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March 27, 2006

Perverse Individualism

Recently I read two articles which profoundly saddened me. I sensed they were connected in some way beyond the obvious one; they both involved dysfunctional black families. But though the problems they identify are endemic in the black community, to a certain extent they typify attitudes spreading thoughout American culture regardless of race.

The first one, in the NY Times last week, took on stubborn gaps in educational achievement for young black men. Why, after all the time, money, and attention lavished on this "problem", aren't they doing better? Why can't we "save them" from themselves?

Harry Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University and a co-author of one of the recent studies, typifies this attitude. Joblessness, he feels, is due to largely weak schooling, a lack of reading and math skills at a time when such skills are increasingly required even for blue-collar jobs, and the poverty of black neighborhoods. Unable to find jobs, he claims, black males turn to illegal activities, especially the drug trade and chronic drug use, and often end up in prison. He also criticizes the practice of withholding child-support payments from the wages of absentee fathers who do find jobs, telling The Times that to these men, such levies "amount to a tax on earnings."

This is all standard explanatory fare. And, as usual, it fails to answer the important questions. Why are young black men doing so poorly in school that they lack basic literacy and math skills? These scholars must know that countless studies by educational experts, going all the way back to the landmark report by James Coleman of Johns Hopkins University in 1966, have found that poor schools, per se, do not explain why after 10 years of education a young man remains illiterate.

Nor have studies explained why, if someone cannot get a job, he turns to crime and drug abuse. One does not imply the other. Joblessness is rampant in Latin America and India, but the mass of the populations does not turn to crime.

And why do so many young unemployed black men have children — several of them — which they have no resources or intention to support? And why, finally, do they murder each other at nine times the rate of white youths?

The Clinton administration achieved exactly what policy analysts had long said would pull black men out of their torpor: the economy grew at a rapid pace, providing millions of new jobs at all levels. Yet the jobless black youths simply did not turn up to take them. Instead, the opportunity was seized in large part by immigrants — including many blacks — mainly from Latin America and the Caribbean.

The interesting answer turns out to be, they do not want to be saved:

An anecdote helps explain why: Several years ago, one of my students went back to her high school to find out why it was that almost all the black girls graduated and went to college whereas nearly all the black boys either failed to graduate or did not go on to college. Distressingly, she found that all the black boys knew the consequences of not graduating and going on to college ("We're not stupid!" they told her indignantly).

SO why were they flunking out? Their candid answer was that what sociologists call the "cool-pose culture" of young black men was simply too gratifying to give up. For these young men, it was almost like a drug, hanging out on the street after school, shopping and dressing sharply, sexual conquests, party drugs, hip-hop music and culture, the fact that almost all the superstar athletes and a great many of the nation's best entertainers were black.

Not only was living this subculture immensely fulfilling, the boys said, it also brought them a great deal of respect from white youths. This also explains the otherwise puzzling finding by social psychologists that young black men and women tend to have the highest levels of self-esteem of all ethnic groups, and that their self-image is independent of how badly they were doing in school.

I call this the Dionysian trap for young black men. The important thing to note about the subculture that ensnares them is that it is not disconnected from the mainstream culture. To the contrary, it has powerful support from some of America's largest corporations. Hip-hop, professional basketball and homeboy fashions are as American as cherry pie. Young white Americans are very much into these things, but selectively; they know when it is time to turn off Fifty Cent and get out the SAT prep book.

For young black men, however, that culture is all there is — or so they think. Sadly, their complete engagement in this part of the American cultural mainstream, which they created and which feeds their pride and self-respect, is a major factor in their disconnection from the socioeconomic mainstream.

