Introduction

o r l a n d o pa t t e r s o n ,
eth a n fosse,

Harvard University

Harvard University

The past half century has witnessed remarkable changes in the condition
of African Americans and, more generally, the state of race relations in
America. These changes, however, have created a paradoxical situation.
The civil rights movement and subsequent policies aimed at socioeconomic reform have resulted in the largest group of middle-­class and elite
blacks in the world, several of them leading some of the most powerful
corporations in the nation and abroad; yet the bottom fifth of the black
population is among the poorest in the nation and, as Hurricane Katrina
exposed, often live in abysmal “Third World” conditions. Politically,
blacks are a powerful presence and the most loyal members of one of the
nation’s two leading parties; yet, “race” remains a central lever of American
politics and sustains its most fundamental regional and ideological alignments. Blacks have a disproportionate impact on the nation’s culture—​
both popular and elite—​yet continue to struggle in the educational system
and are severely underrepresented in its boom of scientific and high-­end
technology. And although legalized segregation has long been abolished
and anti-­exclusionary laws strictly enforced, the great majority of blacks
still live in highly segregated, impoverished communities. It is a record of
remarkable successes, mixed achievements, and major failures.
Nowhere is this paradox more acutely exhibited than in the condition
of black American youth, especially male youth. They are trapped in a
seemingly intractable socioeconomic crisis, yet are among the most vibrant
creators of popular culture in the nation and the world. President Barack
Obama (2014) has lamented that:“Fifty years after Dr. [Martin Luther]
King talked about his dream for America’s children, the stubborn fact is
that the life chances for the average black or brown child in this country
lags behind by almost every measure and is worse for boys and young men.”
Only between 52 and 61 percent (depending on method of calculation) of
1

2    Introduction

those entering high school graduate, compared with between 71 and 79
percent of white males. A third of all black men in their thirties now have
a prison record, as do an astonishing two-­t hirds of all black men who have
dropped out of high school. Violence has become endemic, with a murder
rate of 34.4 per 100,000 among males aged fifteen to seventeen. Only 20
percent of black youth who are not in school are employed at any given
time. Their lives are often impoverished, violent, and short, leading one
group of social scientists to describe them as an “endangered species”
(Gibbs 1988). A large number of social scientists have addressed the
problem, but it is increasingly evident that the structural factors they
emphasize, while certainly critical, can only explain the problem in partial, fragmentary ways. Further, these explanations confront the perplexing, stubborn fact that, for all their socioeconomic problems, black
youth are the producers of a powerful popular culture that permeates, and
in areas dominates, the nation’s mainstream culture, including youth
from other racial and ethnic groups.
What this paradox suggests is the need to explore the cultural life of
black youth in order to deepen our understanding of their social plight as
well as their extraordinary creativity. That is the primary objective of this
volume. Doing so, however, requires some profound changes in the
approaches of scholars who work on black youth, and poverty more generally. For several decades, there was hostility, approaching derision, to any
cultural study of the poor, including black youth. While it has become
legitimate again to probe the cultural life of the disadvantaged, social
scientists continue to tread warily, and one kind of cultural analysis
remains suspect: attempts to explain social problems in cultural terms.
Explaining the origin and full extent of scholarly discomfort with the
culture concept in so far as it relates to the black poor, and especially its
youth population, would require its own volume, taking us deep into the
sociology of knowledge, and cannot be attempted here (see Patterson
2014). This introduction examines only in barest outline the main periods
through which this fraught academic process has developed. There was,
first, a classic period, beginning in the late nineteenth century with the
sociocultural studies of W. E. B. Du Bois (1899) and ending with two of
the greatest ethnographies ever written on urban black culture, Ulf
Hannerz’s (1969) study of Washington, D.C., and Lee Rainwater’s (1970)
detailed examination of a St. Louis housing project. Between them were
classics such as Hortense Powdermaker’s After Freedom (1939), Drake
and Cayton’s Black Metropolis (1945), E. Franklin Frazier’s The Negro

