The high price of being too cool

Apr 12, 2006 at 12:00 am

Can you ever be too cool for your own good? Is that part of the problem for millions of young black men who seem far from the workaday mainstream, off in a world of hustling, jail and unemployment? Or is that just a stereotype that's part of the problem — and no explanation at all?

In my last column, I wrote about young brothers in prison whose lives seem to epitomize the findings of several new academic studies that were reported in The New York Times. "The huge pool of poorly educated black men is becoming ever more disconnected from the mainstream society, and to a far greater degree than comparable white or Hispanic men," the Times reported. Futhermore: "Especially in the country's inner cities, the studies show, finishing high school is the exception, legal work is scarcer than ever and prison is almost routine." This is definitely the kind of issue worth revisiting, and a March 26 op-ed piece in that same newspaper got me thinking some more.

It was written by Orlando Patterson, a Harvard sociology professor, and, like a lot of academics, he sometimes writes in a way that only other academics can wade through. I've often said that anyone who can speak academese ought to get college credit for the ability to speak a second language. That being said, the man makes a very interesting point when he challenges the oft-repeated notion that young black men are suffering due to a lack of self-esteem brought on by such factors as poverty, broken homes and poor job prospects. Although he doesn't at all deny that these conditions exist and have an effect, he strongly disagrees with the assumption that black males are suffering from any amount of self-esteem. As a matter of fact, if they don't have anything else, one thing these kids do have is enough self-esteem to light up the city of Detroit. According to Patterson, when they look in the mirror they absolutely love what they see — and therein lies the problem.

To bolster his claim, Patterson cited what he was told by one of his black female students who returned to her old high school to find out why so many of the black girls finished high school and went on to college whereas the boys continued to flunk out. Here's some of what he had to say (with my italics):

"So why were they flunking out? Their candid answer was that what sociologists call the 'cool-pose culture' of young black men was simply too gratifying to give up. For these young men, it was almost like a drug, hanging out on the street after school, shopping and dressing sharply, sexual conquests, party drugs, hip-hop music and culture, the fact that almost all the superstar athletes and a great many of the nation's best entertainers were black.

"Not only was living this subculture immensely fulfilling, the boys said, it also brought them a great deal of respect from white youths. This also explains the otherwise puzzling finding by social psychologists that young black men and women tend to have the highest levels of self-esteem of all ethnic groups, and that their self-image is independent of how badly they were doing in school."

In other words, although poverty, racism, etc., all play a part, what is being ignored is the destructive effects of a culture where everything "cool" is rewarded, but acquiring the tools necessary to survive in a world where simply being "cool" won't pay the bills is either ignored or shrugged off. Although entertainment moguls like P. Diddy and Russell Simmons exemplify the outrageous levels of success that can sometimes be obtained with one's cool left completely intact, there are thousands upon thousands of wannabes who will die with their cool shoes on but will never in life even approach a fraction of this kind of success. It's OK to shoot for that mark, but it might be a good idea to prepare for an alternative just in case because there's only so much room at the top for black male entertainment multimillionaires.

Personally, I think Patterson is on to something. I say that because the same elements of racism and poverty that afflict black men afflict black women as well — but black women are apparently finishing school while the brothers remain in chill mode on the corner. Although I'm well aware of the disproportionate amount of fear that society has of black males compared to black females, and how that arguably makes the path to success and economic stability somewhat smoother, it still doesn't quite explain why the young men are dropping out of high school in such higher numbers than the women. It would be one thing to point out how much harder it is for young black men to find a job who have completed college and who are equally qualified as their female counterparts, but if they don't even see the need to finish high school then what's there left to say? Maybe it wouldn't be quite so hard out here for a pimp if pimp decided to go to class once in a while.

I know, I know. Sounds like I'm jumping on the kids and blaming the victim. I'm not. Nobody who knows anything about the history of African-Americans could possibly dismiss the bitter legacy we as blacks have all inherited. It hangs over us almost like a curse every day of our lives, and events like Katrina continually reminds us that the legacy remains firmly in place. However, the undeniable legacy that stretches back to slavery times cannot comfortably explain every malady that we suffer from.

This brings us back to the subculture referred to by Patterson. I admit I'm not a big fan of hip hop, a huge part of this subculture, but I would never suggest that hip-hop culture is responsible for what's going on with young black men. That in itself would be irresponsible. Besides, P. Diddy and Simmons wouldn't have anywhere near the millions that they now enjoy if it weren't for suburban white kids who just can't get enough hip hop. The difference, of course, is that these suburban white kids are finishing school, going to college and continuing on to good jobs, all the while merrily humming, "It's hard out here for a pimp." Something is wrong with this picture, and it's not the hip hop.

Sure, a lot of elders (Jesus, please don't tell me I'm an elder already) wag their fingers at the lyrics and attitudes exemplified by rap and hip hop, but I think a lot of these same elders are forgetting the lyrics penned by groups like Parliament Funkadelic, one of my favorites of all time. And back in the prehistoric days of Woodstock, kids were popping acid and smoking weed just as casually as if those drugs were cookies on a tray. And everybody was screwin' everybody and sometimes you didn't know who was screwin' you until you came back down off your high. But now Woodstock is over, and you don't hear much about how that rock 'n' roll subculture doomed and sentenced a generation of misguided white kids to desperate lives of crime and poverty. So why is that? Because sooner or later most of these kids went back home, finished school and got jobs — just like a lot of these suburban white kids who are such fans of hip hop.

But young black males, the original hip-hoppers and creators of the culture, are in too many cases dying from this same creation that is giving life — and dollars — to others. Somehow, some way, these young brothers need to come up with a new life equation — and we need to help them.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]