The largely unspoken question in all of this is, "What is the American cultural mainstream?", and why do these young men think this is all there is? The undercurrent here is that the vast majority of these young man have no fathers living at home. Which leads me to the next article, appropriately-entitled, "Marriage is for White People". In the opening paragraphs the author, an unmarried black woman, treats us to some startling statistics:

The marriage rate for African Americans has been dropping since the 1960s, and today, we have the lowest marriage rate of any racial group in the United States. In 2001, according to the U.S. Census, 43.3 percent of black men and 41.9 percent of black women in America had never been married, in contrast to 27.4 percent and 20.7 percent respectively for whites. African American women are the least likely in our society to marry. In the period between 1970 and 2001, the overall marriage rate in the United States declined by 17 percent; but for blacks, it fell by 34 percent. Such statistics have caused Howard University relationship therapist Audrey Chapman to point out that African Americans are the most uncoupled people in the country.

The author then asks, "How did we get here?". Amazingly, it never seems to occur to her that welfare programs could have had anything to do with the phenomenon, though they effectively de-coupled financial (though not moral) responsibility from fatherhood, making it possible for the first time for young black men to walk away from the young women they impregnate, scot-free. And they do: with increasing frequency, though this was once unthinkable for a man of upright character.

Reading Ms. Jones' account of her own near-engagement and all the varied reasons she says black women reject marriage (and that she predicts women in general may come to pass up marriage in increasing numbers in the future), I saw many connections to the NY Times piece. And I thought, not for the first time, that this was a culture utterly foreign to me: a culture that seems to put self so far ahead of other considerations that in the end, the refusal to subordinate oneself to something larger becomes a self-limiting proposition.

I am so often struck these days by the wreckage of traditional culture. Somehow on the basis of a few spurious socio-economic studies, we have concluded that social institutions built on centuries of human experience are to blame for all the problems we see in life. And so in our arrogance we rush to dismantle them, thinking perhaps that once the confining chains of marriage, sexual responsibility, or the tiresome necessity of learning a trade or providing for the future are gone, somehow a new utopian age will emerge.

But human nature doesn't change when we abandon our institutions. We cut the chains which restrained our baser impulses, only to face a rude shock when the undeniable truth that choices have consequences conflicts with the prevailing wisdom that any attempt to map cause to effect amounts to blaming the victim (or the even more unacceptible idea that social progress may not be cost-free).

How did so many of us come to confuse freedom with license, and any kind of structure or authority with stifling repression? The result of this bizarre failure to understand the relationship between self-discipline and achievement is that many young people , by refusing to place any limits on their behavior, limit their own prospects for advancement and for growth as human beings.

The military provides, perhaps, a case in point. I am always amazed at how many civilians see military people as inherently narrow-minded, unthinking individuals who just can't wait to be told what to do. I wish such people could see a busload of recruits disembark and toe up on the tarmac at Parris Island.

They would see all sorts: from scruffy, dishevelled types to neat young men and women. Some rather weedy-looking geeks who look like they'd blow over in a strong wind, some muscular and confident-looking jocks, and everything in between. And the thing is, you never know who will do well in training. That weedy-looking geek who looks like a pothead may end up being the one everyone turns to in a crisis because he keeps a cool head. And the big jock may turn out to be a wuss who bails out after two weeks. People sign up for all sorts of different reasons, but they don't make it through unless they can learn to subordinate who they are (at least temporarily) in the service of something larger than themselves. And the key word is temporarily. Military people don't submerge their individuality just because they obey a few rules. There are few people more cocky (or self-confident) than a young Marine.

They simply have to have the ability to look beyond today to something more important: tomorrow; and to put aside their momentary personal desires in the service of a larger goal. It's the old vision thing.

By the time they graduate, they have changed dramatically. Paradoxically, they are not at all diminished by this "subordination" to the group: they come out stronger, smarter, more confident. By participating in this uniquely group venture, they find they can do things they never thought they were capable of when they arrived. They walk taller, stand straighter, and look you straight in the eye. I can generally spot a good Marine in a crowd, even in plain clothes. There is a pride in the way he carries himself. It is instantly recognizable to someone who knows the breed.

Yes, they have to obey rules, but it's a voluntary choice. What do they get in return? They travel the world, live and work in a culture that is more integrated than that experienced by most Americans, are more physically fit than most of us will ever be. They are challenged to live up to a higher standard than we are, and they are better people for the experience. It is a rare person who does not feel a deep pride in the title United States Marine. I would argue that in many ways by choosing to accept some limits, by subordinating self-interest to duty and loyalty to a larger community, Marines have a richness of experience most of us will never have access to.

