Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Straight Out of Hollis

March 22, 2009

Straight Out of Hollis

IT was a Friday night earlier this month, and Shokanni McKen and Roy Manson, two of the three members of the rap group known as the Hollis Boyz, were sitting in Mr. McKen’s Nissan Maxima off a quiet street in Hollis, Queens, listening to the group’s new recordings in the CD player.

Mr. McKen, a 21-year-old who calls himself T-Y, and Mr. Manson, a 22-year-old who goes by the name R.Dot, bobbed their heads as the sound filled the car, parked in the driveway of a red-brick house on 204th Street where Mr. McKen lives with his mother. Then they began to rap along to a song about prevailing over a life defined by guns and drug dealing.

“Million-dollar dreams with a welfare check,” Mr. Manson chanted in a mellow monotone.

In a deep, raspy voice, Mr. McKen chimed in, “There’s nothing I’m confined to, anything I put my mind and my grind to.”

Together they sang the refrain:

When I was a young boy coming up, dreams to make it big

and live it up.

I wonder if I’ll make it.

The Hollis Boyz are among several Hollis rappers famous only in their neighborhood and struggling to make it big or, as local residents say, to go “from Hollis to Hollywood.” In this pursuit, they are encouraged by the successes of other Hollis rappers and the neighborhood’s remarkably rich hip-hop legacy.

On April 4, the hip-hop group Run-DMC, which emerged from Hollis in the early 1980s and is regarded as among the pioneers of the genre, will be inducted into theRock and Roll Hall of Fame. The group — consisting of Joseph Simmons, known as Run; Darryl McDaniels, called DMC; and Jason Mizell, the D.J. Jam Master Jay, who was killed in 2002 — is only the second hip-hop act to receive this honor; Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five from the Bronx were inducted in 2007.

Run-DMC was managed by another Hollis native, the hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, Run’s brother, who helped found the legendary label Def Jam Recordings.

Hollis, an enclave of 23,000 people in eastern Queens, not far from Jamaica, is a largely African-American neighborhood with a more recent population of West Indian immigrants and a paradoxical character.

The community has a suburban feel and is home to working- and middle-class families who live in snug one- and two-family Colonials with small front lawns. Yet Hollis has long been troubled by drugs and gun violence, which belie the neighborhood’s tranquil appearance and which became especially severe during the crack epidemic of the late ’80s.

Run-DMC and Russell Simmons are local heroes in a community where a strong sense of small-town pride endures among those who have made good. A notable symbol of this pride is the Hollis Hip Hop Museum, a shrine to the neighborhood’s musical past that opened in February inside Hollis Famous Burgers, a restaurant at Hollis Avenue and 203rd Street.

The museum, whose collection covers the walls of the restaurant, consists most prominently of Run-DMC memorabilia, among which are gold and platinum records donated by Mr. McDaniels. A plastic display case holds the gold chain, black fedora (then known as a godfather hat) and black-and-white Adidas sneakers (or “shell toes”) that were the group’s signature regalia.

“I’m trying to get kids to understand, this is like Motown,” Orville Hall, the restaurant’s owner, said one recent Sunday as he served tilapia and collard greens to a customer, a plastic apron tied around his stomach. “This is one of the most music influential neighborhoods in the country.”

Run-DMC was the first rap group to have a platinum record, the first to have a video on MTV and the first to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone. But the rappers were far from the only performers in Hollis in the early ’80s. In good weather, local parks and street corners were routinely transformed into performance spaces, with D.J.’s plugging in their turntables and M.C.’s rhyming over the beats before a crowd of revelers.

Such scenes no longer play out in Hollis. The new generation of local rappers are more likely to take their music to YouTube or MySpace, and many residents speak wistfully about the neighborhood’s bygone musical heyday and lament a lost sense of community.

In some eyes, the restaurant restores a little of that feeling. And for the Hollis Boyz, who can often be found hanging out there at night, it is a shrine not only to the past but also to the possible future.

“These people were like us,” Mr. McKen said one afternoon over fried chicken and pancakes, framed by images of the famous people on the walls. “People just around the corner.”

