The Enigma of Race and Culture: Orlando Patterson, The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth

The current school wars can be roughly divided into two camps: the Obama/Duncan camp, raise both standards and teaching quality through testing and teacher assessment, close “failing schools,” (as defined by test scores), create choice and competition through the unlimited creation of charter schools and all policy decisions emanate from Washington and enforced through the use of carrots and sticks,
versus, for lack of a better title, the Network for Public Schools camp, until we address issues of poverty, racial segregation and inequality gains in student achievement will be limited.

Sociologists who study black America are also divided in 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, you seldom lose an election by talking up the virtues of hard work and good conduct. But in many sociology departments structuralism holds sway.

The New School University sponsored a half-day conference, “All Minds Matter: the Crisis and Struggle of Boys and Adolescents of Color in Schools” To quote the introduction to the conference,

…our country has maintained a system of oppression of Afro-Americans through the use of the criminal justice system. Another means of subjugation, one could argue, resides in our inadequate educational systems that punish boys of color more than it educates them.

And, the following day Orlando Patterson, lectured on his just-released book, “The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth,”

… seeks to unravel a uniquely American paradox: the socioeconomic crisis, segregation, and social isolation of disadvantaged black youth, on the one hand, and their extraordinary integration and prominence in popular culture on the other. Despite school dropout rates over 40 percent, a third spending time in prison, chronic unemployment, and endemic violence, black youth are among the most vibrant creators of popular culture in the world

At the New School event one presenter, a clinical psychologist emphasized implicit teacher bias, and discussed how, through proper training, these “biases” can be reduced; he saw these attitudes as commonplace among teachers. Another panelist, from the Children’s Defense Fund bemoaned how we are failing to implement what we already know, the younger you are in experiencing poverty the less the chance of graduating high school, and emphasized the crucial role of childcare providers, who, for the most part are unlicensed and untrained.

Howard Steele, the co-director of the Center for Attachment Research and a leading expert in the field of attachment theory,

The most important tenet of attachment theory is that an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for the child’s successful social and emotional development, and in particular for learning how to effectively regulate their feelings.

And discussed the need for training of caregivers, and, by implication, the impact of dysfunctional families on developing disconnected youth.

David Banks, the founder of the Eagle Academy, regaled the audience with the successes of the Expanded Success Initiativ and challenged the larger educational community, “We know what works, why aren’t we doing it.”

Pedro Noguera, a professor at NYU with a long list of publications about youth of color, saw the “solutions” as piecemeal and challenged the new city administration to develop a strategy across city agencies, and mused: why not a neighborhood-based jobs program in addition to community schools? “Grit without opportunity is fruitless.”

At the end of the day, are racist, white power elites, consciously or unconsciously, responsible for the “school to prison” pipelines,? Are insensitive schools and teachers, by suspending and marginalizing youth of color crushing opportunities for academic achievement? Or, is there a “culture of poverty,” mores, customs and traditions that punish “acting white,” that idolizes violence and overbearing masculinity?

A day later Orlando Patterson explored many of the same themes in a his highly controversial exploration of race and culture

(Read a lengthy, and critical analysis of the “Cultural Matrix” from the current issue of the New Yorker here
A critique of Patterson (“The Caribbean Zola”) from the Harvard Magazine
Or, Is Patterson part of the “blaming the victim” crowd here )

Patterson discusses what he calls the paradox of black youth; on one hand socio-economic disconnection, historic rates of incarceration and high levels of violence and homicide, on the other hand the impact of black youth culture on music, sports, fashion and entertainment: social isolation and cultural dominance. There is no “culture of poverty,” but, poverty matters. Culture according to Patterson, is a set of rules, a shifting set of configurations. Within the inner city Patterson sees highly variegated cultures, the inner city middle class who choose to live in a racially comfortable neighborhood, the black proletariat, aka, the working poor and the disconnected, not working and not in school, depending on the city from 15-25% of inner city youth.

These complex cultures buffer from poverty; liberate and empower, and, contain violence and other destructive impulses. At the end of his lecture, and his 700-page tome Patterson, not surprisingly tells us that segregation matters, it creates isolation from social networks of mobility, isolation from the cultural capital of the middle class mainstream. Culture is not immutable; change is both possible and desirable.

The weakness of the presentation is the next steps, the actual policy recommendations: we should emulate Europe and move towards a welfare state, not exactly likely, work towards better parenting decisions, better decisions among teenagers, and, desegregation as a goal.

The commenters were challenging: Patrick Sharkey pointed to the recent historic reductions in crime rates, we know that “broken windows” and “stop and frisk” are not the reason, what is?

Niobe Way, in a depressing presentation sees all youth, black as well as white, becoming less and less connected as they move into their middle and late teens, higher rates of depression, a loss of “humanity,” again, why?

David Kirkland, an NYU professor, challenged Patterson, perhaps more accurately savaged Patterson. “Cultural Matrix” criminalizes black youth, hip hop helps black youth survive in a deeply racist society; the ideologies of oppression are the enemy, Kirkland sees Patterson as standing with the white power elites.

Patterson responded vigorously, the criminal element in the black inner city is real; they’re responsible for the extreme levels of violent crime, the 80%, the middle and working classes want the police to protect them, to rid neighborhoods of destructive elements, without the oppressive policing we see in Ferguson and elsewhere.

Guess Patterson and Kirkland didn’t sit next to each other at the post- meeting dinner.

The audience, half black and half white, mostly NYU students were also divided, with many Kirkland supporters. A young black woman asked a question which began with “… of course we live in a racist white world …,” although Patterson demurred I doubt he impacted.

The issues of race, gender and class are the subtext of every conversation, whether stated or implied, and topics that disturbing and avoided.

I was teaching a graduate education class; at the first session I asked the dozen or so students, in one sentence, tell us their educational philosophy, a little boring, “All student can learn,” “I can make a difference,” until we got to Mohammad, a black man, “All whites are racists, it all comes down to their ability to deal with it.”

It was a wonderful semester.


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