all majority black city council who are the ones hiring the police and bring in black police people. It’s been in their powers to do it, but they’re not doing it. So I’m hoping that the movement will try to energize people to going back to the vote and seeing this as a way of getting this to change. I’m hoping that this is not going to stop the demonstrations. In the case of Ferguson, it was so obvious, you can go and vote out the bastards so you can have some control over these guys, then they’ll stop it.

The president hasn’t really spoken very strongly on either side of the issue, and what little he has said has garnered a lot of criticism. What do you make of that?

His strategy was, [I’m] not going to talk much about race. It’s changed now. For the first term of his office, he avoided the subject. I think he got intimidated by the right, a bunch of guys who were there waiting in the wings if he made statement too black they would start saying, “You’re supposed to be the president of the United States, well you’re behaving like you’re the president of black America.” I think he was terrified of that charge, and I think they used it against him. I think he overreacted. In fairness to him, for one thing he might be naturally like that. But number two, he could say, I don’t have to go and broadcast that I’m going to be helping black people. I just do it. And my Obamacare, the people who are going to benefit most from this are millions of black people who don’t have healthcare. To the degree that I can fix the economy, it’s going to help black folks. I love people that think he’s going, should have used the bully pulpit more, but I think it’s just not his style. But to the degree that he used the bully pulpit, he was saying things that irritated a lot of black leaders, like telling [blacks] to pull up their pants. But he really believes that stuff, and in a way, that’s his [thing].

That kind of identifies the moment we're in, especially the debate going on over respectability politics…

When it comes from people like Bill Cosby...it really is hypocritical and doesn’t make sense. As I said in the book in the last section of the last chapter, structural changes are necessary in terms of we need billions for daycare, we need billions for after-school programs, we need the My Brother's Keeper stuff, and we need to have an economic policy which makes sure that people have jobs and pay a living wage, so on and so forth. But I also think, some of the change must come from the black community itself. Bill Cosby was preaching, in many ways, to the choir. It turns out, and this was one of the surprising findings that came out of the book, that if you took surveys of black youth, they’ve got values which are consistent with mainstream values. They are very individualistic. They take responsibility. You ask why do you screw up? How did you get into this situation? In every survey that’s been done, every research project that’s been done, black youth say, “Well, honestly, I messed up. I take responsibility for what happened.” They’ll say there’s racism, some will say the police are pigs and so on, but they’ll never say that’s the main reason for their problems. So you get this extraordinary thing where they know the values. The question is, of course, doing it. So just telling them what it is, is not enough because they already know it. It’s how you get them to in fact live by what they know and recognize it's the way to go.

When all is said and done, we still need the equivalent of a civil rights movement aimed internally. The first civil rights movement was aimed externally at the oppression and so on. But you need to supplement what government has to do with an internal movement of some kind, which will make sure that all kids get the attention they need growing up. I end up saying, I don’t know how this is going to be done. It’s got to evolve from the black community one way or the other. Some changes will have to come from the inside. And we’re back to the question of a balance between the cultural change and structural change, and the two have got to enable each other.

By Ian Blair

Ian Blair is a writer living in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @i2theb.