The Short and Tragic Lives of Black Youth

On culture and the constraints of "choice" and responsibility.
Appears in Spring 2016 Issue: The Rule of Law, The Way of Love
March 3 rd 2016
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peaceby Jeff Hobbs. Simon and Schuster, 2015.

By all accounts, Robert Peace's life should have been an exception to the rule. With his Yale education, disarming personality, and entrepreneurial ingenuity, he should have never violently lost his life surrounded by the paraphernalia of illicit drug production in the basement of a Newark house. And yet he did. In The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (Scribner, 2014), Jeff Hobbs (Peace's roommate at Yale) traces with demoralizing detail the terrible arc of a young man who, at multiple junctures, seemed on the precipice of disrupting one of the city's most entrenched tropes: an African American male caught up in drug-trade-associated violence.

Throughout the biography, Robert Peace remains an enigma. From afar, his life seems highly improbable. Raised by a single mother in a dangerous Newark neighbourhood with a father incarcerated for a double murder, Robert becomes a dominant water polo athlete. A wealthy alum of his high school (the venerable St. Benedict's Academy), so impressed by his meeting with Robert at a banquet, pays his tuition for four years at Yale University. The financial support helped Robert pursue a double major in molecular biophysics and biophysics. With that degree in hand, Robert went from a cancer and infectious disease laboratory to high school science teacher. He would become a world traveller, spending time in places that ranged from Rio de Janeiro to Croatia to Amsterdam.

With this type of résumé, why does he seem incapable of disrupting the cycle of poverty and violence? With the anticipation of a Yale degree, why does Robert risk expulsion by dealing marijuana to his college classmates? Moreover, with his experience and education, why does Robert use his biochemistry expertise to create Sour Diesel, a marijuana hybrid? Some of the fault surely rests with Peace himself. At different turns, he seemed bent on making poor decisions. At others, though, he was undone by structural forces beyond his control.

Toward the end of Hobbs's book we hear from Charles Cawley, the CEO of MBNA Bank and the aforementioned benefactor who found Robert so disarming and intelligent that he paid for his Yale tuition. Upon hearing the news of Robert's death, Cawley

remained sitting there for a long time, long after he had finished his coffee, surprised how unsurprised he was by the news of Rob's passing. . . . He thought of what he'd given the boy, not in terms of money but rather in choices, and he wondered how a person as bright and deserving as Rob Peace could have made the choices, beginning on the night of the banquet, that had resulted in this. And he figured that the choices hadn't necessarily begun on that night. Most likely, they'd begun on the night he was born, and not all of them had been his to make.

Viewing Peace's Life Through A Structural And Cultural Matrix

Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson likely would say, "Amen," in response to Cawley's interpretation of Robert's tragedy. In his edited volume, The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth (Harvard University Press, 2015), Patterson and his contributors deliver almost six hundred pages of social science insight into the socioeconomic crisis and social isolation of

African American youth and, in the process, assist in explaining the life of Robert Peace. Patterson describes his primary task as illuminating the paradox of African American youth cultures. (Patterson makes clear early on that research regarding the African American youth culture, as if a monolith, offers nothing of substance or texture.) He notes that even while dwelling on the socioeconomic margins of society, African American youth both espouse deeply held American values and, beyond that, remain "vibrant creators" of popular culture. How do we make sense of this? Too often, we explain deaths like Robert Peace's as the simple result of a violent urban subculture. Patterson cautiously accedes: yes, cultural explanations— a constellation of values, norms, and beliefs— should be included in any attempt to better understand such vicious outcomes. And yet he also quotes fellow Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson: "structure trumps culture"; any role played by culture functions "as a response to social structural constraints and opportunities." In short, we have to get the causation arrow pointing in the right direction.

In many ways, Patterson hopes to unearth modes in which discussions regarding poverty and violence might include "culture" without subscribing to the "culture of poverty" theory. Whether we realize it or not, we continue to live with the ghost of the Moynihan Report— more than fifty years after its submission to President Lyndon Johnson. A short history: in 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (at that time an assistant secretary for policy planning and research in the Department of Labor, later a US Senator from New York) wrote a cultural study of the urban poor, formally titled "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action."

