Interview with Alford A. Young, Author of “The Minds of Marginalized Black Men”

Alford Young is a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan and an expert on the life experience of inner-city African-American men. He is also chair of the department of sociology at Michigan. His 2006 book, The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances, is based on several dozen interviews in Chicago of young men in one of the most segregated parts of the city.

N:
I first came across your book–the one we’re discussing today–through my graduate coursework in sociology and GWU. It really struck me at the time because the narrative of the subject of your ethnographic work really departs from many other ethnographies that I’ve read on the subject of the urban African American male. On page 10, you write, “The Minds of Marginalized Black Men explores the capacity of young black men to think critically and creatively about the ways in which mobility and opportunity operate in American society, showing how they situate their own lives within the broader social and economic forces that surround them. As the title suggests, rather than privilege the actions and behaviors of these men, this book seeks to place their minds at center stage. By doing so, it is my aim to break from the standard way of assessing how people see themselves in regard to the world around them. In both public policy and most scholarship on urban life, that standard approach has been to formulate a picture of what individuals think based solely on their actions. Indeed, urban ethnography, the branch of sociology that is primarily committed to observing and documenting behavior in public and private settings, has played a crucial role in sustaining the notion that what people think can be derived from what they do. Ethnography has sustained the notion that what people do with their family members, friends, and associates conveys how they make meaning of themselves, other people, and varied aspects of the social world. The flaw in this approach is that one’s behavior is not a transparent reflection of one’s underlying thoughts. For example, the fact that an individual is chronically unemployed and does not go to work on a regular basis (his behavior) tells us nothing about the complexity of his thoughts on the intricacies of the modern labor markets (his thoughts).”

What is the dominant narrative of the urban African American male that you are aiming to be critical of or depart from in your text?

Professor Young:
My concern is that there is too direct a connection made between the behaviors of individuals and their value orientation. And by implication too direct a connection between a behavior and the ability for people to define what kind of cultural agents they are. I think that there’s more to understanding the cultural orientation of people (and in the case of this work, black men) than simply looking at behaviors. And some of what serves then as behavior is due to a set of factors, properties, circumstances that you can only interrogate through interviewing. So the simple way of putting it is that black men have historically been casted as having improper value orientations or flawed value systems. And the evidence has been to look at how they behave. And I’m calling for a more complicated vision of cultural dynamics that involves having people pay attention to what men think about social reality and the foundation of them making claims about who they are as cultural agents rather than simply saying “we can determine all they think from how they behave”.

N:
Okay, sure. So one of the more notable topics in your work is that of the thought process that the subjects of your study internalize as it relates to employment. Could you talk about your findings with regards to this particular topic?

Professor Young: In that particular case, I’m struck by a larger conversation that has to do with whether we need to provide incentives to get black men to either secure better employment… or whether there should be sanctioning systems in place. And what I’m intrigued by is how some men’s understanding of the workplace…was actually so different than what actually happens in many mainstream work environments. And so my concern is that the vision of these men often assumes that they think about work the way people who are going to work everyday do. And I recall hearing men talk about conflicts they had with employers or other employees in jobs that they had in the short term that surfaced because they had an imagination of what should go on at work that didn’t have any bearing that what went on at work, so some men who didn’t understand that in certain business setting in certain work settings the boss the manager the employer…is going to privilege people that he or she knows better or in some cases, that he or she is related to over other employees. And a good number of men I’ve researched and engaged with over time didn’t get that. And they also didn’t get how certain kind of everyday dynamics…how they dress…how they talk…the kind of ways in which they manage their bodies in work settings could work against them in these places, so for me it was important to begin to ask them…about what they understood to be the dynamics that were in place…whether they showed a distinction in how they talked to colleagues, whether they understood mobility at work, moving from position to position. And for men who didn’t have a work history, the inability to talk about any of those dynamics unfolded, which is a really shocking comparison to people who do have work histories. And so again for me the point was not to say these men don’t value work or they don’t wanna work or they don’t care to do the right thing. Some of them just don’t know.

N:
This sort of gets to the term the “culture of poverty” that’s been thrown around in current events as it relates to urban poverty. I’m thinking of Congressman Paul Ryan’s statements [from a couple years ago] that…engaged the public with this whole debate. You got to the point about work ethic and value as it relates to work and the narrative that’s imposed on those who aren’t working or who aren’t successful in navigating the workplace as we understand it, there’s this label of “culture of poverty” that’s imposed on these individuals that argues that the behaviors and values of the poor are what lead to this self perpetuating world of dependence.

