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In the 60s, it was fashionable to explain the differences among countries on the basis of divergent cultural characteristics. These were sometimes portrayed as almost genetically imprinted values that made people the slaves of their own behaviour. A nation's level of development was perceived as being somehow determined by those cultural patterns.
"A decade later," says Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, "a great number of sociologists drastically rejected this reactionary analysis of culture."
As a direct result of this move, culture disappeared from the debate on development.
Today, Patterson is trying to revive the topic of culture in a manner that avoids the old conceptual traps. The author of Freedom and the Making of Western Culture recently delivered a lecture on "Culture, Race and Development in the Americas" as part of a course on social management for 21 leaders of communities of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The lecture and course were organised by the IDB's (Inter-American Development Bank) Inter-American Institute for Social Development in Washington, D.C.
"Culture is not a people's set of values," Patterson said. "I tend to see it as an information system inherited by people within a social structure that is alive and in constant change. Something that would resemble the software of a computer, providing information without dictating, and allowing for different interpretations and actions."
Culture changes as people use it, according to Patterson. The changes take place as one generation transmits its culture to another.
The freedom with which individuals, families and communities re-imagine their heritage introduces "errors" of interpretation in this process. As a result, a similar history of slavery keeps changing as it is transmitted and institutionalised over time.
"Each generation," he argued, "modifies its inheritance."
This analysis has shaped the central concern of Patterson's academic career: the experience of the diaspora of people of African descent.
Out of a total of 682 million people of African descent in the world, 81.4 per cent live in the African continent and 18.6 per cent in the diaspora.
Of this last group, approximately 74.1 million individuals live in South America, 34 million in the United States, 16.1 million in the Caribbean, 1.3 million in Central America and 1.2 million in Europe.
Patterson considers these figures conservative and says they should be used cautiously.
All peoples in the African diaspora share common patterns in their cultural background, according to Patterson.
Their ancestors lived under some kind of slave system; they had to adapt themselves to the geography of the lands to where they were taken and to the different ethnic demography of their new societies.
European culture had an important influence on part of their culture. Post-emancipation economic systems and migratory patterns were also factors in the diverse development of their culture.
Patterson said the history of the United States offers clear examples of these phenomena. Racism in the United States is "constitutional," he argued, because the country relied on slavery from its inception, and because racial preoccupations are crucial to understanding its politics, its legal system, even its values.
The "binary norm," by which "one drop" of blood was thought to define a person's race, led to a sort of radical segregation.
Ironically, this segregation allowed for a middle class to flourish among blacks when they had to replicate the system of professional and commercial services from which they were excluded.
Patterson described the enormous contribution African Americans have had in the popular culture of the United States and praised the organisation and popular mobilisation that led to tremendous success of the Civil Rights Movement.
STRATEGY FOR CHANGE
Patterson noted that the experience of countries in the region varies in crucial ways from that of the United States.
In the Caribbean and Brazil, for example, race relations have been shaped by entirely different types of class and colour hierarchies.
The Latin Caribbean and Brazil, according to Patterson, share a common pattern of strong segregation at the top, with much more racial integration at the bottom.
He described the countries of the English-speaking Caribbean as bicultural, in that speakers of English and Creole coexist and power has been in the hands of non-Europeans for a long time.
Today, he sees the Caribbean evolving toward "transnational communities" with a tendency to integrate with the United States, due to a strong migratory flow to that country. Patterson himself is of Jamaican origin.
While underscoring regional and national differences, Patterson argued that people of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean can draw strategic lessons from the recent history of the United States and the dramatic success of the civil rights movement in changing the lives of African Americans.
A key to that success, he said, was the movement's decision to mobilise politically and to engage the government so that the state became the leader in the fight for the civil rights.
Patterson concluded his talk by urging Afro-Latin American and Afro-Caribbean leaders to press their governments into making similar kinds of commitments. (From IDBAmerica)