Harvard's contentious sociologist speaks his piece on the nation's racial dialogue: You're all wrong.
By Tom Scocca
FEBRUARY 9, 1998: In the ongoing official discussion of race in this country, and the even-longer-ongoing unofficial discussion, Orlando Patterson wishes -- to be blunt about it -- that people knew what they were talking about. Being a sociologist by trade, he offers a fairly precise illustration: 13 percent. That is, given a bit of rounding to make up for the shortcomings of the United States Census Bureau, the percentage of this country's population that is classified as black.
But, Patterson says, hardly anyone knows it. In a 1995 survey, white and black people alike guessed on average that blacks (or, as Patterson prefers, Afro-Americans) account for 25 percent of the population. Meanwhile, whites (a/k/a Euro-Americans) -- who make up roughly three-quarters of the public -- were thought to be just under half the population. In other words, when the average American thinks about black-white relations, he assumes that blacks are outnumbered only two to one, when the real proportion is more like six to one. When average Americans start arguing about whether affirmative action has gone too far, they have no idea what "too far" would really look like.
So when Patterson, Harvard's John Cowles Professor of Sociology, sets out to show people what they're misunderstanding about the state of race relations, he has plenty of ground to cover. His most recent book, The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America's "Racial" Crisis (Civitas/Counterpoint, 1997), is the first installment of a planned trilogy on the subject, dedicated to reconsidering the conventional wisdom and to escaping what he calls, in the book's introduction, the "rhetorical quicksand" in which the current discussion of race has been mired. Both conservative and liberal American notions of race are, Patterson writes, incoherent and misinformed. They are also "ostrich-like and cowardly," "futile," and "perverse, hypocritical, and downright obtuse."
A pensive man with round glasses and a severe-looking Tutankhamen goatee, Patterson is by turns amused, annoyed, and incredulous when he talks about these things in person. He enumerates points on his fingers. When he is aggrieved, his native Jamaican accent makes his vowels ring, so that, for instance, the word wrong comes out "wra-a-ng." It is a word he uses with enthusiasm.
His last book, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (Basic Books), won him general acclaim and the 1991 National Book Award, but he's more used to receiving -- and delivering -- brickbats. In 1990, while chairing Harvard's sociology department, he started a war with the school's social studies program, calling it "pedagogically conservative and misguided"; the program's founder, Stanley Hoffman, shot back by telling the New York Times that Patterson's remarks were "totally out of line, and slightly pathetic." A year later, he drew the ire of a considerable swath of the Times' readership with an op-ed piece dismissing Clarence Thomas's alleged behavior toward Anita Hill as a "down-home style of courting" that had been misunderstood by "middle-class neo-Puritans."
He followed that up with an essay on African-American gender relations in the journal Transition. "Black men and women of all classes have a poisoned relationship," he wrote. The piece sparked so much contention that the journal was moved to run a follow-up symposium on the topic, in which 15 writers and scholars variously described Patterson's account as "exaggerated," "absurd," "tired," or "contradictory," to say nothing of accusing him of "sedition" and "mother-blame."
"Orlando temperamentally doesn't mind people being cross with him," says Harvard philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, who is coeditor, with Afro-American Studies chair Henry Louis Gates Jr., of Transition.
Patterson seems to share in Appiah's estimation. "I don't care where the chips fall," he says.
Most recently, he demonstrated that indifference by being the skunk at the garden party when Gates convened a panel discussion about race on Martha's Vineyard this past August. In an evening of amity and consensus, Patterson drew attention by being ornery. As his fellow speakers offered personal accounts of racial troubles in their lives, Patterson repeatedly took issue -- at one point challenging ex-Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver for citing her son's inability to get a good job as evidence of the persistence of racism. "You had this . . . lawyer talking about racism as if we're still living in this kind of Jim Crow world," Patterson says. "I just got fed up with it."
That subjective approach to examining race is particularly irritating to Patterson as a professional social scientist. He considers the American belief in the value of firsthand experience to be foolish. "The most misinformed statement about the 'black condition' by an ignorant resident of the ghetto is accepted as the truth about the plight of the poor," he writes in the introduction to his recent book. "And nothing is more lamentable than to behold an Afro-American college freshman with an upper-middle-class suburban background 'telling it like it is' about racism to a senior Euro-American scholar with a lifetime of accumulated knowledge on the subject."
