Does black culture need to be reformed?

Does black culture need to be reformed?

The most provocative chapter in “The Cultural Matrix” is the final one, an exacting polemic by a Harvard colleague of Patterson’s, Tommie Shelby, a professor of African and African-American studies and of philosophy. Shelby accepts, for the sake of argument, the idea that “suboptimal cultural traits” are the major impediment for many African-Americans seeking to escape poverty. He notes, in language much more delicate than Moynihan’s (let alone Du Bois’s), that “some in ghetto communities are believed to devalue traditional coparenting and to eschew mainstream styles of childrearing.” Still, Shelby is suspicious of attempts to reform these traits, and not only because he is wary of “victim-blaming.” He thinks that the “ghetto poor” have a right to remain defiantly unaltered. In his view, a program of compulsory cultural reform “robs the ghetto poor of a choice that should be theirs alone—namely, whether the improved prospects for ending or ameliorating ghetto poverty are worth the loss of moral pride they would incur by conceding the insulting view that they have not shown themselves to be deserving of better treatment.” For Shelby, opposing hypothetical future government programs is also a way of registering frustration with past government action, and inaction. “Given its failure to secure just social conditions,” he writes, “the state lacks the moral standing to act as an agent of moral reform.”

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