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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now it's time for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. Last week we reported on a series of studies published by the Urban Institute which found that African-American men are struggling far more than commonly cited employment and education statistics would suggest. And that comes despite the gains experienced by black women and other groups during the recent economic boom. Today we talk with Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, who says that decades of looking at the problem from a socioeconomic perspective and applying socioeconomic solutions have failed. In an Op-Ed which appeared in Sunday's New York Times, he suggests that we defy long-held academic dogma, as he puts it, and start exploring a group's cultural attributes to find the solution. How do you explain why young black men are falling behind? Especially compared to black women and immigrants? Is it the economy or attitudes?

Join the conversation. Call us at 800-989-TALK. Our email address is of Slavery in Two American Centuries. He joins us now from the studios at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Professor Patterson, thank you so much for joining us.

Professor ORLANDO PATTERSON (professor of sociology at Harvard University): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, during Bill Clinton's first campaign for President, the phrase that got everybody's attention was, the economy's stupid. So, in essence, are you saying, where young black men are concerned, it's not the economy, it's, the culture's stupid?

Professor PATTERSON: Something like that, although I don't want to make it to either/or position. The economy is obviously important and always will be. But the interesting thing about the Clinton years is that he did exactly what the policy, all the policy gurus, said should be done to help black youth. And that is to groom the economy to provide a lot of jobs at all levels, and that, he certainly did. In fact it began even before him. And the problem is the jobs were there, but they weren't taken up by the black youth. And there are several studies which indicate or try to explain that disappointing situation. Black women, in the meantime, partly under the stimulus of the welfare reform act, did very well, or relatively much better than they were doing, and continue to do so. So, you had not only the disappointment of these young men not taking advantage of the opportunity, the opportunity by the way was taken advantage of by immigrants, mainly, but you also had a related problem of a growing gender gap among low-class black people.

MARTIN: Professor, what do you think we could learn from looking at these cultural attributes, values, attitudes, that we have not learned by looking at the socioeconomic issues?

Professor PATTERSON: Well you know there have been studies, a few which are quite good, people like John L. Dantz(ph), and Ann Ferguson, and Mary Petular(ph), and so on. There are a few good stories out there, and who try to get behind the stereotypes, try to see how these young men view their work and why it is that they, how the problems that they do in school as well as the problems that they do in jobs. And what clearly is coming out is that there are some fundamental fear of attitudes, notions of masculinity, and the sort of tough pose, the cool pose. The street culture, which powerfully acts as an alternate to education, so that by the slightest sort of failure in school and so on, they simply shift gears, so to speak, and turn to this culture. And the question is, this is true of other groups, too, let me make that clear, Latinos, also whites in Appalachian and many mid-western towns. But why it is that, as my colleague here, Prudence Carter, who also works on this problem, asks why is it that they can't switch codes the way in which other groups can? That is to say, for them it's either education or they said, well, enough of that, it's the street culture. Or, it can't be both. And that's a difficult problem, because it's the -- when I was growing up in Jamaica, I had to switch codes, and so it even the greater degree.

I grew up with the Creole and different sort of set of attitudes and so on. When we went to school, it was just the King's English and a whole different set of attitudes. But you switched, and I had no problem with the school and going back home where I sort of switched language codes, switched attitudes, and so on. And that's true of many other groups. So why it is that black youth have this problem where it's either/or, and why is it that the snare of the street culture is so great? And once they get into it, it seems impossible to get out, because it curves over in their attitude towards jobs, and as I said the failure to take advantage of the opportunities which were there in the '90s and which may never come again. And the important thing to note about it is that of course these jobs didn't pay a great deal, but they offered the opportunity to get some work experience which can be transferred later on to better jobs. And other, and immigrants did it, and other ethnic groups, Latinos, did it. Blacks didn't, and the problem is why. And this is what we need to get at.

MARTIN: Briefly, this is such a rich topic and it's so hard to talk about this in a brief bit of time, but how do you really separate out the culture from economic circumstance? I mean, for example, I'm thinking about Memorial Day is coming up. And that started as Decoration Day, which started in the Confederacy, which had a culture of death. I mean, there was so much death that was being experienced that they, you know, in that area it began to be very interested in sort of acknowledging death. And so there came that, you know, the custom of decorating the cemeteries, and that kind of became its own celebration, as you know.

Professor PATTERSON: Right.

MARTIN: So that's a situation where eco, you know, objective circumstances creates a cultural phenomenon. So how do you really separate out the two?

Professor PATTERSON: Exactly. Modern cultural analysis doesn't try to separate the two. That used to be done in the old days in which people spoke of culture and then they spoke of, you know, the economy, and so on. The two interact, and the culture becomes in many ways a resource which people use for dealing with the economy or with other social obstacles. And they can see this with African-American youth where they use their culture, to some extent, as a way of relating to the school environment. The trouble is that, so often, what happens is that they find that, they feel obliged to make a choice between the two rather than using the culture as a way of getting around and resolving the difficulties as other people do.

MARTIN: Professor Patterson, I so hate to interrupt. But this is such an important topic. I hope you'll come back and talk to us again about possible solutions. Professor Patterson's Op-Ed, all the previous stories in this series, are linked at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org. Thank you so much for joining us, Professor.

Professor PATTERSON: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Orlando Patterson is professor of sociology at Harvard University and author of Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries. He joined us from the studios at the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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