Nonetheless, the opinions of amateurs make up a major body of work. One of the most prominent recent books on race has been David K. Shipler's A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), a collection of interviews with ordinary Americans about their personal struggles with racial problems. "It's not that Shipler is wrong," Patterson says -- then adds, immediately, "No, I think he is wrong." No matter how persuasive Shipler's stories may seem, he says, "you can always find that sort of thing, if you go looking for it."
Without context, though, what do stories mean? "You can't go around just piling up anecdotes," Patterson says, disdainfully. He believes, instead, that the data must be reckoned with. As the 13 percent and the three-quarters regard each other, people's private opinions butt up against measurable facts. "If the average Afro-American goes around thinking that Euro-Americans are a minority of only 45 percent of the population," he writes, "the fact that Euro-Americans appear to dominate all the major institutions of the nation must be a source of constant rage."
Meanwhile, optimists buoyed by surveys showing that overt racism is in decline miss the fact that "when roughly a quarter of all Euro-Americans are racists, it still remains the case that for every two Afro-American persons there are three Euro-American racists. . . . This is still an outrageous situation for any Afro-American."
Getting outraged is, for Patterson, apparently something of a family trait, as is acting on it. "Jamaicans tend to be very cantankerous and aggressive people," he says. Both his parents, he recounts, had "very strong personalities." His late father was a detective in the Jamaican colonial police force, and at the same time a union organizer and an ardent anticolonialist. When black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey was getting his start in Jamaica, the senior Patterson was assigned the job of tailing him and reporting on all his speeches, which he recorded in a "fiendishly meticulous" shorthand. Later, when the government tried to prosecute Garvey for treason, Patterson says, his father refused to cooperate. "He pointed out that this man was not saying anything that was against the law," he explains. The careful shorthand notes are now in the Jamaican national archives.
Patterson himself grew up in the midst of anticolonial ferment, graduating from the University of the West Indies in 1962, the year Jamaica gained its independence. He then studied and taught at the London School of Economics, and served on the editorial board of the journal New Left Review.
After returning to the University of the West Indies, he arrived at Harvard in 1969 as a visiting professor in the brand-new Afro-American Studies department, only to find himself "at complete loggerheads" with chairman Ewart Guinier. Patterson saw the department as hopelessly caught up in identity politics; Guinier, he says, "was not a scholar in any way. . . . He should never have been appointed." A tenure offer from the sociology department later that year kept Patterson in Cambridge.
At the time, his specialty was Caribbean sociology, and he kept close ties with Jamaica. During the seventies, he served as an adviser to the ultimately unsuccessful government of Jamaica's democratic-socialist prime minister, Michael Manley -- an experience, he writes, that "disabused me of all totalizing ideologies."
The American discussion of race and integration, however, is nothing if not totalizing. The punditry divides neatly into opposing camps. After President Clinton's advisory panel on race was criticized for being too liberal, historian John Hope Franklin, the chairman of the panel, responded by saying he didn't think opponents of affirmative action had anything to offer. When the president wanted to soothe hurt feelings over Franklin's remarks, he did it not by forcing the sides to mix, but by convening a meeting of affirmative-action opponents, a different monolith. The guest list -- Ward Connerly, Linda Chavez, local scholars and authors Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, and other pundits and activists -- practically wrote itself.
The arguments have assumed the quality of ritual. On the left, the defenders of affirmative action take a dim -- the accepted shorthand is "pessimistic" -- view of the current situation. The races are deeply estranged, things are getting worse, and affirmative action is the necessary corrective. On the right, "optimists" argue that the races are basically getting along well, that society is colorblind, and that affirmative action is harmful and unnecessary.
Books on the subject, like the experts, are expected to fall into line, to represent one side and provide it with ammunition against the other. Most recently, the right has been represented by the Thernstroms' America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible (Simon & Schuster, 1997), 704 pages of statistically based analysis designed to show that things are going fine. The left has countered with Shipler's 607-page compendium of regular folks' more downcast notions.
Patterson's book, by contrast, doesn't shore up either position. His resistance to the established patterns of argument, even more than his indifference to decorum, tends to land him in no-man's land. The Ordeal of Integration is a highly nuanced -- if not especially diplomatic -- book, offered up in the middle of a polemical and formulaic debate. It doesn't quite fit.
