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First Person

Examining the lives of black youth

Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson’s forthcoming book, ‘The Cultural Matrix,’ explores why disadvantaged young African-Americans face both socioeconomic turmoil and pop culture success.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff/Globe Staff

The cultural matrix means a new approach to understanding African-American youth in terms of their cultural experiences. It brings together two perspectives that are often separate. More conservative people tend to emphasize values and norms in explaining the problems of black youth: unemployment, the school dropout rate, violence, incarceration, and so on. This position takes the view very often that they are responsible for the outcomes which they experience, because they have the wrong values. The other approach, which sociologists and people who are liberals and on the left tend to emphasize, is that you can only understand people’s culture in context — what they do depends on circumstances, on who they’re relating to.

Most black youth are law-abiding and God-fearing, more God-fearing than the typical white youth. The values of black youth are quite consistent with the mainstream culture in most respects. They are very individualistic. They take responsibility for their own problems. This is one of the most moving things we found. Survey after survey, when they are asked why do you have these problems, they answer: “Well, you know, we screwed up. We made the wrong decision.” They are critical of many aspects of the behavior which we think of when we think of the inner city.


One of the questions we are often asked, quite legitimately, is why is there so much violence? And one thing we did is ask why isn’t there more violence? What we’ve been able to show is that a great majority of kids want to avoid violence. They want nothing more than to have a peaceful life. But it’s very stressful living there, and they expend a great deal of cultural energy and ingenuity in knowing their culture. You have to know your culture so you avoid getting shot at.

FOR MORE The Cultural Matrix, edited and co-written by Patterson, will be released February 9.


Interview has been edited and condensed.