Professor Young:
And my point is simply that belief systems matter critically…it’s not just values. That you have to have some understanding of the inner dynamics of an organization, a workplace, a social institution, whatever sphere of life you occupy, you have to have some level of competence of what goes on there and engage it properly. And that’s aside from what your value orientation is. Even around work, there’s a culture of poverty discussion around flawed values. If you don’t understand what’s going on, it’s going to be hard for you. And the same thing goes for higher ed…people who are the 3rd and 4th generation in their family to go to college have a clue above and beyond first generation attendees. It doesn’t mean first generation college attendees don’t value college, it means that their sense of understanding is different. They may do things, say things and experience things that cause them greater problems and in some cases cause them to withdraw from college.

N:
You also talk extensively about the term habitus. Could you explain what you mean by habitus?

Professor Young:
I regard habitus to be the amalgamation of conscious and semi-conscious dimensions of thought and action so that it is possible for us to construct an argument and construct a defense, make a claim or challenge to somebody. But there are aspects of our articulations that are so common [and] so familiar to us, that we may not have the creative capacity to interrogate them in and of themselves. It becomes clear to a researcher, who would be interviewing 10, 20, 30, 50 men over a period of time that they tend to say certain things or respond in certain ways that reflect where they stand in social life, whether its unemployed men or men who are incarcerated. Habitus of action has to do with conscious and unconscious dimensions of behavior. Why do we stop at a traffic light when there are no cars coming, right? We don’t question, we just do that. We can translate that into certain black men navigating communities, right? How they look at people, how they make judgements, how to determine who to approach, how to approach…you don’t always consciously consider that, right? Those are ingrained responses to the environment you’re in.

N:
Sure. So would you say, and let me try to frame this as best as I can, that the types of habitus that render certain norms and institutions valid for those who are successfully able to navigate the world of work and school and relationships, depart from the habitus of the community or individuals you were looking at in the near East Side of Chicago.

Professor Young:
The habitus that captures their lives doesn’t match well with the social situations around work around school that they encounter.

N:
So one example that really struck me in your book was your discussion of the world of gangs. That, albeit an extreme example, presents itself as an interesting case study because you talk about a sense of social isolation versus social inclusion as it relates to gang culture and gang membership– that in it’s own way, it’s…legitimate or renders certain decision making legitimate and valid.

Professor Young:
So for the men that I deal with that are gang members this sense that you may have to respond violently around certain encounters, it’s for no other reason than to diminish the possibility that you’ll be subjected to violence later on. To protect yourself in the moment, but not just in the moment, but because what you do in the moment determines how people will respond in the next week, the next day, the next month, that goes on. In terms of how you assess people—who you determine as a friend, versus who is an associate versus who is a distant presence in your community. Those decisions are carefully made in ways in which others don’t even have to think about so much because you assess people as possibly being connected to the unfolding of violence around you or the inflicting of violence upon you. Those are the dynamics that affect gangs and these men. Other factors that I didn’t talk about a whole lot, but are critically important as well, is that membership of gangs subjects some of these men to putting their bodies on the line for several gang members. That’s…a heroic act…it involves a certain kind of courageous, emotional, existential commitment that a lot of folks don’t have and it changes then the oriented outlook of how these men behave—what does it mean to participate in a shootout? Not many people would decide to do that, right? That shapes these men’s sense of how they relate to each other. So there are some negative consequences. There are some strong humanistic ties.

N:
On page 45, you connect chronic unemployment to the ever-present possibility of violence for some of these men as a means of having something to organize around.

Professor Young:
Right. Organizing your life in that way situates you in ways that may not necessarily connect to how you would organize yourself in school or in the world. Violence may not be occurring everyday, but there’s a perception that it could, which means that you navigate the streets in a very different way than in which you would navigate the streets of a university campus or the workplace. You can’t just abandon that as you move across different spaces.

N:
Tied to this is the unique interpretation of different types of capital—human, financial, and cultural capital. What are some specific examples of how the interpretation of capital [in the studied communities] departed from the sort of mainstream—more conventional—interpretations of it.