‘Funky Fresh’

Run-DMC’s first video on MTV, in 1984, was for the tune “Rock Box,” which begins with a professorial-looking man with frizzy white hair asking, “What is rap music?” The following year, an MTV camera crew visited Hollis to film the three as they rapped their way down Hollis Avenue.

Staring boldly into the camera, the three young men in fedoras rapped to a generation of young people, many of whom had never seen or heard anything quite like them. “In case you wonder what all this means,” the group rhymed, “we’re funky fresh from Hollis, Queens.”

Hip-hop, via Hollis, had arrived in America’s living rooms.

Though the group was the first to introduce rap to much of the country, Hollis is not widely regarded as the birthplace of hip-hop. It was in the South Bronx, during the 1970s, that performers like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five began mixing and cutting records on turntables while rhyming over the looping beats. The music was performed live at house parties, block parties and parks, where it was recorded on cassette tapes.

But in short order, the sound made its way across the Throgs Neck Bridge into Queens, where teenagers like those who went on to form Run-DMC listened, enamored, and Hollis, too, became a breeding ground for the new music.

“Somebody would bang and everybody would rhyme for hours,” Mr. Hall said as he stepped out from behind the counter at his restaurant. Back then, he had a Jeep that he often parked on the corner where the restaurant now stands, and he and his friends used to sit in the vehicle, rhyming freestyle and creating beats by banging on the top of the Jeep for the bass sound and on the side for a tinnier snare.

“You rhymed, go buy another 40, and then you rhymed some more,” Mr. Hall recalled. Pointing to a record on the wall that he had made with a group called the Showboys, he said, “I made that sitting on the corner.”

“It was just a different time,” he added.

Crime in Hollis has declined considerably over the past decade, but among many longtime residents there is a sense that Hollis never fully recovered from the crack epidemic that later assaulted the neighborhood.

“Right now, you feel like nothing is happening,” Mr. Hall said as he stood at the front door of the restaurant and gazed onto the street. “It looks exactly the same as it used to. And that’s not good. You want to see a neighborhood grow.”

Pointing to a row of mostly abandoned brick apartment buildings across the street, he added, “That doesn’t help with the motivation of a neighborhood.”

Reminders of the neighborhood’s violent street life abound. In the restaurant, a collage of current photos of Hollis residents makes up what Mr. Hall calls “the new school” part of the museum collection. One of those pictured is a young man everyone in the neighborhood called Markie; he was shot dead on a corner of Hollis Avenue in November 2007.

“It’s a rough neighborhood,” Mr. Hall said, “unless something comes to change it, something to distract from the violence. If it’s not going to be the music, it’s got to be something else.”

‘Best D.J. in the US of A’

One afternoon a few weeks before the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, Darryl McDaniels, who still raps as DMC, paid a sentimental visit to Hollis from his home in Wayne, N.J., where he lives with his wife and 14-year-old son.

Cruising around the neighborhood in a chauffeur-driven black Lincoln Navigator, he lingered in front of the Hollis Playground, often called 192 Park by locals because it is close to Intermediate School 192.

Mr. McDaniels, now 44 (“with the rhymes galore!” as he put it), talked about the impromptu performances that took place in the park when he was a teenager.

D.J.’s often removed a piece of the lamppost on the corner of 205th Street, where there was an outlet, to power their turntables. Another option involved running an extension cord across the street to the corner store, where many of the 40-ounce bottles of Olde English 800 malt liquor that fueled the revelry were bought. M.C.’s took turns rhyming while children played basketball or handball against graffiti-covered walls.

“North, south, east and west, soon as you heard the music, everybody would converge on the park,” Mr. McDaniels said that afternoon. “We would play until the police would come and go: ‘What are you kids doing? You can’t have a concert in the park without a permit.’

“The police would pull the plug,” he went on. “Everyone would go home. But then we was back here the next day.”

Leaving the park, the Lincoln Navigator pulled up in front of the two-story house on 197th Street where Mr. McDaniels grew up. He pointed to his bedroom window, where the maroon shutters still bear the horse-and-buggy design he remembered from childhood.

