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by Peter Moskos

April 26, 2014

Destructive Culture

Najee Thomas, the 14-year-old son of Ronnie Thomas, was shot and killed in Cherry Hill (south Baltimore). You may better know Ronnie Thomas as Skinny Suge, he who 10-years ago created the semi-famous/infamous "Stop Snitching" DVD and is now in federal prison.

Now I know it's not popular in liberal circles to allow people to talk about "culture" -- at least in any form except as related to mainstream dominant hetero-normative white male oppression. But social scientists can't let conservatives co-opt and define the cultural perspective when talking about the ghetto.

You don't have to be a racist to note something is toxic about the culture of the Thomas family (see, for instance Stop Snitching parts one, two, three, and four). Not only are Skinny Suge's life choices morally repugnant, they fail to succeed even by their own street-code values (unless these goals are to actually remain poor, in prison, or be killed).

To blame America for America's failings may be morally cathartic and even factually correct, but it does a great disservice to those who make better choices to ignore the culture of a community (and by "better," yes, I'm using judgmental bourgeois standards of, like, holding a regular job and being a good parent.)

Let me turn to one of my favorite takes on the matter, written back in 2006 by Harvard Sociologist Orlando Patterson (who was my PhD dissertation adviser). It's well worth reading in its entirety, but here's a bit in edited form:
Why have academics been so allergic to cultural explanations?
First is the pervasive idea that cultural explanations inherently blame the victim; that they focus on internal behavioral factors and, as such, hold people responsible for their poverty, rather than putting the onus on their deprived environment. (It hasn't helped that many conservatives do actually put forth this view.)

But this argument is utterly bogus. To hold someone responsible for his behavior is not to exclude any recognition of the environmental factors that may have induced the problematic behavior in the first place.
Second, it is often assumed that cultural explanations are wholly deterministic, leaving no room for human agency. This, too, is nonsense.... Cultural patterns are often easier to change than the economic factors favored by policy analysts.
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.
And why, finally, do [so many young unemployed black men] murder each other at nine times the rate of white youths?
Socioeconomic factors are of limited explanatory power.
[When] the economy grew at a rapid pace, providing millions of new jobs at all levels[,] 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.

One oft-repeated excuse for the failure of black Americans to take these jobs — that they did not offer a living wage — turned out to be irrelevant.... Such jobs offered an opportunity to the chronically unemployed to join the market and to acquire basic work skills that they later transferred to better jobs, but that the takers were predominantly immigrants.
To understand self-destructive culture, one would be better served by disaggregated culture from its greater environmental causes rather than adopt, what is at its core, an old-fashioned functionalist and determinalist perspective.

To say something is fucked up in ghetto culture is not to say that everybody in the ghetto is fucked up or even that everything ghetto culture is necessarily bad. Certainly people don't have a choice as to where and to whom they are born. Certainly the criminal justice system contributes to the problem and can make it next-to impossible to succeed. And certainly people logically have survival skills to best suit their geographic and class-based-cultural environment. But the effed-up part of ghetto culture isn't about survival, it's about bad parenting, non-inevitable decisions, and poor life-style choices that are often distinctly counter-productive to actually surviving.

Yes, oftentimes street behavior does make rational sense in street culture, but other times impulsive short-sighted street-behavior is just impulsive, short-sighted, and wrong.

[Also, odds are nobody will ever do time for Najee Thomas's murder. I can't help but wonder how Skinny Suge feels about snitching when it comes to the guy who killed his baby boy.]


Ryanaldo said...

This culture comes from the South. Particularly, the Deep South. The Great Migrations, as it were. Thomas Sowell describes the roots, though not the persistence and evolution of it.It has evolved into its current iterations since then.
America's post-industrial exurban sprawl based economy has a higher defect rate. This policy does amount to culture. Then again, a sprawl based economy does require slumming up places quickly, in order to create greater demand for new suburban housing, shopping malls, and autodealerships. Money spent on oil wars and intermittant "interests" also adds to GDP, as such things are measured

PCM said...

My favorite book on the matter is Butterfield's "All God's Children," which very much does trace and describe the path of oppression and violence imposed on antebellum slave culture, and its continuation in contemporary urban America.

Kyle W said...

How do you feel on civil forfeiture laws?

PCM said...

I'm against 'em!

Ryanaldo said...

One problem with institutionalized flogging in our present times would be this: the perpetrators/convicted are pretty deranged through longterm habits of PCP/Crack/Meth, in addition to spending much of their time listening to very aggressive music and practicing very aggressive dialogues/vernacular. I assume if this is how they talk, this is probably how they think. Without several weeks of detox and counseling, the odds are they would be so upset and furious after a flogging, they would get loaded up on meth/crack/pcp, and then go on a violence spree.