Many have used the report's "tangle of pathology" thesis to explain poverty and the attendant violence that ends the lives of too many African American men like Robert Peace. The following passage, for many, crystallized the report: "The fundamental problem . . . is that of family structure. The evidence— not final, but powerfully persuasive—is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling. . . . So long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself." Perhaps the most egregious of these interpretations arrived in the 1980s when a number of scholars blamed the welfare policies of the 1960s and 1970s for incentivizing idleness and out-of-wedlock parenting and, thus, the social crisis among the urban poor.

According to Patterson, though, such arguments misappropriate Moynihan's analysis within the report and muddle our assessment of why so many urban-core neighbourhoods seem intractably mired in cycles of poverty and violence. In short, a simplistic use of the Moynihan Report as a lens of interpretation leaves these instances of violence and their perpetrators both easily identified and easily condemned for their poor choices and lack of traditional values. At least part of the cheap judgment is the residue of wanting to blame the victim. Patterson argues that that was never Moynihan's intent. Moreover, Patterson asserts, "the simple truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as the culture of poverty" (emphasis Patterson's). At the same time, though, there exists an extreme ghettoization of African Americans that has pushed them to the socioeconomic margins of US society. Ultimately Patterson and his contributors set about the task of teasing out how culture, institutions, and social structures intersect in influencing or causing the problems facing poor urban African Americans.

The Cultural Matrix makes it abundantly clear just how precarious life is for many young African American men—like Robert Peace—in US cities. Patterson recites some key statistics:

A third of all African American men in their thirties have been incarcerated.The previous fraction jumps to two-thirds when considering those who have dropped out of high school.

African American men aged fifteen to seventeen have a murder rate of 34.4 per 100,000 (compared to 4 per 100,000 for the overall US population).

In short, the streets of certain neighbourhoods have become so perilous for African American men that one cohort of social scientists has described them as an "endangered species" who often live lives that are "impoverished, violent, and short."

Resisting The Street

In an effort to avoid becoming a part of these statistics, Robert Peace had to negotiate a difficult path in attempting to resist "the street." Several chapters in Patterson's collection help us understand this. In the chapter "'I Do Me': Young Men and the Struggle to Resist the Street," three sociologists examine the strategies of youth who grow up in high-poverty urban neighbourhoods like Robert's and thus disproportionately experience more crime and violence. Using an ethnographic methodology in Baltimore, they found numerous young people defying the delinquent activity in their neighbourhoods. Their findings affirmed previous research that rejects the notion of a monolithic "ghetto" subculture and finds that "youth and adults in disadvantaged neighbourhoods often attempt to take more traditional paths toward school or work in the formal economy."

Navigating such a path, though, is a daunting task. While remaining removed from illicit activities, individuals must still "be known." That is, if seen out and about, they need to remain familiar enough so that they are not perceived as a threat or target. Hobbs frequently discusses the amount of time Robert lingered on stoops, making visits, discussing neighbourhood gossip. Likely a very delicate balance. In order to make this limited social withdrawal from the neighbourhood less conspicuous, resistors like Robert often develop alternative identities. These frequently centred on hobbies or avid engagement in churches. Doing so "functioned both as a shield from pressure to be caught up—a symbol that youth felt projected a message of social distance to the drug dealers and gang members—and as a psychological coping mechanism that validated their decision to resist street life."

As Robert nurtured his identity as a focused student-athlete at an elite high school, he still had to endure the lasting effects of neighbourhood inequality. Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson in his chapter, "Continuity and Change in Neighbourhood Culture," implements statistical analysis to demonstrate that despite the half-century-old Fair Housing Act, neighbourhoods like Robert's continue to be sites of "durable inequality." Put another way, Sampson claims that inequality has "sticky" properties that remain difficult to surmount.