Mr. McDaniels’s father was a boiler worker for the city. His mother was a registered nurse. Like the other members of Run-DMC, he lived in the neighborhood for several years after he became famous.

But the two surviving members of the group are rarely found in Hollis these days. Mr. McDaniels’s visits are infrequent, and Joseph Simmons, an ordained minister now known as Rev Run, lives with his family in Saddle River, N.J., and is the subject of an MTV reality show called “Run’s House.”

Jam Master Jay, who lived not far from Hollis in Queens Village, was fatally shot in a Queens recording studio in 2002. The killing remains unsolved.

A mural honoring the D.J. and others in the neighborhood who have been killed is painted on a wall on 205th Street. Next to the portrait of Jam Master Jay are the words “Best D.J. in the US of A.”

Back in the Lincoln, Mr. McDaniels spoke passionately against what he saw as the glorification of drugs and guns in today’s hip-hop, a subject on which he often lectures at schools and colleges around the country.

“I don’t care if you come from the poorest neighborhood,” Mr. McDaniels said. “There’s some good there, too.”

He donated his gold and platinum records to the museum because, he said, he had “a responsibility to represent something good.” And he added of Mr. Hall: “When Orville did this, it was like a message. You can try to save the world, but you’ve got to take care of your own backyard first.”

Saying No to ‘Gangstering’

The Hollis Boyz are not, to use Mr. McKen’s words, “goody-two-shoes.” They rap about subjects like “standing on the block with a product for the fiends,” but they also rhyme earnestly about how “gangstering” is not the way to go. As Mr. McKen puts it in one song: “I’m not going to make it that way. I’d rather let the plaques hang.”

“See those plaques,” Mr. McKen said that afternoon over lunch at Hollis Famous Burgers, motioning toward the gold and platinum records on the wall. “That’s a whole lot of hard work. That’s years of grinding. Not years of gangstering.”

The Hollis Boyz often visit the restaurant after closing time, when Mr. Hall is invariably mixing a batch of homemade lemonade, or, as he calls it, Hollis’s Famous Lemonade, for the next day’s customers. The Hollis Boyz sometimes taste-test the lemonade, then hang around to watch sports on television.

Sometimes they are joined by a large fellow who goes by Butter Love, or simply Butter. Butter, whose real name is Douglas Hayes, was a member of a group called the Hollis Crew that released a record on Def Jam in 1985. But the record never became a big seller; as Butter put it, “It went mold.”

Butter worked for nearly two decades as a city sanitation employee, and still lives in the house on 202nd Street where he grew up. A friend of the members of Run-DMC, he often tells the Hollis Boyz stories about old times.

“We hang with Butter all night,” Mr. McKen said, laughing.

“You don’t have to call it a restaurant,” he added of Hollis Famous Burgers. “It’s a support house.”

And when it comes to the images of all the superstars on the wall of Mr. Hall’s restaurant, the Hollis Boyz see only one problem.

“Not a whole lot of these people come back,” Mr. McKen said. “They should look at Orville like a superstar. He’s done so much for Hollis. His grind is making Hollis good. That’s crazy, right?”

A Poverty of the Mind

SEVERAL recent studies have garnered wide attention for reconfirming the tragic disconnection of millions of black youths from the American mainstream. But they also highlighted another crisis: the failure of social scientists to adequately explain the problem, and their inability to come up with any effective strategy to deal with it.

The main cause for this shortcoming is a deep-seated dogma that has prevailed in social science and policy circles since the mid-1960's: the rejection of any explanation that invokes a group's cultural attributes — its distinctive attitudes, values and predispositions, and the resulting behavior of its members — and the relentless preference for relying on structural factors like low incomes, joblessness, poor schools and bad housing.

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."

His conclusions are shared by scholars like Ronald B. Mincy of Columbia, the author of a study called "Black Males Left Behind," and Gary Orfield of Harvard, who asserts that America is "pumping out boys with no honest alternative."

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?

What's most interesting about the recent spate of studies is that analysts seem at last to be recognizing what has long been obvious to anyone who takes culture seriously: socioeconomic factors are of limited explanatory power. Thus it's doubly depressing that the conclusions they draw and the prescriptions they recommend remain mired in traditional socioeconomic thinking.

