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Think. Discuss. Act. African American Culture

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Review: The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth

Patterson, Orlando, and Ethan Fosse. 2015. The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 675 pp.


How do you assess the performance of black (Latino and other) inner-city youth? Are you dismayed to hear some putting blame on them for their poor academic success, dropping out of school, and getting into gangs and crime? Or, are you bothered by others, who seem to excuse such behavior and who put all responsibility on the government to do more? This book is an academic attempt to help us understand the bigger picture and deal with specific aspects of this critical issue.

One of the enduring challenges in the sociology of black Americans is to figure out how to talk about poverty. The history of black people in the United States has featured persistent economic hardship, and sociologists are often unsure how to discuss the relationship between this struggle and black culture.

Many white Americans, who would prefer to avoid taking responsibility for black poverty, have argued that black culture is the primary cause of black poverty. Why, they wonder, is it so hard for a person (or a group of people) to find a good job? The term “culture of poverty” has been used, sometimes well-intentioned and sometimes not, to blame black people for high rates of unemployment and crime.

The backlash against this idea has led to the dominance of a “structuralist” viewpoint in the sociology of African Americans. Structuralism seeks to explain outcomes by means of systemic, outside forces: in this case, to explain black poverty through political, economic and historical causes. Is this a matter of “either… or?” Could it possibly beg a “both… and” combination of interacting theories?

Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson argues that the avoidance of cultural explanations in the late twentieth century went too far: “Any reference to cultural practices was tantamount to blaming the victim.… All cultural studies, especially those on the poor, became suspect.… Not only did culture become a “Typhoid Mary” in academic social science but the very study of blacks was largely shunned by white scholars.” (p. 4) Patterson, along with much of the current generation of sociologists, would like to have a more nuanced discussion of the relationship between black culture and poverty.

The core of this book is a long chapter (almost a hundred pages) by Patterson, offering a general framework for understanding the culture of black young people in the United States, especially in relationship to poverty. Preceding this is a shorter essay, also by Patterson, outlining his sociological approach. The rest of the book consists of fourteen chapters by other sociologists on subjects related to black youth and poverty, ranging from gang violence to the policies of community colleges.

Patterson distinguishes three economic subtypes of black culture. The first group is the middle class, which Patterson defines as those with access to American mainstream culture—including, for example, the norms and expectations of offices and schools—which give them access to professional jobs. The second group is the working class, with lower-status jobs. The third group is what Patterson calls “disconnected street culture,” referring to those without access to the legal economy and its norms.

One noteworthy feature of the black middle class is that they commonly live in very disadvantaged neighborhoods, which is extremely rare among white families. Researchers have found that black middle-class families have similar values, parenting methods, and social and financial capital as other middle-class families; however, they are less successful in transmitting middle-class values to their children, especially boys. Patterson suggests, citing the work of Peter Kaufman, that the difference may be due to the neighborhoods black middle-class families frequently live in, particularly the peer groups into which their children are socialized:

When advantaged middle-class youth resist their parents’ choices for them, they engage in a positive process of self-actualization that usually results in career choices that perpetuate and even enhance their status, though not in the exact trajectories their parents planned for them (becoming high-powered nonprofit executives, art dealers, and even sociology professors instead of doctors and corporate lawyers). They can do so because they know the rules and procedures, the tacit knowledge of the mainstream success game, which is often precisely what is lacking in the segregated upbringing of the ghetto middle class. They learn these procedures, of course, not only from observing (instead of just learning the instructions of their successful parents’ behavior) but also from their peer group… [which provides] training in the structural resources that allow them to reject the particular trajectories of their parents in the full, though thoroughly implicit, knowledge that they can find another path to suburban bliss.… White ethnoclass segregation means that the peer group reflects the social class of their parents, and their social interactions both mirror middle-class values and provide friends whose own successes strongly discourage working-class job choices and out-group friendships. (p. 57-58)

Patterson also suggests that black youth culture is derived, to a surprising degree of universality, from the “disconnected/street” sector of black culture, and this might influence the socioeconomic expectations of even the most suburban of black youth. He cites one study of suburban middle-class black youth; the parents in this study exhibited “all the standard parenting skills of middle- and upper-middle-class parents”, and their female children usually succeeded academically. However, the boys in the study significantly underperformed academic expectations given their socioeconomic class.

The study found that the boys did not stigmatize academic success as uncool or “acting white”, but neither was it encouraged or valued (though black girls were respected for doing well in school). The sole source of cultural value for these black boys, the study found, was the presentation of black male identity: a project that consisted of wearing the right clothes, adopting a tough and emotionless attitude, skill in sports and music, successful pursuit of girls, and long hours spent in public places doing nothing in particular. This cultural presentation was not opposed to academic success, but it was correlated with academic failure. The study found that black boys could freely pursue academics if they chose, but they would receive no cultural reward from their peers for doing so. Instead, they had to invest considerable time, money and energy into this project of black male identity, which left little time for schoolwork. The boys who were most involved in identity presentation were typically the least successful in school. The study found that “academically inclined black males, by going out of their way to conform, all tended to underperform.” (p. 60)

Patterson goes on to survey the role within black culture of gender, social ties, employment, and gang violence, emphasizing surprising or little-known findings. For example, sociologists have found that working-class black families tend to be more supportive of mainstream cultural values—such as employment, marriage and family ties—than white working-class families. While marriages are frequently unsuccessful in black working class families, marriage is still very common and strongly valued. Patterson points out that black youth who are disconnected from the legal economy know little about mainstream norms, but are still highly fluent in mainstream pop culture: that is to say, they may not go to school but they watch a lot of TV.

