Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Why is black America so different?

Bill Cosby complains about it. He wrote a book chastising black Americans for not living up to the potential given to them. The book is called "Come on People!" Unfortunately, he didn't notice that there should be a comma there. The book went to print as "Come on People!" instead of the (clearer) "Come on, People!"

I've talked about how blacks are more likely to get abortions because they are more often in the financial/relationship situations that make women want to get abortions. The question I've never gotten around to is why this status is the case.

If I could answer it simply, I'd have a wonderful solution all packaged for you. Unfortunately the explanation I find most convincing is so nuanced that I have not idea how to change the situation. The man who explains the problems of gangs, drugs, pregnancy and educational/achievement failure in black communities is Elijah Anderson. I read his book, Code of the Street, two years ago and had a number of conversations with people about the ideas.

He bases the book of off immense amounts of case-study research. A single case study is just an anecdote, but a lifetime of them is better than any survey or statistical analysis because such 'hard math' often fails when applied to sociological issues.

Anderson has one gigantic idea from which many of the problems in black communities can be derived. I call it the 'shortened time horizon'. For one reason or another, African-Americans in poor communities do not consider a long scope of time ahead of their present position.

This might sound like some simple, subtly racist idea: "blacks can't think ahead and plan."
That's not it at all, and if you think that's what I mean, please read the book.

The point is that a huge web of factors cause it to be impossible to get enough time perspective to create large change within a community. Only certain select people can save themselves from this - personal redemption only, like in The Wire, which is easily in the same vein.

Here's an example of how interconnected the whole mess is: Anthony grew up without a father, raised mostly by his grandmother. None of the other men around him have jobs besides selling drugs or gang-related activity. That's because all the jobs are far away from the ghetto where Anthony lives, and you have to move out to get one that's worthwhile. Within the community, living to 35 is a blessing for a man. The school Anthony goes to is full of kids who don't give a shit about learning because they don't expect to use anything they've learned in school. Even if Anthony wanted to learn, there are social pressures against it (acting white - which is often overstated in my opinion) and failing that his classmates have disrupted the whole idea of school so totally that no one but a real, gifted teacher can hook more than a few kids. When Anthony goes home he sees his mom come home from one of her several, very low-paying jobs. He expects, just like everyone else around him, that he'll be dead within ten to fifteen years. He needs or wants money, for his family or just for himself. There is a way to get it - he sees people making easy money selling drugs. Most of them get killed eventually, but he'll be killed anyway before long and the money is important.

This isn't exactly taken from Anderson's book, but the basic idea is: there is a huge set of social, cultural and institutional factors that all do one thing: make everyone within them pessimistic about the future. Maybe this sounds too neat and tidy, as if having a sunnier outlook could cure gang violence. The lack of role models is especially important. No, black sports-players don't count. I might even argue they detract, giving people a chance to lie to themselves about whether they can become real athletes and not work towards a living the way most people do. When I say role models, I don't mean it in the normal sense, but in the sense that Anderson uses it: if you don't live near anyone who has a real, steady job that supports them, it's easy to imagine a hopelessness setting in.

The shortened time horizon not only explains poverty and gang-drug connections, but also alarming numbers of single parents and very young mothers. Seeking to prove themselves under social pressure (just like anyone) young black women try to form attachments to men around them - who might be gang members simply because of the statistics of it - and the way they do this is with sex. The downsides of having a child young mostly lie in the far future - the costs aren't always apparent. Anderson makes the argument so much better, but I've tried to summarize a few bits here.

Code of the Street uses a few concepts such as reputation and shortened time horizon to explain most of the peculiarities of black America. He applies it to conspicuous consumption, consumption beyond one's means, violent bravado, and on and on. One thing he doesn't do - and maybe he doesn't know the answer - is explain why and how the institutions he analyzes came into being in the first place.

He also does not go into the specific contours of gangs and drugs, which are often the most incomprehensible part to outside observers. What's interesting to note is that as more Hispanics move into the US, ones that settle in areas near or similar to ghettos begin to develop a Hispanic-inflected culture that is very similar to the black one Anderson describes. This suggests, but doesn't prove, that the environment in which a culture survives is very important in how it defines goals and time horizons.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey the black population living in projects do have role models!!!

They are the drug dealers and gang members.