What has happened, I think, is that the economic boom years of the 90's and one of the most successful policy initiatives in memory — welfare reform — have made it impossible to ignore the effects of culture. 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.

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. The sociologist Roger Waldinger of the University of California at Los Angeles, for example, has shown that in New York 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.

Why have academics been so allergic to cultural explanations? Until the recent rise of behavioral economics, most economists have simply not taken non-market forces seriously. But what about the sociologists and other social scientists who ought to have known better? Three gross misconceptions about culture explain the neglect.

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. Many victims of child abuse end up behaving in self-destructive ways; to point out the link between their behavior and the destructive acts is in no way to deny the causal role of their earlier victimization and the need to address it.

Likewise, a cultural explanation of black male self-destructiveness addresses not simply the immediate connection between their attitudes and behavior and the undesired outcomes, but explores the origins and changing nature of these attitudes, perhaps over generations, in their brutalized past. It is impossible to understand the predatory sexuality and irresponsible fathering behavior of young black men without going back deep into their collective past.

Second, it is often assumed that cultural explanations are wholly deterministic, leaving no room for human agency. This, too, is nonsense. Modern students of culture have long shown that while it partly determines behavior, it also enables people to change behavior. People use their culture as a frame for understanding their world, and as a resource to do much of what they want. The same cultural patterns can frame different kinds of behavior, and by failing to explore culture at any depth, analysts miss a great opportunity to re-frame attitudes in a way that encourages desirable behavior and outcomes.

Third, it is often assumed that cultural patterns cannot change — the old "cake of custom" saw. This too is nonsense. Indeed, cultural patterns are often easier to change than the economic factors favored by policy analysts, and American history offers numerous examples.

My favorite is Jim Crow, that deeply entrenched set of cultural and institutional practices built up over four centuries of racist domination and exclusion of blacks by whites in the South. Nothing could have been more cultural than that. And yet America was able to dismantle the entire system within a single generation, so much so that today blacks are now making a historic migratory shift back to the South, which they find more congenial than the North. (At the same time, economic inequality, which the policy analysts love to discuss, has hardened in the South, like the rest of America.)

So what are some of the cultural factors that explain the sorry state of young black men? They aren't always obvious. Sociological investigation has found, in fact, that one popular explanation — that black children who do well are derided by fellow blacks for "acting white" — turns out to be largely false, except for those attending a minority of mixed-race schools.

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.

Of course, such attitudes explain only a part of the problem. In academia, we need a new, multidisciplinary approach toward understanding what makes young black men behave so self-destructively. Collecting transcripts of their views and rationalizations is a useful first step, but won't help nearly as much as the recent rash of scholars with tape-recorders seem to think. Getting the facts straight is important, but for decades we have been overwhelmed with statistics on black youths, and running more statistical regressions is beginning to approach the point of diminishing returns to knowledge.

The tragedy unfolding in our inner cities is a time-slice of a deep historical process that runs far back through the cataracts and deluge of our racist past. Most black Americans have by now, miraculously, escaped its consequences. The disconnected fifth languishing in the ghettos is the remains. Too much is at stake for us to fail to understand the plight of these young men. For them, and for the rest of us.

Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at Harvard, is the author of "Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries."

Culture of Poverty 1

How To Understand the Culture of Poverty William Julius Wilson once again defies both right and left.

By Sudhir VenkateshPosted Monday, March 16, 2009, at 6:49 AM ET

Pop quiz: Who made the following observation? "At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of [black America] is the deterioration of the [black] family. It is a fundamental weakness of [black Americans] at the present time." Each year, I pose this question to my undergraduate students. Most will guess George Bush, Bill Cosby, Al Sharpton, or Bill Clinton. This is not surprising, given their age. More telling is their perception that such a view might come from the political left or right. It reveals just how commonplace the link of family-race-poverty is in the American mindset.

But there is a little trickery going on: Replace "black" with "Negro" and change the date to 1965. The correct author is Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He wrote these words as part of a policy brief to help President Lyndon Johnson understand the distressed social conditions in urban ghettos. "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" leaked to the press and created a firestorm of controversy with its contention that a "tangle of pathology" engulfed black America.