Order In The Face Of Institutional Mistrust

Seemingly in response to those who would claim that urban-core violence manifests as a symptom of a culture of poverty, Sampson argues that, indeed, "cognitive landscapes" born of "simmering disadvantage" allow for festering mistrust of institutions of social control that lead to cynicism regarding the legal justice system. However, "because race and neighborhood disadvantage have been bound together for long periods of American history, scholars must be careful not to attribute to African Americans a unique subculture of beliefs and attitudes that operate independently of the environment." That is, the corrosive nature of unrelenting community deprivation will have an effect on cultural beliefs and "cognitive landscapes." Thus, in a more appropriate interpretation, observers should understand the cycle of crime and poverty in poor neighbourhoods as a logical outcome of state-sanctioned inequality. Moreover, studies demonstrate the fact that African American residents of these sites of structural disadvantage are just as likely to condemn crime and violence as anyone else. Yet, their disproportionate exposure to extreme forms of inequality leads to a legal cynicism. In light of Sampson's assessment, we see that the interplay of culture and structure best explain the violent milieu in which Robert lived and worked.

Grappling with Sampson's argument, perhaps the question should be reframed: How is it that these forgotten places of smoldering disadvantage maintain any semblance of order? Returning to the streets of Newark, Hobbs writes that "aside from the private grief coursing through many of its inhabitants, the neighborhood didn't change in the wake of Robert's death." Perhaps observers would do well to consider why instances like Robert's violent passing only infrequently devolve into a cycle of furious retaliation. In his research on the South Side of Chicago (chapter 10, "What About the Day After?"), Columbia University sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh found repeated instances where the common knowledge indicated "that the cops will come and leave, but that someone else—a preacher, a school teacher, a social worker, a pastor, or other person—will pick up the baton and work more diligently to restore the peace." In these instances, residents of the affected neighbourhood assume that justice will not be obtained through the state apparatus. Moreover, the lethargic pace of bureaucratic procedure fails to stem potential escalation of violence. Local actors who have legitimacy and social capital, then, step in to broker a peace.

Indeed, the resilience of many of the citizens of these communities remains striking. Hobbs describes Robert as rarely betraying a sense of resignation or self-pity when comparing his background to that of the majority of his Yale classmates. Patterson's findings confirm that Robert would not be functioning as an outlier in his attitudes about the African American socioeconomic condition in the United States. Instead, we see that African American youth tend to be surprisingly self-critical when asked about the predicament of their lives. In fact, they tend to be more likely than white youth to state that African American men remain culpable for their own problems.

With all this in mind, yes, culture should be included in the equation when considering the plight of poor African Americans in the United States. However, perhaps not in ways that would typically be assumed. A distillation of The Cultural Matrix yields a number of primary findings. First, yes, neighbourhoods inherit cultural conditions—but only because of the durable structural conditions, in particular a ghettoization where jobs remain scarce and institutions weak. Beyond that, and as Venkatesh's research has demonstrated, culture in poor neighbourhoods does not always constrain opportunity or act as an overtly negative influence. Even more, when culture does manifest in violent or malevolent ways, it should be understood as the disproportionate impact of a numerical minority. That is, it takes very few agents to disrupt a neighbourhood. Finally, and Patterson frames this as the most significant finding, "segregation matters, it has colossal negative consequences, especially for poor black youth, but also for others living in these segregated neighborhoods, including middle class youth" (emphasis Patterson's). Recent studies indicate, though, that "hypersegregation" likely describes urban social disconnect more accurately. The residential segregation of swaths of racial minorities excludes them both physically but also in terms of cultural capital and the procedural knowledge necessary to navigate mainstream society. Not only do African American youth like Robert not have access to well-connected social networks, but they also have the extra burden of navigating multiple cultural milieus in their attempts toward socioeconomic mobility.

Broadening Our Definition Of Violence

Much of Hobbs's retracing of Robert's life as he approached the possibility of sustaining a middle-class life serves as a case in point for the arguments posited by Patterson and his contributors. While it remains clear that Robert faced numerous obstacles, at points throughout the text he also seems incapable of getting out of his own way. Are his poor decisions the result of culture? Or are they rational decisions made by a savvy agent who knows how the system schemes against him? Difficult to say definitively.