Introduction    3

Family in the United States (1948) and Negro Youth at the Crossways
(1940), as well as Kenneth Clark’s Dark Ghetto (1965). What we can
gather from their analyses is that the authors of this classic era felt free to
study black culture and its relation to social conditions as they saw fit,
unburdened by any prevailing social science dogma concerning what was
academically appropriate, either conceptually or terminologically.
The second period, which we might call a period of disjunctions, began
in the mid-­sixties, ironically the period that witnessed some of the best
cultural studies on the urban poor, and it was sparked by reaction to the
work of two authors, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s policy report The Negro
Family: The Case for National Action (1965) and Oscar Lewis’s badly
theorized summary of his otherwise remarkable ethnographic works
(1961, 1966). The reaction to the Moynihan analysis was by far the most
virulent, inaccurate, and often grossly unfair. As the sociologist William
Julius Wilson (1989) and others have pointed out (Rainwater and Yancey
1967), Moynihan’s report simply summarized what was the consensus
sociological position on the troubled black lower-­class family at the time,
including the views of leading African American sociologists. He identified the economic and social consequences of single female-­headed households, but further pointed out that this was the result of the racial and
socio­­economic oppression of black Americans. Critics, as William Julius Wilson
(1989) has observed, egregiously neglected the corollary to his argument
and pilloried him for “pathologizing” the black poor with language that
was, in fact, common in sociological circles at the time. Kenneth Clark’s
work (1965), for example, published the same year as Moynihan’s report,
wrote at length on “The Negro Matriarchy and the Distorted Masculine
Image” and “The Causes of Pathology.” The greatest irony of all is that
Moynihan was easily one of the most liberal councilors to advise a president and was deeply committed to the single most liberal policy agenda to
aid black Americans in the history of the American government, Lyndon
B. Johnson’s “Great Society” program. History has been kind to Moynihan:
a recent conference at Harvard by leading social scientists, all with impeccably liberal credentials, concluded that Moynihan was correct in his analysis and prediction. Looking backward, the criticisms of Moynihan were
largely motivated by the racial pride of a newly resurgent black nationalism, (Draper 1971; Patterson 1977, ch. 6; 1997, 64–81), the fear of an
emerging black middle class that undue attention to the sociocultural
problems of the urban poor would redound unfavorably on them or
diminish support for liberal social policies, and the ­mistaken belief that

4    Introduction

any reference to cultural practices was tantamount to blaming the victim,
with the implication that the poor had to change their ways if there was
to be any meaningful improvement in their condition.
History, however, has not been as kind to Lewis. A collection of papers
published in the late 1960s (Valentine 1968) already fully laid out the
major criticisms of the theory. The simple truth of the matter is that there
is no such thing as the culture of poverty. Poor people all over America
and the world adapt to their socioeconomic, physical, and political environments in a wide variety of ways. Indeed, even in a small island such as
Jamaica, the poor of the shantytowns of Kingston have very different
values, norms, and beliefs from the rural poor of the countryside; the
latter are among the harshest critics of the former and are quite terrified
of them. Apart from flaws in his theoretical statement, Lewis was also a
victim of changing academic trends. His seminal works appeared at the
height of the reaction against the Parsonian paradigm in sociology
(Gouldner 1970; Habermas 1981), which portrayed culture as a highly
integrated system of values and norms that regulated society and, by virtue
of being internalized by deep processes of socialization, set the goals that
were thought to guide human behavior. These justifiable criticisms of the
Parsonian framework, combined with the ideological and policy criticisms
launched at Moynihan, led many to adopt an exclusionary rule: all cultural studies, especially those on the poor, became suspect.
What followed was a third, revisionist period in the study of black
America (Williams and Stockton 1973), which lasted from the end of the
Lyndon Johnson era to the early 1980s. Not only did culture become a
Typhoid Mary in academic social science but the very study of blacks was
largely shunned by white scholars. Partially filling the void were studies,
mainly by black scholars, which denied or downplayed problems in black
families, and black lower-­class life generally, claiming instead that the lives
of black Americans were simply different and constituted a record of remark­
­able survival and resilience against white oppression, the best examples of
this being Billingsley’s (1968) Black Families in White America and Ladner’s
(1972) Tomorrow’s Tomorrow. A collection of essays edited by Ladner
(1973) entitled The Death of White Sociology laid out the revisionist position. White scholars took the title and contents seriously, and nearly all
stayed away. The few who dared study the subject carefully toed the line.
For instance, in her study All Our Kin, Carol Stack focused on “the adaptive strategies, resourcefulness and resilience of urban families under conditions of perpetual poverty” and “the stability of their kin networks”