Patterson diverges in part because he insists on looking at integration as an ongoing process, rather than simply judging the state of things at the current moment. So although he sees the situation as having improved since the era of segregation, as the "optimists" do, he doesn't share their idea that progress is inevitable. Rather, he argues that the improvement is a product of deliberate integrationist policies -- which need to be continued until African-Americans are secure in their membership in society. To that end, he proposes, ethnically based affirmative action should be continued for 15 more years, then replaced with a system of class-based assistance.
His other positions are likewise unorthodox. Even as he insists that African-Americans face serious obstacles to equal opportunity, he decries the "culture of victimization" among them. He praises the unique power of African-American contributions to the nation's culture, but repeatedly warns of the dangers of racial chauvinism. He's managed to get himself charged with being a right-wing dupe and an unthinking liberal at the same time. "People just feel, 'Well, we've got to categorize this man,' " he says. "Americans are very, very thin-skinned intellectually."
The flip side of that observation, though, is that West Indians have a reputation for being thick-skinned about the problems faced by American-born blacks. "Orlando Patterson is not a black American," says poet and novelist Ishmael Reed, one of the contributors to the Transition forum. "What I hear from African-Americans is that some West Indian intellectuals feel they're not up to snuff."
The underlying issue is whether there are dimensions of the African-American experience that Patterson isn't really appreciating. "I fundamentally disagree with his views on the extent to which we've made racial progress," says Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, who was one of the Martha's Vineyard panelists. "I think some people take too rosy a view because of the progress of the black middle class, and ignore the persistent, pervasive problems of despair among the black working class and underclass."
Patterson concedes that he hasn't had, as middle-aged and older African-Americans have, the experience of being born into a majority-racist society. "I can only imagine, and perhaps I don't imagine well," he says.
But Appiah, himself a native Ghanaian, points out that Patterson has been in the country longer than some of his younger critics have been alive. And, he adds, the experience of coming from another country gives Patterson a comparative frame of reference that many American natives lack, a familiarity with the way matters of ethnicity and class play out elsewhere.
Certainly, Patterson's views on American society depend on an ability to look at the nation from an analytic distance, and with an eye to history. His critique of liberals' racial pessimism is based on the notion that the job of knitting together a society that had been divided for hundreds of years is a difficult one, and that the current crises of race are simply part of the expected struggle -- the "ordeal" of the title. The more equal the society becomes, he argues, the more the historical inequalities will be a source of outrage. "As the relations between the previously segregated groups change, becoming objectively better for Afro-Americans, they will be experienced by Afro-Americans as getting much worse even as they are genuinely seen by Euro-Americans to be improving," he writes. "Both perceptions will be correct." Too, the more contact there is between the groups, the more opportunities there are for group conflict, and economic progress for some makes the lack of progress for others look worse.
Liberals, he says, botch their analysis of the situation by overemphasizing racial conflict as an explanation for the various ills of society. The constant focus on race, he says, conceals important matters of class; for Patterson, the terrible separation between white and black people is in part a terrible separation between the middle and working classes. "Take your last dinner party, and ask yourself how many working-class Italians you had there," he says. "I'm willing to bet that the typical WASP Bostonian has had very little to do in terms of friendly conversation with the typical working-class Italian person, or even the typical Irish-American person in South Boston."
He also butts heads with American liberals on moral grounds. Though he argues quite elaborately that society's leaders should recognize and try to fix the structural problems that limit whole groups of people's opportunities and choices, Patterson firmly rejects personal claims of victimization. "To constantly explain away one's failure as being produced by one's environment, or worse, as the doing of another 'race' or class . . . is to reduce oneself to the level of an object, and further to prolong one's dependency on that other group or environment," he writes.
That's the part of his argument that gets him accused of being a right-winger. "He's a black-pathology careerist," says Reed, who lumps Patterson in with Harvard's Afro-American Studies Department as part of a "cultural Vichy regime . . . puppets of the ultra-right-wing establishment." New York University law professor Derrick Bell -- who left Harvard Law School in a battle over its minority hiring record -- raised similar criticisms in his part of the Transition symposium, warning that Patterson's writings about the problems of the ghetto could potentially be used to harm the very people he presumably wants to help.