The so-called "Moynihan Report" brought about a new language for understanding race and poverty: Now-familiar terms like pathology, blame the victim, and culture of poverty entered American thought as people debated whether Moynihan was courageously pointing out the causes of social ills or simply finger-pointing. Moynihan forced a nation to ask, "Is the culture of poor blacks at the core of their problems?" 

This question continues to haunt us, and Moynihan's arguments about black culture still preoccupy and divide academics. (The January 2009 issue of the Annals of the Academy of Political and Social Science is dedicated to a critical reappraisal of his report.) Coming from a liberal democrat, the senator's discussion of race was remarkably bold and straightforward: Unemployed black men were "failures"; female heads of households ("matriarchs") threatened black masculinity; blacks needed help from "white America." One wishes social scientists would write with such conviction today, even at the risk of simplifying complex social processes.

The wider disputes the Moynihan Report set in motion are anything but ivory-tower squabbles. Liberals charged that the senator's theory gave ammunition to right-wing arguments for diminished government support of anti-poverty programs. They watched, with growing helplessness, as a crescendo of Republican voices began invoking Moynihan's writings to defend reduced funding for Head Start, job training, adult literacy, and welfare. Simply put, conservatives argued that blacks needed to change their behavior before money could do any good.

In this way, a deep American schism was born. Liberals believed that black poverty was caused by systemic racism, such as workplace discrimination and residential segregation, and that focusing on the family was a form of "blaming the victim." Conservatives pointed to individual failure to embrace mainstream cultural values like hard work and sobriety, and intact (read: nuclear) families. It's like Yankees vs. Mets, and for 40 years there has been no middle ground. (That the current generation of college students might not necessarily share this polarized view may augur an important shift in the years ahead.)

In this standoff, along comes the eminent sociologist William Julius Wilson, whom I studied with at the University of Chicago in the 1990s, promising to transcend the polarizing discourse on race in American society. (Sound familiar?) Wilson claims his analysis in his new book, titled More Than Just Race, will bridge the two worlds and create a new, more enlightened way for Americans to talk about race (heard this one before?)—but he is well aware that won't happen without controversy.

It is fitting that the most famous contemporary sociologist has decided to address the most significant policy issue of our time. Anything but shy, Wilson has devoted his career to wading into contentious debates that have enormous social implications for the way we understand race and inequality in America. In the wake of the civil-rights era, as black politicians bemoaned the persistence of discrimination in America, Wilson published The Declining Significance of Race (1978). He used evidence of a rising black middle class to argue that race alone can't explain the plight of black Americans. He was shunned in black intellectual circles but won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. His subsequent study of inner-city poverty, The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), challenged conservative and liberal dogma regarding poverty alleviation. In it, Wilson made the case that the focus should be on promoting work opportunities and alleviating poverty concentration rather than simply fighting racism or promoting punitive policies. After President Clinton called the book a must-read, Wilson's critics on both sides quickly ran over to his side.

More Than Just Race, which draws on Wilson's earlier research as well as more recent studies, is yet more proof of his willingness to ignore political and academic pieties and his will to make social science relevant to the public. Wilson wants to explain inner-city behavior—such as young black males' disdain for low-wage jobs, their use of violence, and their refusal to take responsibility for children—without pointing simplistically to discrimination or a deficit in values. Instead, he argues that many years of exposure to similar situations can create responses that look as if they express individual will or active preference when they are, in fact, adaptations or resigned responses to racial exclusion.

Consider a young man who works in the drug economy. Doing so doesn't mean he places little if any value on legitimate work. Employment opportunities are limited in the man's racially segregated neighborhood. There are few neighbors and friends who have social connections to employers, and most of the good jobs are far away. To complicate matters, many of his friends and neighbors are probably connected to the drug trade. Survival and peer pressure dictate that the man will seek out the dangerous, illegal jobs that are nearby, even while he may prefer a stable, mainstream job. Delinquent behavior? Certainly, but more than likely a comprehensible response to lack of opportunity.