Professor Young:
I mean for them to have the same meaning across various spaces and places, but what’s accumulated may be different. For example…if you have promoted a image of yourself as a tough person in the community and someone that shouldn’t be approached or violated, that’s a strong degree of human capital in that community, right? People won’t bother you. That same kind of imagery, though, would cause great threat to an employer. Or it might make you a problematic individual in the school. So the very human capital that allows you to survive the neighborhood can deny you access or comfort in the workplace or the school. That’s what I mean.

N:
That’s a very, very interesting point. And looking at the flip side, you give the example of Lester, whose family placed a particularly strong emphasis on education and church-going. Families and mentorship like his, having a strained situation, where on the one hand you’re trying to assimilate into a world that could render you more opportunities in the long-term sense, are themselves, on the other hand, very problematic to defending yourself or protecting yourself in the more spatially, temporally immediate sense.

Professor Young:
Right, right, right.

N:
So one of the main points that I found very interesting in your work is this emphasis on the men that you were looking at and speaking with as being deeply critical thinkers of the world in which they were engaged.

Professor Young:
Yeah, critical in that they get how to navigate the spaces that are most familiar to them. They are in many ways lost in knowing how to navigate the workplace or certain schooling environments and neighborhood unlike their own. But I don’t want the fact that some of these men who may be perceived to be problematic employees or bad citizens in a schooling environment to mean that they’re stupid or incapable of critical reflection—they’ve figured out how to survive their communities. They think about it, they make sense of it. Even men who have engaged in violent activities will raise very strong normative claims about what they did. I have men who say to me, “I probably shouldn’t have gone to jail for a, b, and c but here’s why I did it and here’s why I’d do it again”. That doesn’t mean they lack a sense of normative orientation. It means they have thought about what needs to be done at a point in time to achieve a certain outcome. I don’t mean to celebrate these guys I mean they just have a critical lens about them, right?

N:
I think it’s interesting—stating the concept of mobility and status—and how certain socially reprehensible actions (violent action) actually helps certain individuals attain a higher social status or sense of upward mobility in their respective communities. This happens despite having an awareness that the larger, mainstream American community might frown upon the particular actions that render them sort of a higher standing in the more immediate communities. In speaking with the men that you spoke with, did you observe that tension of awareness—of knowing one thing but having to do another?

Professor Young:
Oh yeah, some of it was just being denied access to act upon that which you learned or figured out in other contexts or unique experiences. There were some men that just caught bad breaks—either got arrested or things happen. So part of what I’m trying to say is the ability to recognize and make sense of and plan for navigating certain barriers and obstacles may not play out given other things that happen, but that you know there are also another set of men who have figured some kind of strategy of navigation that if put in another place that might be effective for them. If some of these guys were working in the military. Or for some guys, through sports. They have access to other worlds and opportunities. The fundamental point I’m trying to get at in that part of the discussion is that it’s not so much the perceptions of barriers or obstacles that matter, but more-so whether people can configure someway in engaging, minimizing or avoiding them and there are some men that have figured them out. Some guys become gang leaders because they’ve figured out how to employ the capital in the community, whether they’re bigger, stronger, or have better street sense or daring, whatever it is that enables them to maneuver in that place. Others have used those opportunities to get some minimal foothold in the world of work and work opportunity and then think, alright, I can think now about how to deal with a boss a manager. So the extent to which they’ve figured out what is stacked up against them and how they’re going to deal with that, seems to matter in my research more than feeling that there are just obstacles—there’s got to be a road map in place. And some of that road map comes out of their ability to employ the capital they’ve accumulated, in different settings.

N:
You, specifically, were looking at the Henry Horner Homes and the ABLA Projects. What are some of the unique attributes of that particular community or those housing projects that stood out to you in comparison to other contexts that you could have looked at?

Professor Young:
The main thing was that both housing developments are situated in pretty broad and wide impoverished communities. So the sense that you don’t have a half an hour walk in even a working class neighborhood, but for miles in many directions, for much of these housing developments, they are very well situated in poor communities, such that you have a hard time accessing anything other than poor folks. You’ve got to go far to get away. It struck me how cemented how many of these men were in almost entirely black, entirely poor places…large numbers of people not working, large numbers of people struggling. And I thought that was unique in comparison to other cities, where poor neighborhood might be interspersed with more working class, middle class neighborhoods. These folks are really steeped in poverty in the geographic sense.

N:
That’s really interesting because I’m thinking about one of the contexts I’ve been exposed to which is in Washington, DC where the public transportation, although expensive and although it isolates many low income communities from other areas—spatially, geographically, there is some degree of immediate access to the world outside.