The chapter by Harvard’s Ethan Fosse describes disconnected black culture in more detail. The broad trend of his study is unsurprising: black youth are generally worse off than white youth, and disconnected black youth are worse off than disconnected white youth. Despite a decline in violent crime over the past two decades and improving economic indicators, a growing percentage of black youth are disconnected from the legal economy.

According to the studies Fosse cites, disconnected black youth show less trust in others (including public institutions like government, business and school), are more likely to be distrusted by others, are less charitable, more pessimistic about their own success, more likely to worry about money, more critical of their own life skills (such as financial literacy), more likely to engage in risky behavior, have narrower social circles, and are less emotionally expressive (i.e. less likely to laugh or cry).

Disconnected black youth are actually more likely to say that school and work are valuable, even if they are not successful there. They report higher self-esteem but lower satisfaction with their lives. They are more likely to say they value a high-paying career rather than one that’s socially meaningful or has good job security. They are also more critical of social problems like joblessness, broken families, and negative values in hip-hop music.

Disconnected black women are more likely to value having children, whereas disconnected black men are less likely.

A later chapter describes a study of the cultural clashes that occur when disconnected black youth go looking for jobs in the legal economy. According to the study, disconnected black street culture places a very high value on a communication of mutual respect, but this currency is not so highly valued in most entry-level jobs. Many youth from this cultural background cite a lack of respect from their superiors and coworkers as a reason for quitting or exerting little effort at their jobs. The study also argues that entry-level jobs are usually fairly dull in comparison to the excitement of black-market street occupations like drug dealing. The ready availability of drug dealing can spoil the financial incentive of working in a low-paying but legal occupation.

The study cites a certain facial expression, a “protective scowl”, as essential in the culture of street youth. Low-wage jobs, usually in the services sector, typically require the opposite: a persistent, cheerful smile. Youth in this study who were willing to change their clothing styles, their speech patterns and their daily routines for a job were still unwilling to change their facial expression and smile more, and this was one of the more common complaints from their employers.

Other chapters cover a wide range of subjects. For example, several chapters discuss the role of street violence in black communities. One study describes how black youth avoid the dangers of street culture by having some important hobby or social group to pursue instead. Another discusses the tactics by which gangs avoid outbreaks of conflict, which can be costly to both sides, while still maintaining an appearance of strength. Another chapter discusses why black communities often prefer to solve crimes using informal local mediators rather than going to the police. One chapter studies the role of gendered violence among black street gangs; another, the history of hip-hop. Differences between black immigrants from the Caribbean and black people born in the US is the topic of another chapter. One chapter studies the positive effects of religious institutions, and another explains why low-income black students at suburban schools succeed or fail. (For a list of chapters, follow the “Dig Deeper” link below, and click on “Table of Contents” midway down the page.)

Patterson’s approach to having a critical perspective on culture is based on the crucial idea that cultures are flexible. He defines culture as a mediating force between structural constraints—that is, a person’s external circumstances—and their behavior. He emphasizes that a given culture will give a person plenty of options: for any difficult situation, there are a range of possible solutions that are consistent with the person’s culture. A cultural problem, in this context, only means that people are choosing a bad option. Patterson insists that the solution, from an outsider’s perspective, is not to criticize their culture, but to encourage them to find better options that are still consistent with their culture.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. In your opinion, how should people talk about culture without engaging in negative stereotypes? When, if ever, is it acceptable to criticize a culture? Do you believe that social and economic problems have cultural causes?
  2. Have you personally observed any of the cultural dynamics the book describes? Do the book’s descriptions sound accurate to you?
  3. What do you think of Patterson’s idea of how social norms—especially those involved in professional success—are transmitted from one generation to the next? In your own life, what influence do you think your parents and peers had on your career choices?


  1. There is a long-running controversy in academic sociology regarding how to talk about the relationship between poverty and black culture. For a long time, the debate was polarized between overly negative and overly positive portrayals, but now, scholars like Patterson are looking for a more honest, nuanced approach.
  2. Patterson attempts to construct a general framework for discussing black culture, dividing African Americans into three cultural groups based on economic class, and describing the current literature on each group.
  3. Much of the book’s discussion focuses on the role of violence in black communities and the factors of employment for black youth, but a wide range of other topics are also included.

Dig Deeper

For links to video and audio interviews with Patterson which can both inform and be used for discussion starters, for a table of contents, author and contributor bios, and ordering information, go to

Peter Bass
© 2019 CYS

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