The always interesting Orlando Patterson has a piece in the current issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Sociologists Made Themselves Irrelevant.” His basic thesis is that, after studies in the 1960s by Daniel Patrick Moynihan et al. were criticized for blaming the victim, “for several decades, sociologists have taken pains to distance themselves . . . from studies of the cultural dimensions of poverty, particularly black poverty.” Professor Patterson laments this. I’ll quote my two favorite paragraphs:
The great irony in that overreaction is that throughout that 40-year period of self-imposed censorship within the discipline, the vast majority of blacks, and especially black youth and those working on the front lines of poverty mitigation, have been firmly convinced that culture does matter—a lot. Black youth in particular have insisted that their habits, attitudes, beliefs, and values are what mainly explain their plight, even after fully taking account of racism and their disadvantaged neighborhood conditions. Yet sociologists insisted on patronizingly treating blacks in general, and especially black youth, as what Harold Garfinkel called “cultural dopes” by rejecting their own insistence that their culture mattered in any understanding of their plight.
Black youth, and people generally, are not offended by attempts to change their values, habits, and even their modes of self-presentation if they are first persuaded that it is in their own interests to do so. Jackie Rivers and I learned this firsthand from our study of a group of inner-city youth, many with prison records, undergoing a demanding job-training program that aimed to alter those aspects of their cultural styles and attitudes toward work that made it hard for them to get or keep a job. None of them considered this a threat to their identities, as individuals or as black people.