Introduction    5

(Stack 1974, 22). Scanzoni (1971) likewise took no chances: his study of
black Americans focused squarely on stable, working-­ and middle-­class
households headed by couples married for at least five years. Predictably,
given his self-­censored sample, he found stable unions headed by nurturing, loving couples with childhood outcomes that varied strictly in
terms of fathers’ economic situations.
What is astonishing about the revisionist period is the discrepancy
between the social science consensus and the reality of urban black life,
for it was during the seventies and early eighties that major problems
among the urban poor escalated greatly: family life disintegrated beyond
anything Moynihan could have imagined (by the early 1980s, over a half
of all births were to single mothers, compared with the 25 percent that
had deeply troubled Moynihan), drug addiction soared with the catastrophic crack epidemic, and criminal victimization, including homicide,
reached unprecedented levels in contemporary American history.
Inevitably, white and black social scientists were compelled to take the
problems seriously, demarcating the fourth period in regard to the role of
culture, which we call the structuralist turn. The response, both on the
left and right, as well as those of neither political persuasion, was bad news
for the study of culture. Leading the liberal resurgence were the path-­
breaking works of William Julius Wilson, who laid out a strongly structuralist position, especially in a paper written with one of his students,
Loïc Wacquant, who was later himself an important player in the study of
black life. Wacquant and Wilson wrote: “Our central argument is that the
interrelated set of phenomena captured by the term ‘underclass’ is primarily social-­structural and that the inner city is experiencing a crisis
because the dramatic growth in joblessness and economic exclusion associated with the ongoing spatial and industrial restructuring of American
capitalism has triggered a process of hyperghettoization” (1989). To be
fair, this overstated the structuralism of both authors, especially Wilson,
who was always alert to the interactive role of culture in the understanding
of lower-­class black life, even if this was sometimes hidden in an overall
structuralist tone.1 For example, implicit in his 1978 book, The Declining
Significance of Race, was the cultural argument that the withdrawal of
middle-­class roles and lifestyles from the ghetto had deleterious consequences for those left behind, an argument that elicited a good deal of
carping from the hardline structuralists. With the publication of the The
Truly Disadvantaged (1987), Wilson found himself in complex academic
combat with both ends of the ideological spectrum, for by now the right

6    Introduction

had entered the fray with analyses and commentaries on the black poor
and, sadly for the fortunes of the cultural approach to poverty, had
embraced a cultural position that would certainly have appalled Oscar
Lewis, even though it was often expressed in his name. Mercifully, poor
Lewis was by now long dead, having prematurely passed away in 1970 at
the age of fifty-six. Noting that the number of people in poverty stopped
declining just as the expenditure on welfare was at its highest, Charles
Murray (1984) blamed the welfare policies of the 1960s and 1970s for the
growing social crisis among the urban poor. These policies, Murray
argued, created a culture of dependency that incentivized the poor to
remain idle and bear more children. Wilson responded by criticizing
Murray’s work as a rehash of the culture of poverty thesis, but at the same
time faulted liberals for their failure to “address straightforwardly the rise
of social pathologies in the ghetto” (Wilson 1987, 12). While insisting
that social isolation and structural constraints were the major factors
accounting for the problems facing poor black Americans, he nonetheless
acknowledged that culture played some role though “as a response to
social structural constraints and opportunities” (Wilson 1987, 61).
Wilson’s position, in which culture might be considered in the analysis as
long as it is viewed as a dependent variable, remains the standard assumption when studying the lives of the poor. Interestingly, Wilson has recently
given a more central place for culture in his most recent statement on the
subject. In More Than Just Race (2009), he concedes that culture can
operate as an intermediary variable in explaining the problems of black
Americans. While agreeing with Orlando Patterson (2001, 2006) that
“cultural explanations should be part of any attempt to fully account for
such behavior and outcomes,” he insists that in the final analysis “structure trumps culture” (Wilson 2009, 21). We respond to Wilson’s newly
nuanced position on this issue in Chapter 2.
We are now in the fifth, and current, phase of the treatment of culture in
the study of African American problems and, more generally, the problem
of poverty. It is what Mabel Berezin (1994) once called a “fissured terrain.”
First, it should be noted that culture has returned to center stage in the
social sciences, including sociology, and was officially acknowledged in the
founding of the Culture Section of the American Sociological Association
in 1988. Enthusiasts have published thick volumes announcing “the cultural turn” in the discipline (Bonnell, Hunt, and White 1999). Accompanying
this “turn” has been an even more vibrant development in “cultural studies”
in the humanities, which bear a somewhat prickly relationship to cultural