One could apply the same logic to teenage pregnancy, another all too common feature of inner-city life. The political left and right both argue that the prospect of welfare payments can motivate young women to have children—conservatives point to delinquent values, while liberals deem this a response to lack of income. Apply Wilson's "socialization" lens, and learned behaviors take priority over economic need: Young women achieve both personal identity and social validation in their community by entering into motherhood. They join others whose lives are similarly defined by early parenting. The receipt of welfare helps them contribute to the household while placing them on a surer moral footing than those who fail to bring income into the home.

Wilson does more than argue for the rationality of such behaviors. The actions of both the young man and the teenage mother are "cultural," he suggests, because they follow from the individual's perceptions of how society works. These perceptions are learned over time, and they create powerful expectations that can lead individuals to act in ways that, to the outside world, suggest insolence, laziness, pathology, etc. In this way, Wilson's framework seeks to find individual agency in contexts of dire economic hardship.

Wilson describes this process succinctly: "Parents in segregated communities who have had experiences [with discrimination and disrespect] may transmit to children, through the process of socialization, a set of beliefs about what to expect from life and how one should respond to circumstances. … In the process children may acquire a disposition to interpret the way the world works that reflects a strong sense that other members of society disrespect them because they are black."

If you think you're at a disadvantage (however justified or unjustified that belief may be), you internalize your status, such that your low expectations become as durable an obstacle as the discrimination you might be facing. This is why people (of any race and social class) turn down assistance: The simple belief that help is futile can be a powerful deterrent to social change.

What Wilson argues may sound obvious and even a bit like Psychology 101, but there is a deeper motivation to his writing. Wilson appreciates Moynihan for shedding light on ghetto poverty. But by focusing on the capacity of the poor to act rationally and thoughtfully, Wilson wants us to get off the victimhood bandwagon that followed Moynihan. In his view, neither defending the victim nor blaming the victim is very helpful in moving us forward.

Moynihan was also not altogether hopeful that black family patterns—which he traced to a legacy of slavery—might change, although, to be fair, his report was not intended as a primer on poverty-alleviation strategy. Wilson's history is more recent, and his optimism is apparent: Three generations of black ghetto dwellers have been relying on welfare and sporadic work and doing so in isolation from the mainstream. It is folly to believe that some distinctive behavior, values, or outlooks have not arisen as a consequence. Whereas Moynihan seemed at pains to point out "pathology" in the black community, in Wilson's work, the recognition functions almost like confession: Let us face the truth, so that we may finally bring forth change.

The book stands to have a powerful impact in policy circles because it points to the elephant in the room. Wilson knows it is difficult to engineer cultural change. We can train black youths, we can move their families to better neighborhoods, etc., but changing their way of thinking is not so easy. Evidence of this lies in the many "mobility" programs that move inner-city families to lower-poverty suburbs: Young women continue to have children out of wedlock and, inexplicably, the young men who move out return to their communities to commit crime! These patterns flummox researchers and, according to Wilson, they will continue to remain mysterious until we look at culture for an answer.

Critics will complain that Wilson himself has little to offer in terms of policy recommendations. But More Than Just Race contains some clues as to where he may be headed. He emphasizes the advantages of "race neutral" programs. Wilson knows that Americans and their elected leaders are more likely to support initiatives that are not identified with poor blacks. And in this economy, there is no shortage of disadvantaged Americans—white or black—who require employment assistance and supportive services. He is also partial to addressing joblessness first, despite his insistence that culture matters (and that behaviors don't change as quickly as policymakers wish). Wilson repeatedly points to the benefits that jobs programs and vocational training have on the cultural front. Stated somewhat crudely, increasing employment will reduce the number of people who might promote or even condone deviant behavior. Change might not occur overnight, and it may not be wholesale, but it will take place.

Wilson advised the Obama campaign, and it is likely that his combination of race-neutral social policies and "jobs-first" agenda will be attractive to our president. Perhaps after addressing the financial mess, terrorism, the Iraq war, "AfPak," education, health care, and the climate, the administration will turn its attention to domestic poverty. However long that takes, it is alas safe to predict that ghetto poverty will still be a pressing national problem.

Monday, March 2, 2009