Orlando Patterson, professor of sociology at Harvard University, penned a challenging piece on Jena 6 and our current racial tensions. I have learned much from Patterson over the years. For example, he was the first person to help me realize that we often confuse issues of race and class in America by assuming the race as the single variable accounting for the cyclical plight of poor blacks.
In a September 30th New York Times op-ed piece Patterson rightly says that what happened in Jena, LA and the current state of black America goes well beyond the antiquated appropriation of racial reasoning. Patterson writes:
The circumstances that far too many African-Americans face — the lack of paternal support and discipline; the requirement that single mothers work regardless of the effect on their children’s care; the hypocritical refusal of conservative politicians to put their money where their mouths are on family values; the recourse by male youths to gangs as parental substitutes; the ghetto-fabulous culture of the streets; the lack of skills among black men for the jobs and pay they want; the hypersegregation of blacks into impoverished inner-city neighborhoods — all interact perversely with the prison system that simply makes hardened criminals of nonviolent drug offenders and spits out angry men who are unemployable, unreformable and unmarriageable, closing the vicious circle.
Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and other leaders of the Jena demonstration who view events there, and the racial horror of our prisons, as solely the result of white racism are living not just in the past but in a state of denial. Even after removing racial bias in our judicial and prison system — as we should and must do — disproportionate numbers of young black men will continue to be incarcerated.
Like many others, Patterson fails to see is that the crisis in black America, especially among black males, is primarily a moral one. To what Patterson said, I would add the following:
(1) Patterson calls for prisons to reintroduce rehabilitation as an integral method of dealing with offenders. Sadly, the best any government-run rehabilitation can do for a struggling inmate is to offer shallow behavior modification which has been proven not to work long-term. A man in prison has deep emotional, psychological, and spiritual issues. Prison rehabilitation is incapable of transforming and healing the soul of man who has acted out of his own lacerated wounds.
(2) Black fatherlessness is having a devastating affect on the masculine formation of black boys. This is a moral issue. Cultivating the attributes of love, commitment, intentional formation, care, teaching, time, and discipline that boys need to learn from their fathers, and other men who care about their development, cannot be engendered by a tax incentive.
(3) Rejecting the ghetto-fabulous mindset is a moral problem. On what basis do we expect a young black male to reject the self-sabotaging ghetto-mentality? Money and success? In a country as vain and immoral as America at times the market not only supports and encourages stupidity it also provides incentive for young black boys to pursue with recklessness. “Do yo’ chain hang low?” “Read a book!”
(4) The type of healing and restoration men need when exiting the prison system is moral at the core. While it is true that these men will need job training, new skills, etc., these men need, more than anything else, to embrace a new vision for what it means to be a man. Having a masculine identity that pursues whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, beautiful, commendable, praiseworthy, and the like requires a radically transformed and renewed mind and soul. It takes a morally formed masculine identity to make job skills and family commitments cultivate cycles of human flourishing.
When black men are given the moral formation to pursue a radically transformed view of themselves as men they will become the kinds of men who fight evil in the world instead of fighting each other and are intentional about raising another generation of girls and boys to do the same thereby making the world a better place.