My friend Ben posted a response to an article in the New York Times that I thought I had something interesting to say about. The article claimed that sociologists should look at the "culture" of young black men to account for their failure to escape poverty. Ben found this silly, for a variety of good reasons, but I wanted to try to stick up for studying culture (since it is my job) without defending this bad article. Here's what I came up with:
As I am, in fact, supposed to be a cultural theorist I feel like I should weigh in here.
First, of course, I'd like to defend Dr. Patterson's interest in culture, as it it after all, my field. And I think his justification for looking at culture is basically the correct one, Culture can be a site of struggle, a space for change, and looking for ways it can do this can be a valuable addition to other inquiries into the possibilities of social change related to the means of material production.
Here's where I think he goes wrong. He seems to be making the (victim blaming) assumption that there is something unique that the culture of African-American men is "doing wrong." His argument seems to be "If young Black Men were not all so addled on Hip-Hop and Street life they would do what they need to do to move themselves up in the world." This seems ridiculous for the very reasons you have so expertly outlined above.
In addition, it seems to have opened very little space for any sort of remedy of the situation other than some sort of "reform hip-hop movement." I would point Dr. Patterson to the historical examples of turn of the (20th) century moral reformers in the United States and mid-century government "culture agencies" in France and their attempts to "elevate" working-class cultures as demonstrations of the futility of this sort of paternalistic reform movement.
But could we look at culture and find more fruitful answers? I think we could. Here are some "back of the envelope" quick ideas I've had in the hour or so since I read this article.
For one, if we assume that there is some validity to Dr. Patterson's assertion that young black men are basically choosing to remain within street culture, despite its violence and limited prospects for material advance, even when they have a real chance at mainstream employment, what does that say about the attractiveness of our supposedly superior mainstream society? Could there be something so deeply lacking in the frighteningly alienated, massively commodified, tightly bounded world of the nine-to-five life of the postmodern bourgeois that street life, with its opportunities for expressive behavior and community provides? If folks are choosing not to assimilate to our culture, even when their culture is dangerous, are they "doing something wrong" or are we?
If one finds that idea overly romantic and unrealistic (and it is rather both, though I still like it) how about this one. One of the things culture serves to do is provide its users with rituals and other forms of expression that they can "deploy" in various symbolic contests for power. What Pierre Bourdieu called "cultural capital." Might members of other subordinate groups find the cultural capital of their childhood communities more useful in the workplace than young black men? In other words, can the poor white kid from the country still speak and act in a way similar to he is used to and gain respect, where the poor black kid from the inner city must learn entirely new forms of performance to get by. If this is so, wouldn't that be a pretty clear signal of still-functioning racial predjudice in our society?