Introduction    7

sociology. As far as the study of poverty, and black poverty in particular, is
concerned, however, current developments in sociology are best described
as a cultural half-­turn. On the one hand, scholars such as Elijah Anderson
(1979; 1992; 1999; 2008), Douglas Massey and Mary Denton (1993),
Sandra Smith (2006), Martin Sanchez-­Jankowski (2008), Alford Young
(2004), Prudence Carter (2005), Annette Lareau (2003), Sudhir Venkatesh
(2002; 2009), and others have forged ahead, probing complex, difficult
issues on how culture can have an independent, semiautonomous effect on
human behavior, including the lives of the poor. On the other hand, other
scholars, most notably Lamont and Small (2008; see also Small 2004;
Lamont, Small, and Harding 2010; Harding 2010), have sought to navigate between the Scylla of a crude culturalism and the Charybdis of a
barren structuralism and have embodied what we call the cultural half-­
turn. Typically these analyses have replaced the language of norms, values,
attitudes, and ideologies with those of scripts, toolkits, boundaries, narratives, repertoires, and frames. While the adoption of concepts from cognitive psychology and the humanities are potentially useful in expanding our
approach to understanding how culture works, the cultural half-­turn is
limited in several respects.
First, the cultural half-­turn focuses mainly, and often exclusively, on the
pragmatics of culture, largely ignoring or downplaying the evaluative,
normative, and informational components of culture. Even with symbolic
boundaries, where an evaluative dimension could be incorporated, most
research has been toward how an individual categorizes or differentiates
others, or as they prefer to say, how people conduct boundary work, a
concept borrowed largely from the Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik
Barth, who developed it as an effective means of downplaying the role of
culture in the conception and analysis of ethnic groups (Barth 1969).
Second, scholars in the half-­turn tradition have ignored how cultural constructs are persistent through time and across populations, both diachronically and synchronically (Patterson 2004, ch. 2). Persistence has
been confused with coherence and simplicity, but norms, attitudes, values,
and ideologies, as social psychologists have long demonstrated, are anything but coherent or simple. Unfortunately, as social scientists in the
tradition of the half-­turn have ignored cultural persistence, they have discarded related processes of diffusion and transmission. Third, as a corrective, the cultural half-­turn has downplayed the shared aspect of culture.
This neglect of the collective is also reflected in the disparagement of
“subcultures,” or of what we will call cultural configurations, the fact that

8    Introduction

cultural constructs cluster in meaningful, systematic ways (see Patterson,
Chapter 1 in this volume), all such attempts being disparaged with the
academic smear of being Parsonian or “culture of poverty.” Fourth, and
crucially, the half-­turn culturalists have tended to view culture as something to be interpreted but not a force that explains behavior. This is
particularly surprising since structural accounts increasingly include culture as a mediator between structure and behavior (except for orthodox
Marxists and neoclassical economists, and even the latter has now begun
to shift significantly). Even for the most die-­hard structuralists, social
class, for instance, impacts behavior through cultural mechanisms and
thus has a role for explanation.
Finally, despite criticizing, and sometimes condemning, previous studies
on the cultural lives of the poor for conflating culture with behavior,
those embracing the cultural half-­turn frequently do so, a common danger
of extreme pragmatism. This conflation of culture and behavior is not a
mere academic distinction: by combining culture with behavior, culture
cannot logically explain behavior, since it is behavior. How culture works
and influences becomes what people do or how they rationalize what they
are doing (called “meaning-­making”). The result can be frustrating for
the progress of social science research as well as for determining policy
implications of these analyses, since culture becomes an epistemological
ouroboros of both explanandum and explanans.
By neglecting the persistent, collective, evaluative, explanatory, and
ideational, culture is at worst treated as a hall of mirrors, a postmodern
epistemological jungle in which no one (including, or rather especially,
the social scientist) can conclude anything substantive from their nonprivileged, inherently relational epistemological position. All that can be
said is that “reality is complex” and “everybody is right.” As an academic
exercise, this may very well prove self-­f ulfilling. However, as a way for
understanding and explaining the paradox of black youth, and for uncovering the solutions to the problems they face, it demands more. The social
problems they face are too great and too important not to take culture
seriously.2

Chapter Overviews
We now turn to an overview of the chapters in this volume. The work is
organized into five parts. Part one, Overview, provides both a theoretical
and substantive framework for the works that follow. In Chapter 1, “The