Friday, March 31, 2006

A Poverty of the Soul

Long before the RSS feed page, professors enjoyed a much more casual process: the continual service of students who see or hear something, think of their professor, and then bring the article or the book or the cd or the video or their notes on the event and present it as a gift. Which it is. Invariably. This extra attention is usually tendered by a student who is at least momentarily fascinated by the topic at hand (and sometimes by the professor, as well), so they're typically right on the money. Case in point: a heads-up on a New York Times Op-Ed Page contribution ("A Poverty of the Mind," 3/26/06) by sociologist and Harvard professor, Orlando Patterson. An essay that, as it turns out, is getting much attention, but which I had somehow missed as yet.

In a nutshell, Patterson is calling for a return to the good ole days of racial analysis when African-Americans were recognized as being their own worst problem, rather than paying attention to such irrelevant factors as "low incomes, joblessness, poor schools, and bad housing," all of which are a direct result of the European-American power structure's policy setting and none of which can be magically affected by African-American determination.

Joblessness, points out Patterson, for example, is rampant in Latin America and India, but the mass of the population does not turn to crime. simply dies of the effects of malnutrition or kills itself, a much preferred outcome, one must assume, as far as Patterson is concerned. Perhaps, if he could bring himself to grasp the insidious and effective nature of what continual socialization to perceive oneself as inferior accomplishes, he would recognize the difference between India, Latin America, and the United States. When one is poor in India, one is not, ipso facto, worthless or deserving of that status for some reason; one is simply poor. In the U.S., on the other hand, where we like to "blame the victim," poor people are seen as deserving of their fate (even if there are not enough jobs, even if they are highly skilled, even if they play by all the rules). It hurts. It makes people angry. And it increases the likelihood that they will go outside the lines. Oh, yes, and there's the matter of not wanting to be homeless, as well.

Other social scientists, not looking to roll us backward to an even more White-controlled and White-serving paradigm than is currently in use, tell us that poverty is about "relative deprivation" anyway. Maybe a greater percentage of U.S. citizens have food to eat than one might find in, say, India, but U.S. culture is such that money is more important than life here and what you have is more important than who you are. The first thing we identify about a person is their skin tone and the second entails asking, "What do you do?" Meaning where do you fall in the socio-economic class system.

Consequently, if you happen to be a dark-skinned male in the U.S. and you grew up without enough resources to expect to receive a decent education and the police started labeling you for the criminal justice system at the age of ten by taking your photo with a string of numbers across your chest against the day when you might do something illegal and your daily life is awash with input about how basketball and rap are your only hope (despite the occasional Jamaican professor, who after all was not born here and did not benefit from an invidious social rearrangement of his brain), you are infinitely more likely to go to prison than to college, whereupon you will be highly unlikely as a convicted felon to ever get a decent job in life. What part does Patterson see all this playing in the development of the African-American male mindset, I wonder? And how would the individual African-American boy-child go about avoiding the repercussions of this horrible reality?

Patterson admits that the jobs created in the "economic boom" of the 1990's (does this man never leave the hallowed halls?) do not offer a living wage, but he sees working for less than it takes to live on as an "opportunity to acquire basic work skills" that can later be transferred to "better" jobs. It would be interesting to know how Patterson thinks young Black men are supposed to live while being paid $150 per week. Further, Carol Stack's new research on how working at McDonald's prepares you only to work at McDonald's seems lost on the good doctor, who it would appear went straight from Jamaica to the London School of Economics to the University of the West Indies to Harvard (an impressive trajectory that raised the question for me of how a Black man could come to be chosen by Harvard in 1969 in the first place, but which is answered loudly and clearly by his perspective in this essay).

Poor schools, Patterson reminds us, do not explain why after 10 years of education a young man remains illiterate. But while social scientist after social scientist has pointed out the negativistic debilitation and labeling process that is slam-dunking young Black men in the U.S. on a daily basis--inside and outside of the public school system--Patterson doesn't get it. He sits in his ivory tower and remains blissfully oblivious, not to mention reeking of self-righteousness. Don't bother him with the information about the recent study describing how African-American youth compete respectably with European-Americans when they think an exam is just for practice, but then take a nose-dive on their scores when they believe that the score will be used to determine their placement. One has to wonder which "distinctive attitudes, values and predispositions" peculiar to Black youth Patterson would suggest result in this apparent lack of confidence in their ability to compete with those who look like me, especially considering that they'd already proven that they could hold their own. Whose best interest would their lackluster performance in the latter case be? And who, exactly, has been in continual control of the social institutions of this country from its inception to the present--institutions at whose doors youthful Black failure to thrive must surely be laid.