I could argue that the same is true, if you put the effort into it, for marriage. Yes, it can be limiting at times as the author points out. Yes, it is often hard work. But like any partnership, you get out of the endeavor what you put into it. Two lives are joined, and so one person experiences not just his or her own thoughts, emotions, and viewpoints, but those of someone of the opposite sex. That can be a tremendously enriching experience as opposed to staying inside your own little world for sixty or seventy years.

The author maintains:

As I reviewed the situation, I realized that all the things I expected marriage to confer -- male companionship, close family ties, a house -- I already had, or were within reach, and with exponentially less drama. I can do bad by myself, I used to say as I exited a relationship. But the truth is, I can do pretty good by myself, too.

But these were none of the things I got married for. Marriage is not a business partnership. It is the closest of ties: a friendship for life, but more than that, as the old song says, the stuff that dreams are made of. A glimpse inside another mind, a chance to touch another soul in a way more intimate than is possible for a casual friend.

The chance, if you have children, to intelligently meld the best traditions two families have to offer and send them forth to a new generation in the form of lessons you teach your children.

The privilege of having someone to talk to who knows you better than anyone else on earth, someone who after twenty-seven years can catch your eye from across a crowded room and still make your knees go slightly weak. Who makes you forget what you were about to say to your next-door neighbor and think, "Maybe it's time to get my coat and head on home."

I would hate for my grandchildren to miss that. Yes, it takes work. But what a glorious ride.

Update: 3/29 Do NOT miss this incredible Shelby Steele interview. It could not be more relevant to the linked articles. I wish I'd seen it earlier.

Posted by Cassandra at March 27, 2006 07:50 AM


It ain't kool 2 gradiate skool.

To be honest, I've always thought that conclusion was obvious.
Pimps, gangstas, and rappers are these young peoples role models and that being the case, they will lack self discipline, self respect and therefore respect for others.

It's not a "Black thang", it's a cultural thang.

That particular aspect of black culture has been spilling over to the white culture.
It appears appealing to young men of ALL colors because of its irresponsible ruthlessness, lack of discpline or accountability.

It's not just a social problem either. Just like race, social status isn't proof against its appeal to youngsters.

I could be wrong (it happens) but I believe the U.S. Government spends the equivalant of $10,000 per student, per year.
I also believe that is higher than any other country, yet compare that with the return.

It doesn't add up.
Most of these problems (not just in that sub-set of society either) are due to nothing more than the erosion of responsibility.

Parents don't seem to have time anymore to actually get to KNOW their kids. They've stopped or cut back on teaching kids right from wrong.

They've also stopped teaching them about the consequences of BOTH.
That means simply, if a kid does right, encourage him, if he does wrong, discourage him.
Sometimes they actually NEED a spanking (for the real bad stuff)

The government is just as, if not more, guilty than the parent in that the changes to, and erosion of, Laws over the years has in effect, taken AWAY the parents responsibilities.

You go to tha mall and the first thing you see and hear is some little kids throwing a fit.
He's screaming and stomping his feet and yelling at his mom, and your wondering why she doesn't DO something about it.

First, the kid is doing it because he KNOWS she wont touch him, (not in public anyway, but kids can't think that far ahead).
He wants that toy or candy or whatever and he wants it NOW!!!

Second. the mom who is about to go berzerk, knows that if she spanks little Johnny someone will call a cop.
So what does this teach little Johnny?
It teaches him that despite what mom or dad say they are not the boss of him, because when they try to teach him a lesson, someone who's the boss of THEM stops them.

Plain and simple? Johnny loses respect for mom and pop.

That is one area of life that I believe my Rich Uncle Sam has no buisness.
Child abuse, and child REARING are 2 different things.
When you RAISE a child, you may, on occasion, have to spank them.

It's the same with the type of culture you describe here.
Why should those young thugs respect the rules of society?
Who's going to do anything if they don't?

