A Depravity of Logic
April 4, 2006
Establishmentarian or "moderate" liberals are nearly interchangeable with hardliners and conservatives, particularly when concerning their views of the disadvantaged, and specifically, the continued and worsening plight of disadvantaged African American youth. New York Times Op-ed contributor Orlando Patterson, the distinguished professor of sociology at Harvard and fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, best exemplifies this with his much circulated essay, "APoverty of the Mind."
In response to recent studies highlighting the "tragic disconnection of millions of black youths from the American mainstream," Patterson chastises his colleagues for overemphasizing structural factors such as low income, unemployment, inadequate schools and bad housing, while rejecting "cultural attributes" such as "distinctive attitudes, values and predispositions, and the resulting behavior" when explaining for this "tragic disconnection." Not that Patterson's criticisms are unique or new. History is ripe with pleas for the behavioral, ethical and moral uplift of the disadvantaged to solve for their disheartening plight.
We can all recall Bill Cosby's recent denigration of the urban poor, whose inability to pull up their pants relegates them to the slums. Of course, like merit and industriousness, responsible behavior is one of those finely crafted myths used to explain for the dire situation of the truly disadvantaged, thus absolving structural forces of any responsibility. Many of the questions posed by Patterson's essay can be answered with the use of basic reasoning skills and logic, tactics often underutilized even by academics and intellectuals. But Patterson and his ilk must first come to terms with something quite inimical to the American ethos: good behavior is no precursor to success. This is not to suggest that we should not maintain good behavior or lead moral and ethical lives. But scholars and layman point to "self-destructiveness" and "self-inflicted wounds" as root causes for the lack of life opportunities and options for the disadvantaged as if one implies the either. For example, Patterson cites crime, drug abuse, and "predatory sexuality" and "irresponsible fathering behavior" as examples of self-destructiveness. And yet, white high school students are nearly three times more likely to engage in alcohol abuse, while black youth are far more likely than their white peers to be substance free.
Black teens are less likely to drink and drug, despite having an unemployment rate of 28.4 percent in February, double that of white teens. And while statistics show that black youth engage in more sex than their white and Hispanic counterparts and teen pregnancy is significantly higher amongst black females, condom use by young black males is actually 10 percent higher than young white males, and 13 percent higher than their Hispanic peers. However, black girls are almost three times less likely to use birth control as compared to white adolescents. Such data suggests that our own aversion to proper sex education and the availability of birth control is at least as responsible for black teen pregnancy as the "predatory sexuality" of young black men. Then there is the matter of criminal activity. In 2004, 11.1 percent of black males ages 20 to 24 were incarcerated, as compared to 1.6 percent of white males. Patterson asks why young black men resort to crime, and why they "murder each other at nine times the rate of white youths?" Though an apples and oranges comparison, Patterson's academic training at the London School of Economics should have afforded him the critical thinking skills necessary to answer such a flimsy question: young black men in the inner cities engage in crime and violence because there is incentive to do so.
Financial incentive was the motivation behind Enron and Worldcom and others to commit massive fraud, ruining the finances of thousands. Whether or not such behavior is proper or moral or ethical is another question, one that Patterson does not pose: he simply wants to answer the "why?" That Patterson and others presume that self-destructive behavior is unique to black youth culture only illustrates that they work from a faulty paradigm. The excessive drinking and recreational drug use associated with middle and upper class white youth has no bearing on their life opportunities and options; for example, self-destructive behavior has no adverse effect on their employment rates.
Nick McDonell and Marty Beckerman, two successful young writers of the Millennium Generation, launched their careers by exposing the self-destructiveness and depravity of their peers-white and middle and upper class-just as their forefather Bret Easton Ellis before them. Even the noted author and journalist Tom Wolfe has expressed his disgust with present-day (white) middle class youth, most notably in the novel I Am Charlotte Simmons. Promiscuity, recreational drug use, binge drinking, conspicuous and wasteful consumption-all self-destructive behavior as defined by Patterson-fail to limit the life options for these white youth. Logic is absent from Patterson's essay: culture won't explain for the questions that he poses. For example, Patterson asks why young black men are flunking out of school and not going to college.
"We're not stupid!" answers a young black male.
And they aren't. Studies suggest that many high school dropouts do so because they are not academically challenged, nor do they see the correlation between high school graduation and work and financial security-perhaps, because for them, there is no correlation. Patterson and others suggest that jobless black youths don't seize upon job opportunities like their immigrant counterparts. Perhaps, though it can also be argued that employers, who aren't exactly allergic to cheap labor, prefer immigrants and their willingness to work for less. And by opting not to supplement the rising cost of college tuition with grants, government has hindered several thousands of qualified low-income students from attending college. But structural forces aren't quite good enough for "serious" thinkers like Patterson. Indeed, it is far easier to point the finger at the exploited than it is to make demands of those responsible for the purse strings and policy.
Even a poor mind understands that the plight of black youth won't be solved by disciplined behavior.