ny times and young black men

last week there was an article in the ny times titled, "plight deepens for black men, studies warn," that presumably prompted sunday's op-ed "a poverty of the mind" submitted by orlando patterson of harvard university. he calls on social scientists to consider "culture" in making sense of the extreme realities of poverty, which he discusses this way:
"Why are young black men doing so poorly in school that they lack basic literacy and math skills? These scholars must know that countless studies by educational experts, going all the way back to the landmark report by James Coleman of Johns Hopkins University in 1966, have found that poor schools, per se, do not explain why after 10 years of education a young man remains illiterate.

Nor have studies explained why, if someone cannot get a job, he turns to crime and drug abuse. One does not imply the other. Joblessness is rampant in Latin America and India, but the mass of the populations does not turn to crime.

And why do so many young unemployed black men have children — several of them — which they have no resources or intention to support? And why, finally, do they murder each other at nine times the rate of white youths?"

in response patterson asks, "Why have academics been so allergic to cultural explanations?"

among the ways that patterson uses culture include:
"Modern students of culture have long shown that while it partly determines behavior, it also enables people to change behavior. People use their culture as a frame for understanding their world, and as a resource to do much of what they want."

"SO why were they [black boys] flunking out [of high school]? Their candid answer was that what sociologists call the "cool-pose culture" of young black men was simply too gratifying to give up. For these young men, it was almost like a drug, hanging out on the street after school, shopping and dressing sharply, sexual conquests, party drugs, hip-hop music and culture, the fact that almost all the superstar athletes and a great many of the nation's best entertainers were black."

"For young black men, however, that culture is all there is — or so they think. Sadly, their complete engagement in this part of the American cultural mainstream, which they created and which feeds their pride and self-respect, is a major factor in their disconnection from the socioeconomic mainstream."
questions come to mind:

- how is culture being defined? what are the boundaries of culture? cultural participation? identification?
- what are the implications of "cross cultural research" - for what questions are asked; how data is interpretated; access to participants, data, meaning, communities?
- how do we ask cultural questions without indicting cultural practices? (though this might just be fueling the fire...)
- how do researchers position themselves in relation to the questions they are asking? culture/cultural practices they are studying?
- in what ways is culture useful and not useful as a frame for understanding "what's going on?"

i also wonder: in what ways might it help to complicate the causalities the author presents?
for example, he offers a few "if A, then B" statements (particularly in the discussion of employment) such as:
"...in New York such jobs offered an opportunity to the chronically unemployed to join the market and to acquire basic work skills that they later transferred to better jobs, but that the takers were predominantly immigrants."
if A="NY jobs offered an opportunity to the chronically unemployed to join the market..."
B="but that the takers were predominantly immigrants." (and by inference, not young black men)
what other relationships could be made to explain the relationship between these two statements? these are statements full of meaning and history and to investigate this space between them likely requires a new set of questions beyond "why" and with a (perhaps) more multidimensional understanding of culture, itself. patterson seems to be getting at this suggestion, himself, when he notes, "The same cultural patterns can frame different kinds of behavior, and by failing to explore culture at any depth, analysts miss a great opportunity to re-frame attitudes in a way that encourages desirable behavior and outcomes."

still, patterson's insistence on culture being positioned in an explanatory stance worries me; and at the same time, (economic) poverty remains a reality - what patterson both links to and disengages from when arguing for a cultural focus on "the problem." he writes:
"In academia, we need a new, multidisciplinary approach toward understanding what makes young black men behave so self-destructively."
from a methodological perspective, the relationship between social scientist and the focus/phenomenon of study cannot continue to maintain rigid barriers of knower and studied; there is a danger of overgeneralizing all that is "good" and "bad" in service of (a homogeneous) society; a danger of making uninformed claims about self-destruction and self-construction. if we only use a victim/perpetrator frame to approach social life in the inner city, then we blind ourselves to other realities and run the risk of misusing culture as a frame.

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