Though Hobbs highlights multiple instances where larger systemic forces seemed to undermine Peace's best laid plans, one episode strikes as particularly poignant. Robert had decided to use his acumen to pursue a career in real estate. His story reminds the reader that upward mobility remains a precarious endeavour for those without the luxury of any type of safety net. In other words, wealth matters when you take financial risks. More than that, culture mattered little when Robert experienced the vagaries of the market economy shortly after opening Peace Realty.

After buying and remodeling a Newark property, Robert began to systematically study other markets for growing his business. He settled on Cleveland and began to plan for his investments. And then "in the fall of 2007, just as Rob began to feel that he'd gotten a sense of the hidden intricacies of the real estate market— that when the right property came up, he'd have the wherewithal to get in first with confidence—the housing bubble burst in earnest." Robert soon learned that the loans he would have needed to amass properties would not be forthcoming from any lenders. He would not be forging a career in real estate.

Now, it might be a leap to directly connect the subprime lending crisis with Robert's tragedy. However, they are certainly not unrelated. Would Robert have resumed his association with the narcotics economy if the mortgage crisis had not undermined his plans? Difficult to say. Were the lenders who unethically and immorally exploited families with the bad loans that caused the housing crash co-conspirators in Robert's demise? No lawyer will prosecute that case. And yet, is not the callous disregard for human livelihoods and flourishing a type of violence for which perpetrators should realize some type of retribution or justice?

According the to the Pew Research Center, the housing crisis of 2007 disproportionately affected racial minorities. The median net worth of white households fell 16 percent ($134,992 to $113,149) from 2005 to 2009. During the same era, the median net worth of African American households fell 66 percent ($12,124 to $5,677). Some experts indicate that it will take affected African American families at least two decades to recover to pre-recession levels of relative wealth. That translates into at least twenty years of financial insecurity—and they would still only have less than a tenth of the median household wealth of whites.

That loss of wealth will undoubtedly have generational effects on families ill-equipped to sustain such blows. Moreover, those outcomes likely will include phenomena that will influence security, quality of life, and life expectancy. Is that not a form of violence? In Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces, theologian Jon Pahl (channeling philosopher René Girard) suggests that violence "is not only physical assault but also the entire process that produces or causes aggression—the lies, misunderstandings, misperceptions, and ideologies that justify or mask the creation of enemies and the violation of others." With that in mind, the structures and institutions that perpetuate inequities in housing, education, health care, could be understood as culpable of systemic violence.

Almost a decade in hindsight, the housing collapse might be dimming in our collective memory. More recently, though, a water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has filled the airwaves and the Internet. Numerous news outlets (including the New York Times) have wondered whether the issue would have been ignored so long if the city had been whiter and wealthier. (Flint's poverty rate is over 40 percent, and 53 percent of the residents are African American.) As politicians scramble to cover their own culpability, it seems legitimate to wonder if it would help observers and citizens to reclassify incidents like these as nothing less than what they are: long-term, insidious forms of violence.

Hypersegregation, of course, allows the other half to sleep while these grinding forms of violence wear away at the most vulnerable of our population. As long as current physical and social distance remains unchanged, there will be no appreciable change in racialized socioeconomic inequality experienced by poor urban neighbourhoods. Patterson notes that Martin Luther King's "beloved community" will only arrive with truly integrated communities. Until then, "If the studies of [The Cultural Matrix] have demonstrated anything, it is the fact that the condition of black children and youth are burdened by a tragic catalog of disorders originating in their mothers' wombs." Indeed, not just a "catalog of disorders," but also a catalog of violences. As the story of Robert Peace reveals: the violence and tragedy began long before that ill-fated night in the basement on Smith Street.


Dr. Mark Mulder, professor of sociology, teaches classes ranging from Church and Society to Urban Sociology to Diversity and Inequality and is director of the urban studies minor at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of Shades of White Flight (Rutgers University Press) and co-author of Latino Protestants in America: Diverse and Growing (Rowman & Littlefield). His research finds focus at the intersection of cities and congregations.