I know the statistics of Black/White crime and prison rates.
But I also know that most blacks (and whites for that matter) who are serving hard time for serious crimes have been doing those kinds of crimes for LONG before they got sent to prison.

They've also been arrested many, many times before it was FINALLY considered serious enough to warrant jail time.

By taking away the parents responsibility in raising their child, and by not requiring the government to be responsible for it, they have created a vacuum in an essential area of child rearing.
What's more, you can be penalized for trying to do what is right.

Posted by: Joatmoaf at March 27, 2006 12:16 PM

I must point out that in your criticism of “perverse individualism,” you forget that for young black men to defy the “cool-pose culture” which is fed and paid for by white mainstream America who “know when it is time to turn off Fifty Cent and get out the SAT prep book,” they themselves have to assert a certain amount of individualism in defiance of the social structures that create this subculture.

You argue that you are struck by “the wreckage of traditional culture.” And that “human nature doesn't change when we abandon our institutions.” But the question is, what’s traditional? What’s “human nature?” These are the very same arguments that many fundamentalist polygamists (both Christian and Muslim) make with regard to their multiple marriages who cite ancient religious texts and human history to justify their way of life.. Polygamy has existed in human history far longer than monogamy, due to small, unstable human populations and uncertainty of human survival.

As you pointed out earlier in the post with regard to “cool-pose culture” the social institutions such as “welfare programs …[that] de-coupled financial (though not moral) responsibility from fatherhood, making it possible for the first time for young black men to walk away from the young women they impregnate, scot-free” it is this combined with “cool-pose culture” that effectively creates a huge class differential based sex.

Marriage you say is, “like any partnership, you get out of the endeavor what you put into it.”
I completely agree with this. Exactly. But what I’m saying is that the “cool-pose culture” creates such a HUGE divide that poor African-American men do NOT have the ideas or conceptions of marriage as educated African-American women. Could you ever imagine any self-respecting educated working woman, say a white Radcliffe woman of the 1930s or a black Georgetown woman today, regardless of race, getting involved with an ex-con, or someone making minimum wage? Sad to say, for African-Americans, the numbers of educated African-American men are disproportionately low compared to the numbers of similarly educated women. The culture creates such a huge divide in terms of class and gendered expectations that it would be almost akin to say, an educated American born Chinese girl, marrying a Chinese peasant that expects her to take daily beatings as a normal course of relations.

Posted by: alau at March 27, 2006 12:45 PM

Which "white mainstream America"?

Not me. Not anyone I know either, for that matter.

Now do I argue that there are an increasing number of young white Americans who buy into thug culture? Nope. But I refused to let either of my sons bring that trash into my home, and I know many black military families who won't allow it into their homes either. It's a question of drawing a line in the sand: what do you want to stand for?

I was not at all popular with my kids for about 8 years for this reason. Oh well. They survived and so did I. I didn't let them wear pants that looked like something jail inmates wear because I pointed out that this is EXACTLY what they would be emulating and it just wasn't right. I let my oldest boy listen to *some* hip-hop because I said I don't have a problem with race - it's the message. You are not listening to cop-killer music or misogynistic lyrics that demean women or disrespect authority in my home. Period.

It just doesn't get any clearer than that.

But you have to draw that line if your kids are going to get it, and many parents (white and black) don't and then their kids are disrespectful and defiant and they wonder why?

I don't think "traditional" is that hard to define: if you live in America you look to our recent history: you don't go back 900 years to the Maori hinterlands and polygamy. Our traditions: where we come from. For American blacks, despite slavery just several generations back there were strong black families and educational outcomes for kids who were in all-black schools were far better than they are today.

The difference is simple: the kids were trying harder and the parents made sure they showed up ready to learn. It was the CULTURE that changed: the cultural traditions that were undermined. And I believe blacks have suffered greatly as a result. You can look at several studies that show that black kids who grow up in two-parent homes have educational outcomes equal to those of white kids. Kids just need a stable home and firm guidelines, not an overbearing nanny state.