But although his work may offend liberal or leftist sensibilities, it's hard to see how charges of ultra-right affiliation can stick to a man who helped institute a socialist government in his native country. Patterson castigates liberals, he says, because "one is more critical of the people whom one feels closest to." The current liberal agenda, he says, pays too little attention to goals of justice and economic equality.
"The big real issue in America right now is the gross, obscene growth of [economic] inequality," he says. "That's not a racial problem -- that's a profound structural problem." If it were necessary to abandon racial remedies to secure a system of economic affirmative action, he says, "I'd make the trade tomorrow."
In statements like that, Patterson is blasé about race in a way it's hard to imagine many native-born African-Americans being. Racial discrimination remains, for him, an impersonal issue; in more than two decades in this country, he says, "I've never experienced any overt form of racism." His house-hunting has gone without incident; he's been pulled over by the police only twice -- once for having a broken taillight and once for speeding through Acton. "I don't think I'm being naive," he says. "I've been unusually lucky."
His distrust of anecdotal evidence extends to his own, and so he does not take his experiences as evidence that American society has become fundamentally fair. He has particularly harsh words for those who do, blasting the hypocrisy of "people who have acquired their status largely by virtue of their ancestry and good fortune . . . or who now earn incomes and exercise power all out of proportion to their modest talents, moralizing about fairness and merit."
Pundits like the Thernstroms, who call for a colorblind, individualistic America, are simply ignoring the real dynamics of society, as he sees it. "No society can exist without recognition of some kind of groups and group claims," he writes. The same government that helps out hurricane victims, he argues, has an obligation to help the people harmed by large-scale discrimination.
But his chapter challenging the conservative point of view is only about a third as long as the one attacking liberals. This is not, he says, because he sympathizes with them; it's because he doesn't. "The conservatives' position is just ridiculous in so many ways," he says. "I mean, it's hard to even engage with them." If you believe, as Patterson does, that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought an end to institutional white supremacy, it's hard to discuss social policy with a faction whose last presidential candidate kept harking back to a better time in the segregated 1950s.
"Idiots like [William] Bennett talk about our great Bill of Rights without observing that the Bill of Rights was neglected for most of its history, and a good part of its revival is due to African-Americans," he says. That lack of historical perspective is, to a scholar, fairly maddening. "They are just nuts, you know? The idea that there was a golden age is wrong, wrong, wrong."
Unfortunately, people who believe such things control more than half of Congress, and politics is notoriously immune to nuance. "The way you get to the voter isn't by explaining the argument," says Appiah. It may be that the only way to dispel a myth is with another myth.
But Patterson is eager to give his way a try. Come fall, with the release of Rituals of Blood (Civitas/Counterpoint), the second volume in the planned trilogy, he will be trying to bring conservatives face to face with the ugliness of history. In it, he says, he will examine the cultural damage wrought by slavery; the book includes a "long, pretty grim essay" in which he proposes that lynching was not simply terrorism but a form of ritual human sacrifice, essential to the rebuilding of the South after the Civil War. "[It's] going to upset a lot of people," he says, with a mixture of resignation and eagerness.
For all that he relishes a dustup, Patterson is more than just a troublemaker. His vision of the future of American race relations and culture is, at heart, a positive one; he has faith that the nation will be able to move toward a postracial future. "It's already there if you look at the young people," he says, talking about his daily walk past the crowd outside of Cambridge Rindge and Latin. "In the interactions, and the play, and the struggle, and the negotiation, one gets a much more optimistic picture . . . . They're saying this is no big deal," he says.
He's a long way from selling the rest of the world on his vision. But at least, with The Ordeal of Integration, some people are listening. "For a very short little book, it's rich in real food for thought," says Stephan Thernstrom, a bit backhandedly.
"The bottom line is that any debate about race and racial progress has to include Orlando Patterson," Charles Ogletree says. "He is a constant reminder that there is no unanimity in our views about the state of black America."
And, Appiah says, it's not Patterson's job to worry about winning people over or putting them off. From Socrates on down, thinkers have gotten themselves into trouble by challenging and complicating the terms of popular discussion. "A classic function of intellectuals is to improve the quality of the debate, without being seen to line up with factions," Appiah explains.
"He's trying to improve the quality of the argument. If the object is popularity, you should avoid the topic of race."
Tom Scocca can be reached at email@example.com.
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