Unless, of course, you believe, as Professor Patterson apparently does, that Black kids (and I guess Black folks in general, then) are just like that. He acknowledges the ugly past (kind of him to bother), but holds firmly to the idea that it is nonetheless important to hold people responsible for their behavior (although that doesn't seem to mean holding European-Americans responsible for either that ugly past or the well-documented practices that continue to oppress people of color, since Patterson doesn't seem nearly as interested in holding White feet to the fire).

Now, I'm not suggesting that people shouldn't be responsible for their behavior. I'm suggesting that people living out their lives under nightmare conditions sometimes don't act right. And abject poverty (such as one out of two Black children in the U.S. grow up in--through no fault of their own) is a nightmare and garishly hard on self-image and self-esteem, which linger for life.

Additionally, after a full team of professionals descended on Columbine to work for a year with the students traumatized by a single event in a single school (heinous as it was), one study suggested that as many as forty percent of the young Black kids in Compton suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (the results of living in a war zone). The question was: why were those children not getting help and how were they supposed to deal with life while not getting it? Patterson suggests that these young people should have their needs "addressed" (a lick and a promise perhaps?), but that ultimately and in the meantime, of course, we must hold them responsible. And here I thought that's what the White power structure has been doing all along...?

Patterson admits that slavery (his specialty, apparently) had horrendous effects on Black culture, but he doesn't seem to buy that there is still trouble in what has undoubtedly been paradise for him. He points out that Jim Crow was dismantled in a single generation, as if the attempts to force that dismantling had not been introduced until the 1960's. But in using this type of reasoning, he falls into the Euro-centric perspective that now that people of color can come down out of the balconies at the movie theater or legally marry a White wife and rub shoulders with the pundits at Harvard, history has moved on and poor Black men should get over it.

He harangues young Black men for their "predatory sexuality and irresponsible fatherhood" (somehow blaming it on slavery) without imagining that whatever it is he's descibing has anything to do with the reality of Black life in general in the U.S. today--as prescribed by White power and privilege. It's a markedly short-sighted viewpoint for a supposedly erudite man. He's a sociologist, after all, and my understanding of the field would suggest that sociologists want to know the context in which social realities develop. To look back in the causal chain two hundred years, but leave out yesterday, while tidy, is not a very comprehensive explanatory analysis.

But this ignoring of the well-documented reality of White oppression against people of color and most particularly African-Americans in the present conveniently allows Patterson to pontificate that all young Black men need to do is "to turn off Fifty Cent and get out the SAT prep book." As if that would insure educated Black men a job and insulate them from racism in the workplace and protect them from police brutality and assure them that their children--male and female--will benefit from the equal playing field that Patterson seems to see, but African-Americans at every educational level know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, does not exist.

That this world-famous intellectual refers to "our racist past" as a tragedy and then goes on to write that "most Black Americans have by now, miraculously, escaped its consequences" makes me embarrassed to be in academe. But not surprised, never surprised, at what it produces in service to those with the power to define.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I have read Patterson's pieces and his latest article on the so-called 'cool pose' amongst young black men is laughable at best. I see white kids investing themselves in Goth Culture, Metal, Hip- Hop etc and do poorly on academic tests also to assert that they somehow know when to turn the light on when they take they thier SATS is conjecture at best and elitist racism at it's worst. So know Patterson is telling me when young black kids invest themselves in their youth culture somehow it's bad for them and their futures, this to me is the maifestation of what I call 'Black Guilt' that somehow black youth have no moral agency Patterson should know better.

I have always thought so- called intellectuals that Patterson like John Mc Worther spend to much time in the ivory halls of academia or their 5,000 a pop speaking engagements to live see lives beyond what they read in a book.

I am begining to think that maybe middle-class Immirgrants cannot write about the expericences of native- born blacks without their own class biases.