I think it's prejudice to assume black kids behave differently than white kids would in the same circumstances. Accountability matters, yet when we try to say we need to put some standards in place we are told, "don't blame the victim". But that's not the issue: the issue is that you can't address the problem if you won't look the problem squarely in the face.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 27, 2006 12:58 PM

And I'm not arguing that a woman should lower her expectations. But it didn't sound, for instance, as though the gentleman who proposed to the author was some kind of thug.

Now maybe she didn't love him. She didn't say, which was odd. It sounded like an awfully cold-blooded assessment of the financial and geographic benefits of marriage to me, and I found that bizarre.

What struck me was the father at the end of the article, who, though he wasn't able to keep his sons from getting both their girlfriends pregnant, apparently was enough of an influence on them that they did marry them. That was the difference in having a male role model around: someone to look up to.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 27, 2006 01:06 PM

I would be glad to help some of these uncoupled women get past that problem.

Posted by: Lonely Man at March 27, 2006 01:09 PM

"Yes, they have to obey rules, but it's a voluntary choice. What do they get in return?"

They get to kill people.

Nice post Cass. The culture in the home is one of expectations, not the culture of the street outside the home or the culture of the mistakes made by the parents in the past. I grew up in the home of a teenaged mom, high school drop out. That was never considered an option. The two theme pounded in my head and punished accordingly were get educated and don't know anyone up. The formula proved quite successful, and will for anyone with the limited amount of effort it takes to try it for yourself.

Posted by: KJ at March 27, 2006 01:11 PM

The culture in the home is one of expectations, not the culture of the street outside the home or the culture of the mistakes made by the parents in the past.

That's an excellent point.

Both my boys did far better than their idiotic mother did, too. I expected them to behave better than I did when I was their age, I held their feet to the fire, and they did not disappoint me. And yet they do not seem to be narrow-minded or judgmental of others. Nor do you. They just have standards.

I, on the otter heiny, am a something of a fascist. But what can you expect?

Posted by: Cassandra at March 27, 2006 01:24 PM

*crickets chirping*

Posted by: Cricket at March 27, 2006 02:09 PM

You're not a fascist, Cass, just dyspetic. :)

But seriously, folks, it's more than just "perverse individualism", it's childish egotism run amok.
These "children" in adult bodies have never had any responsibility demanded of them, and been taught by the "culture" and numerous other types, that this is "genuine", etc. They (unnamed adults) have fostered gigantic egotistical notions in the lives of these kids, without the tools of character and knowledge (education, for want of a better word) to lead mature lives as adults.
Two of my closest friends are black men, and also a next door neighbor, and they are all exemplary father figures and responsible husbands, because that's they way they were raised (imagine!). Their parents were demanding, and so they grew up to be responsible men (not perfect, just responsible).
Yesterday, I was going to the town rec. center where my son was swimming, and a group of loud, black 'youths' where emerging, apparently after a disputed basketball game in the gym, arguing about the outcome. Several were trying to be 'peacemakers' in that one said "it's a game, it's over!", where the others were trying to carry it on out in the street. This is typical of any group of competitive young men, but some of them don't have the maturity to "put a lid on it" and decide that it's over.
Or get a clue and realize that it's "just beginning".

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at March 27, 2006 04:50 PM

I get aggravated when people tie behavior to race.

It is more correct to tie behavior to the culture people voluntarily adopt. In the military you see a lot of very strong black families who raise their kids to be responsible citizens. They are polite, cheerful, obedient, just as smart and fun as they can be. And yet I have not noticed that they are any less "black" than other black kids. They just don't act like thugs. They don't buy into thug culture, which is no more "black" than white trash culture is "white".

Unfortunately since a vocal and needy segment of the black community acts this way, it gets identified with being black, but no one notices the responsible, smart members of society who aren't going around causing problems because they aren't doing anything to get noticed.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 27, 2006 05:41 PM

As I read the article on black marriage, I could not avoid thinking that here we have the prototypical (charicature?) of a "boomer" - it is all about her (me). She show absoultely no understanding of the function of marriage, that the two of you are 'leaving your fathers house' to create your own 'house' together. That YOUR nuclear family is what becomes the standard for whatever children you may be lucky enough to get.

