Don’t be like that!

The New Yorker is a magazine of comfortable liberal opinion, with good writing, great cartoons, plush ads, and an alarming tendency to stick its head in the sand rather than confront its readership with ugly facts.

This week’s case in point is a book review by staff writer Kelefah Sanneh on the subject of a massive tome written by leading black sociologists. The debate inside sociology concerns structuralists versus culturalists. Structuralists believe institutional racism and poverty explain American black performance, culturalists argue that the culture – the set of values shared many American blacks – results in their relatively greater poverty, criminality, and levels of family breakdown, compared to whites, Latinos, or any other American ethnic group.

For most of the New Yorker’s upscale readership, the only exposure they will have to this debate is through the magazine itself. Attitudes towards a phenomenon are often more important than what the phenomenon is in itself, so the function of the New Yorker is to comfort those who might be afflicted by illiberal thoughts with the soothing balm of correct thought.

Let the New Yorker article speak for itself:

Orlando Patterson, a Jamaica-born sociologist at Harvard with an appetite for intellectual combat, wants to redeem the culturalist tradition, thereby redeeming sociology itself. In a manifesto published in December, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he argued that “fearful” sociologists had abandoned “studies of the cultural dimensions of poverty, particularly black poverty,” and that the discipline had become “largely irrelevant.” Now Patterson and Ethan Fosse, a Harvard doctoral student in sociology, are publishing an ambitious new anthology called “The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth” (Harvard), which is meant to show that the culturalist tradition still has something to teach us.

The article reviews the debates generated by  Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous description in 1965 of the decline of African-American families, the increasing matriarchy, the descent into crime of fatherless boys, and the prediction – which turned out to be accurate – that the result would be an explosion of crime. In fact, the US murder rate doubled in the decade from 1965 to 1975.

Orlando Patterson, the black sociologist, came to Moynihan’s defence, arguing in later years that Moynihan had given too much credit to the structuralist side of the argument: that black underperformance was the heritage of slavery and racism. Patterson felt that Moyhnihan had got it mostly right by his largely cultural interpretation of American black pathologies.

At this point the New Yorker’s reviewer, Kelefah Sanneh, points to the drop in crime rates, and in particular the black crime rates, that have occurred since the 1990s as the strongest argument against the culturalist interpretation.

But the contemporary era has been marked by the opposite discrepancy: even as the new culturalists were resurrecting Moynihan’s diagnosis, the scourge of crime was in retreat.

And why was this so? One part of the answer is demographics. The baby bust, and in particular, the decline in the the relative number of young black males, has led to corresponding drops in the number of crimes committed by young males of all races, and in African- Americans. While demographics does not explain everything, the number of males over 15 and under 24 as a proportion of the society exerts a powerful effect on crime. (An excellent article “Is violent Crime Increasing?” on crime rates in America is found here). Another explanation for the drop in American crime is that enough young black males were imprisoned that crime had to drop, since about one-third of them have been imprisoned at some time in their lives.

Sanneh then uses the apparent drop in crime rates committed by American blacks as the large fact that a culturalist interpretation of American blacks fails to answer.

I cite the article “Is Violent Crime Increasing?” on the effect of imprisonment.

After 1975, the expected cost of violence began to rise. First, while the police continued to make arrests for about half the violent offenses they recorded, arrests rose considerably faster than victimization rates. Thus, if victimization rates are our best indicator of the underlying trend in violence, the percentage of violent offenders getting arrested must have risen. At the same time, those who went to prison were staying longer. The net effect of these changes was that violent offenders could expect to spend more time in prison. Judging by murder and victimization rates, the violent crime rate was about 10 percent lower in 1988 than in 1975. Yet the fraction of adults in state and federal prisons more than doubled during this period. In part, this was because we were locking up more people for drug-related offenses. But those who committed violent crimes could also expect to spend considerably more time in prison in 1988 than in 1975.

Thus demographic change – including the reduction of the number of young black males- and tougher imprisonment policies – had their effects on levels of violent crime.

All this was as available to Sanneh as it was to me, with ten minutes of rummaging about in the Internet with search engines.

Sanneh concludes his attack on Orlando Patterson and the culturalist interpretation thus:

Black cultural sociology has always been a project of comparison: the idea is not simply to understand black culture but to understand how it differs from white culture, as part of the broader push to reduce racial disparities that have changed surprisingly little since Du Bois’s time. Fifty years after Moynihan’s report, it’s easy to understand why he was concerned. Even so, it’s getting easier, too, to sympathize with his detractors, who couldn’t understand why he thought new trends might explain old problems. If we want to learn more about black culture, we should study it. But, if we seek to answer the question of racial inequality in America, black culture won’t tell us what we want to know. 

The last sentence is the kicker. Though everything in the review of evidence shows considerably worse performance by the generality of American blacks compared to the generality of American whites, this fact is not explained by black culture. Okay so what explains it?

The implicit invitation is to blame white racism, but suppose the answer lies deeper than attitudes.

If black culture will not tell us about black inferiority, try this thought experiment. What if all American whites were instantaneously removed and replaced by Japanese?

Those who know the Japanese know they think that their race/tribe/nation is ineffably superior to all others. Conformity and obedience to the requirements of their tribe/race/nation are the supreme values. Tenth generation Koreans living in Japan may not have full Japanese citizenship. No one may immigrate to Japan.  Thus Japanese find American white agonizing about race to be incomprehensible. They are very nice about their race-ism, but they are not apologizing for their views of themselves, nor of you, whiteman.

By this act of magic, you would achieve the total replacement of all American whites by a group of people who find it inconceivable to apologize for “racism” because for them, “race” is the basis of all social cohesion, hierarchy and meaning. No guilt, only calm acceptance of the racial nature of human existence. What would happen then?

Again, Sanneh’s last sentence:

But, if we seek to answer the question of racial inequality in America, black culture won’t tell us what we want to know. 

Maybe not. Maybe we need to recognize the superiority of Japanese culture, in this thought experiment. In short, the inequality does not proceed from racism; rather, race-ism is the result of differences  experienced by people of different tribes in dealing with one another (and the same applies to tribes, nations, and any conceivable group with discernable characteristics) . Racism, in short, is more about observation of real differences and acting on those observations than some inherent sin tainting the observer of a difference.

That, I suppose, is now a heresy and a thought crime.

Consider, if only for a moment, whether Sanneh would have made the same argument to a culture that could not compute what the matter was with race-ism/tribalism/nationalism. It would not work. The effect of not being able to understand what is wrong with race-ism, would focus the issue not on attitudes, but on the actual differences that generate the attitudes in the first place.

For the mind liberated from the burden of concern about race-ism, the world can be seen in its true light. It is not made prettier or uglier; it is to see the world as a competition and collaboration between genetically different but similar peoples. Expect friction.

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