Challenging Everyone’s Conceptions About Blacks

At times Orlando Patterson seems to be mouthing the arguments of racial neoconservatives. An African-American who teaches sociology at Harvard University, Mr. Patterson asserts that problems in many black neighborhoods stem less from white racism than from the breakdown of the black family and the behavior of black men who impregnate too many black women and marry too few.

In other moments, he sounds like a traditional liberal, insisting slavery and the Southern sharecropping system are to blame for such irresponsible behavior by breaking down the family structure.

Then again, his proposed solution — that more black women should marry outside their race — might take those on the left and right by surprise.

”Once they make that important decision to explore the broader marriage market, it may well put more pressure on Afro-American men to shape up,” he said in a recent interview. ”But the situation right now is that they’ve restricted their market to the men who have no incentive to change.”

Such iconoclastic views have helped turn Mr. Patterson, 59, into one of the most provocative thinkers on the status of blacks today. Conservatives criticize him by saying he focuses too much on the debilitating effects of slavery and not enough on the impact of the welfare state. Black feminists chastise him for challenging the notion that black women suffer from double discrimination because of their race and sex. (He says they are getting more education and higher incomes than black men.)

Meanwhile, some blacks take him to task for publicly airing ”dirty linen.” Kenneth S. Tollett, a professor of sociology at Howard University, said: ”I don’t think he appreciates the consequences of his analysis. He is apparently blaming black males as the major source of difficulties in the black community. That’s just fodder for racists and people who want to denigrate the black community.”

Yet agitating people may be the point. ”It’s a cultivated style of his,” said Glenn C. Loury, a professor of economics at Boston University and a friend of Mr. Patterson. ”He means to be iconoclastic. He means to go against the grain. He takes relish in it.”

Mr. Patterson has been challenging conventional ideas about race for years. He has written five weighty sociological treatises, including ”The Ordeal of Integration” (Civitas/Counterpoint, 1997) and ”Freedom in the Making of Western Civilization” (Basic Books, 1991), both of which won the National Book Award. He has also penned three works of fiction, including ”The Children of Sisyphus,” published in 1964 when Mr. Patterson was 23 years old. It was one of the first accounts detailing the life style and philosophy of Jamaica’s Rastafarian cult.

”I was writing about the Rastas long before they became fashionable,” he said in the lilting accent of his native Jamaica as he leaned back on a leather sofa in his fifth-floor office. Mr. Patterson’s skin is deep bronze; his hairline is receding. A wispy goatee clings to his chin.

Now it is his latest book, ”Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries” (Civitas/Counterpoint), that is causing a stir by weighing in on the long-running debate over how much damage slavery did to the black family.

During the antebellum period, abolitionists emphasized the havoc slavery played on black family life. After the war, Southerners who dominated American history for decades flipped that argument upside down, calling slavery a stabilizing force on blacks whose family life deteriorated after emancipation.

Earlier in this century, sociologists like W. E. B. Du Bois and E. Franklin Frazier placed the spotlight once again on the debilitating aftereffects of slavery. As a young official in the Johnson Administration, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was influenced by their work as he grappled with the persistently high level of out-of-wedlock births among blacks.

In the 1970’s, Mr. Moynihan’s argument was countered by Herbert G. Gutman, a professor at City University of New York. In his classic book, ”The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom,” he tried to show the resilience of the black family and how through all of slavery’s depredations, the family emerged relatively intact. Mr. Gutman’s work was seized upon by many black intellectuals who were both troubled by Mr. Moynihan’s depiction of black antisocial behavior and the implicit message of Mr. Gutman’s work: If black families survived the ravages of slavery, then whatever problems that plague them today are the result of contemporary racism.

To Mr. Patterson, however, Mr. Gutman’s theory is romantic nonsense.

”Look, how can you have 270 years of history in which the family was not recognized, women could be raped, beaten, stripped naked in the fields before their so-called husbands; where men were emasculated deliberately in the sense of having no authority, no say over their children, even though they are encouraged to reproduce; how can you have 270 years of that and claim that people came out with intact families with a two-parents, suburban-type family?” he asked. ”It’s just absurd on the face of it.”

He scoffs at critics who say his forthright critique of black men and families hurts African-Americans. And he is impatient with the reluctance to discuss sexual relations between black men and women.

Mr. Patterson started writing about gender relations among African-Americans in 1991, when Anita Hill leveled her explosive charges of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas after he was nominated for the Supreme Court. In an Op-Ed article for The New York Times, he dismissed the charges and Mr. Thomas’s alleged ”Rabelaisian humor” with Ms. Hill as merely examples of a ”down-home style of courting.”

Mr. Patterson was hissed at when he repeated his theory at a conference at Georgetown University a year later. After the experience, Mr. Patterson began to throw himself into the issue of why the relations between black men and black women were in such a sorry state.

His interest in the subject has a personal dimension as well, however.

His father was a police detective whose efforts to unionize police officers caused him to run afoul of the British colonial authorities in rural Jamaica, turning him into a bitter man who drank too much and abused his wife. The couple separated when Mr. Patterson was 2. They reunited when he was 11, but there was always tension in the marriage.

”I guess a lot of my attitudes toward gender and so on are formed by that experience, because I do think that I’ve always had difficulty relating to him,” Mr. Patterson said of his father. ”They came back together mainly for my benefit, but I’m not sure that was a great idea for them.”

At college at the University of the West Indies and in graduate school at the London School of Economics, Mr. Patterson called himself a ”radical nationalist.” He demonstrated for an end to Jamaica’s colonial status — he was 22 when the country became independent in 1962 — and for a federation of Caribbean nations. His left-wing politics led to a long friendship with Michael Manley, the late socialist Prime Minister of Jamaica, to whom Mr. Patterson was an unofficial adviser for many years.

In 1968 a crackdown by a conservative Jamaican Government against leftist student and faculty organizations at the University of the West Indies, where he was teaching, convinced Mr. Patterson that he should move to the United States, where he was eventually appointed to the Harvard faculty.

His background and interests have created an odd mixture in Mr. Patterson: a black student of the American racial dynamic who was born and raised in a foreign country with a black majority. It is a mixture he says allows him to view racial issues here with a fresh eye.

”Growing up in a society in which almost everybody — my kinsmen anyway — were people of color, you don’t experience the kind of racial hurts which from what I read in autobiographies and accounts by sociologists are a very powerful shaper of attitudes,” he said. ”Race was something I discovered intellectually later on in college. But having a group of white people who were the majority around you and constantly giving off signals of their superiority and your inferiority was something I was spared the burden of having to put up with.”


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