My mother-in-law, for all her quirks, never undermined or second guessed what we were doing with our three kids, if she disagreed with something she told us - not the kids. She also looked at the kids as 'only a loan', that is they were/are their own, but parents had the obligation to prepare them as best we could for their future, which in the final analysis was theirs to choose. We could guide them, show them the ropes, show how to do by example. As adults they could reject that, but hey could not claim not to know.

For what it is worth all three have graduate degrees in their chosen fields, two are married in well functioning relationships.

What is most interesting given their long college educations, is that both they and their spouses are more wedded to 'traditional' values and openly disparaging at what they see in the parent generation of their peers. And.. they are not alone, their friends are pretty much like them. None are religious fundamentalists.

So after 42 years with the same 'temporary' spouse I do see some glimmer of hope, and if I don't do anything else of note in my life, I am happy that my wife with some slight help from me has managed to bring the 'kids' to well adjusted adults. That is enough for me.

So keep plodding away, it does matter.


Posted by: Hejde at March 27, 2006 07:12 PM

Again, it depends on the region of the country you're from. In white Long Island suburbs, the kids blasting rap at 3 a.m. and crusin' at night in beamers are all white. What's more, because many of them are the children whose grandparents were of Little Italy and the Lower East Side, there's this fascination with the Mafia that leads to a "cool-pose culture" that has an Italian dimension to it. Victoria Gotti and her jailed father are much admired.

Also, polygamy is arguably a VERY American tradition, and there's probably no religion more "American" than Mormonism, which is one of the fastest growing branches of Christianity in the world. (To a growing portion of the world, Americans ARE Mormons). Yes, the LDS church banned polygamy way back in the day, but that doesn't stop fundamentalist splinter sects making the "tradition" argument, some which run entire towns out in the upper midwest.

"I get aggravated when people tie behavior to race." I do too, when people mean "race" as in genetics. I mean "race" as a cultural construct, which it is. Race influences perceptions and expectations of behavior. The military seems to be a more race-blind pace than the rest of America. Now, I'm not trying to take anything away from sucessful black families that raise their kids to go against the expectations of "cool-pose culture." I applaud that.

But where are they doing it? Are they doing it in an environment (say middle-class suburbia) where ALL families are expecting the same thing from their kids, where culture definitely transcends race? Or are they doing it in the bleakest ghettos? If they are doing it the bleakest poorest ghettos, then kudos to them, they're an exception to the general rule

Not that I'm saying that it isn't impossible to rise above the ghetto culture. But it is difficult. I agree, that many If it wasn't difficult, the NYTimes wouldn't be giving scholarships to kids who could.

"The culture in the home is one of expectations, not the culture of the street outside the home or the culture of the mistakes made by the parents in the past."

I agree with this statement too. But what if there's no one home? Dad in jail, mom's not around, and old grandma's raising you, even though she can barely walk. Again, kudos to the person who was raised by a teenage mom. I'm not saying it's impossible. It's just very difficult. I agree with you that it's very important to have someone to look up to. Unfortunately, for alot of the working poor, no one is at home in the first place.

But what if you're in foster care, bouncing around to a new home every year of your life? Estimates of African-Americans in foster care range from 2/3 to half of the foster care population. In that case, you have no home; the street is your home.

"And I'm not arguing that a woman should lower her expectations. But it didn't sound, for instance, as though the gentleman who proposed to the author was some kind of thug."

Sorry. I wasn't really thinking too much of the author's particular experience per se, so much as the overall common complaints I've heard from sucessful black women.

Don't get me wrong. I think marriage is a wonderful thing. I wish more people would get married. But what works for me isn't going to work for everyone.

Posted by: alau at March 28, 2006 04:59 PM

Love your blog. I did a post on this original article, too, but I also did a recent one you might like. It's very short, but to the point.

Posted by: K T Cat at April 2, 2006 07:16 PM

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