Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Unwitting Racial Heretic

Summer 1998

Orlando Patterson
Cities/Counterpoint, 1997,233 pgs.

Orlando Patterson, a Jamaican sociologist now teaching at Harvard, does not like being termed a conservative for his views on black-white relations in the United States. "I have given up trying to explain to semiliterate American editors and sound-bitten television producers why it is laughable to categorize me as a conservative, for the same reason that I long ago gave up attempting to explain to angry bourgeois Jamaicans that I have never been a pro-Castro communist" (p. 11).

Mr. Patterson is quite correct. He is no conservative, and he has enough fatuous leftist views to qualify him for his Harvard chair. But he also makes a number of sensible and illuminating remarks about ethnic problems. These put me in the uncomfortable position of having to praise a sociologist. (Don't worry, I have not gone soft: I haven't forgotten his fatuous remarks.)

The conventional leftist view of the problems of American blacks goes something like this: Owing to the legacy of slavery and segregation, blacks today cannot compete on equal terms with whites. And prejudice is by no means a thing of the past. Blacks constantly encounter discrimination in employment and housing. In view of their desperate circumstances, many in the black underclass turn to crime. As a result the white power structure turns even further against blacks. Blatant acts of prejudice, such as limits to welfare and repeal of affirmative action, become the order of the day.

Patterson finds this picture grossly misleading. Although for the black underclass times are indeed bad, "there is no denying the fact that, in absolute terms, Afro-Americans, on average, are better off now than at any other time in their history.... Afro-Americans are now very much a part of the nation's political life, occupying positions in numbers and importance that go well beyond mere ethnic representation or tokenism.... The enormity of the achievement of the last forty years in American ethnic relations cannot be overstated. For better or worse, the Afro-American presence in American life and thought is today pervasive" (pp.17-18).

"Black presence in culture and politics is fine," we may imagine an outraged liberal responding, "but what about the bottom line, economics? Do not blacks constitute a virtual helot class?"

Not at all, our author replies. "The rise of a genuine Afro-American middle class in recent decades is cause for celebration, although no one is more inclined to belittle the fact than members of the Afro-American establishment itself.... Nearly all sociologists take into account educational and occupational factors when arriving at an estimate of the size of the middle class. My own calculations, using this approach, show that at least 35 percent of Afro-American adult, male workers are solidly middle class. The percentage is roughly the same for adult female workers" (pp. 21-22). Of course, a good deal of this progress stems from government handouts rather than the unhampered operation of what our author terms "the tyranny of the marketplace" (p. 7). But this does not alter the fact that these blacks are better off. Leftists cannot then without contradiction continue to urge that programs that aid blacks be continued while they demand yet more programs because they say, almost no blacks have fared well.

But our leftist doomsayers will not go quietly. Is it not the case that the alleged economic achievements of the black middle class collapse when examined closely? Even well-off blacks own much less property than whites of comparable status. Is not Patterson, like Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, indulging in wishful thinking?

Patterson refuses to retreat. "The difference in asset ownership is important, but this conclusion [that blacks have not really progressed] is grossly overblown and...discredits the hard work, intelligence, and industriousness that middle-class Afro-Americans have put into acquiring the very real status and power they possess" (p. 24).

Our liberal has yet another weapon to wield. (Incidentally, let us give our liberal a name. For Patterson, the political scientist Andrew Hacker, who views blacks as hardly better off than concentration-camp inmates, epitomizes the errors and follies of prevailing dogmas on racial relations.) No matter how well the middle class may have fared, what about the underclass? Are not a substantial number of blacks doing very badly?

Patterson does not deny the importance of the underclass: rather, he insists on it. "A little over 29 percent of all Afro-American persons--some 9,873,000 souls--and slightly over a quarter of all Afro-American families were poor as of March 1996.... Afro-American individuals are 26 times more likely to be poor than Euro-Americans" (p. 28).

But these facts, Patterson avers, do not compel us to adopt the liberal claim that poor blacks have been victimized by the white powers-that-be. The chief reason for the deplorable conditions of so high a proportion of blacks is the lack of stable families. Nearly 60 percent of black children live in female-headed households; and when single parenting is combined with poor education and a neighborhood of rampant crime, the result is disastrous.

We may imagine that Hacker and his ilk will say: "Exactly right, Professor Patterson! You confirm to the hilt our position that poor blacks constitute an oppressed nation. Given your own admissions, why do you condemn us?"

We here arrive at the heart of Patterson's case. He readily grants the liberals that poor blacks live in circumstances liable to lead to trouble; but it does not follow that social conditions inevitably determine one's response. To do so denies individual responsibility; and it is only if freedom is insisted on that blacks may hope to rise by their own efforts from the underclass.

Alas, any "Afro-American person who dares to question the deterministic dogma is immediately dismissed as a self-hating Tom and reactionary; any Euro-American person rash enough to do so gets flattened with the twin charges of racism and 'blaming the victim'" (p. 87).

Patterson thus breaks decisively with leftism at its fundamental axiom. Individuals are not the by-products of a social juggernaut but are responsible actors. Patterson does not combine his belief in individual freedom with acceptance of a free-market economy; but he has said quite enough to enrage all leftists in good standing.

Unfortunately, I cannot close my review with an encomium to Patterson as a defender of liberty. (You didn't expect me to, did you?) Patterson supports freedom. Very good; but on what grounds does he do so? His analysis cannot be termed an unqualified success.

Our author moves the discussion to metaphysics. An argument advanced by Epicurus attracts him: the determinist must claim that his own assertion of determinism results from a causal process, if he is to be consistent. And this is his undoing: "[t]he man who says that all events are necessitated has no ground for criticizing the man who says that not all events are necessitated. For according to him this is a necessitated event."

The argument Mr. Patterson mentions has been much canvassed in the literature, and it is perhaps not quite so decisive as he assumes. But, much to the relief of my readers, I do not propose to join issue with him here. Rather, the problem is that Epicurus's arguments have no bearing on the point about blacks that Patterson wishes to make. For suppose that he is right: universal determinism is self-contradictory and therefore cannot be rationally maintained. It does not follow from this that people are responsible for their social position: Hacker's social determinism is perfectly consistent with Epicurus's point.

What follows from "It is not the case that every event is determined" is "Some events are determined," not "No events are undetermined." Unless leftists base their claim that blacks are locked into poverty on the thesis of universal determinism, they have nothing to fear from Epicurus. (Incidentally, this point does not depend on a "compatibilist" position on free will.)

But this is not the only instance in which Patterson misapprehends a point outside his own discipline of sociology. He has a most peculiar view of economics: "The idea that, in acting rationally, we are doing not only what was foreordained by a rational cosmos, but also doing freely what we want and will to do, even if, at any given moment we foolishly imagine otherwise, is the ancient precursor of modern rational choice and neoclassical economic philosophy" (p. 93). The metaphysics of spontaneous order has replaced stoic philosophy but the Stoics "would have been dumbfounded by the identification of selfish greed with rationality" (p. 93).

Neither economics nor rational choice theory involves the view that our choices are "foreordained by a rational cosmos," whatever that may mean. And of course the economist (at least the good Austrian economist) does not identify rationality with selfish greed. I suppose that Mr. Patterson has to spout at least a little nonsense of this sort to confirm his credentials as a sociologist. These errors are no mere niceticies of theory. They manifest Mr. Patterson's deep-seated antipathy to the free market. He favors extensive governmental meddling, including "making work pay" and "housing vouchers" (pp. 184-85). But if Mr. Patterson ends up as a garden variety leftist, he deviates enough from the conventional nonsense on this topic to be worth reading.


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