Professor Young:
I think having some visible exposure to another kind of people is critical. Even if you don’t engage them substantively, there’s something important about just having access of a physical notion of who other people are and how they live. Talking about DC, as you mentioned…[you have] Bethesda, Maryland, where it seems like every other family has got a parent or two that’s a research scientist. What does that mean for understanding what kinds of choices or options are out there, right? You have kids at age of 10 that can talk about 8 or 9 different types of scientific research. The guys in my neighborhood…scientific research? They’ve never heard of such a thing at that age. Just where you are and the kinds of folks you’re exposed to just means so much.

N:
You talk about the 1960s as being crucial in formulating this sort of depiction of a concrete black urban culture lower class subculture on page 22. What particular trends or events do you mean to point to?

Professor Young: I’m referring to the way in which the culture of poverty conversation in academia seemed to firmly connect to domestic policy initiatives around poverty in America, so both communities shared this investment in having to defeat the culture of poverty, [and] in particular the notion that culture itself reinforces poverty…but by the late 1960s, there was an argument shared by researchers and policymakers alike that culture itself could be a powerful force in shaping poverty. And I wanted to say that I do recognize culture as a powerful force but there is so much more to debate on culture that needs to be had …and in particular this emphasis on values, that “the way to defeat the culture of poverty is we change the values of the people.” I’ve never been convinced that values have been out of whack. I think what’s out of whack is the inability to understand how to navigate spaces and places.

N:
So we’ve touched briefly upon the world of academia, public policy, media…just something worthy of mentioning in my opinion is popular culture and how that further polarizes or reinforces certain stereotypes.

Professor Young:
There are people that I encounter that spend little time in cities and not have access to poor neighborhoods that can tell you with detail and precision what an underclass is and who those folks are. So the reading of this population is so powerful that one of the problems of their ideas is that folks have already made judgements about them before encountering them and very strong judgements. People aren’t just simply curious or questioning. [They think, “These kind of men are like a, b, and c” before encountering them and that has been a powerful effect of media. Images are disseminated at such a rapid rate. You could, through a computer screen, be in a poor neighborhood in so many ways. It creates this false sense of intimate connection.

N:
The way we’re talking about it even now seems to speak to the more negative images we have of urban poverty. Especially in looking at the intersection of popular culture, media and politics. Media also seems to perpetuate this notion that “If you just work hard enough that you’ll end up like Oprah or Jay Z.”

Professor Young:
Right, right, right.

N:
It’s interesting because, you know, speaking to those people who have never had contact with the communities that they have such strong opinions about, there’s this assumption that if you just work hard enough…

Professor Young:
On the one hand, it’s very hard for anybody to admit to being structurally privileged. The justification many of us make for ourselves is we just outworked a bunch of other folks. So consequently the argument made about those that didn’t get ahead is that “you all need to work just a little harder”. It’s a very individualistic kind of focus in how we talk about these things.

N:
What’s very interesting to me in what you just said is that the focal point in this discourse is defending oneself, right? To justify my positioning in society I have to make assumptions about the other, or impose a label or judgment on the other to defend my own accomplishments or standing or what have you.

Professor Young:
Right, right.

N: It’s very interesting. One more thing before I try to conclude our interview—your own background. In the initial part of the book you talk about your own experience in growing up in East Harlem in New York and how that has ingrained in you “a lifelong preoccupation” with the situation of poor black men. What specifically about your experience makes your curious/sympathetic about this subject matter?

Professor Young:
Almost everything. I thought very seriously from a young age that I was positioned to move very differently than a lot of different folks I grew up with in part because very early on I began in Catholic school where I had a quality of education that was so far superior than many of the guys I grew up with. I knew I was experiencing different things and that I was in places that they weren’t in. And there was always some work to do to try to relate to them in certain ways but also to be clear that I wasn’t like them in a lot of ways. My father was college educated, many of my friends back home didn’t grow up with fathers in their home. If they were at home, they weren’t college educated. I was raised with this sense of stark contrast yet points of very strong connection, whether it was through sports, or through common interests or through…I liked talking to guys in barber shops. There were certain things that made sense to me that didn’t always make sense to the people that I went to school with or that I went to college with. When the 80s media saturation of the underclass began to happen I was like “wow, this doesn’t capture all of the men I grew up with.” There are some guys on a given day that look like some of these stories in the media, but there’s something else going on here. There’s so much more to them than that…

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