The Poverty of Culture

Despite all evidence to the contrary, blaming black culture for racial inequality remains politically dominant. And not only on the Right.

The only thing more predictable than riots in the United States’ dilapidated cities is the outpouring of moralizing pseudo-explanations that accompany them. In this, as in so much else, Ferguson has been no exception. Between riffs on the venerable trope of “outside agitators,” commentators groping for an explanation of the uprising have seized on another, equally well-established mythology: the idea of a culture of poverty among black Americans.

Racists began blowing on this particular dog-whistle as soon as the murder of Michael Brown began to attract national attention. No doubt in the coming months it will only get louder. As the sheer scale and brutality of racial inequality in the US comes, however hazily, into popular focus, conservatives across the country will, much like Zionists suddenly concerned with the fate of the Syrian uprising, suddenly evince an intense preoccupation with the lives of black Americans. We will hear how welfare has made blacks dependent on the government, has broken up the black family, and has encouraged a culture of criminality and violence (as evidenced by all that rap music).

Variations on that basic narrative have, of course, become the norm in the language favored by the Right whenever it’s confronted with questions of racism. But the influence of the culture of poverty thesis extends far beyond the ranks of Republican officials, Tea Party activists, and Fox News talking heads — apparent, for instance, in the near-universal tendency to turn any discussion of the pervasive inequalities and discrimination suffered by African Americans into a moralizing sermon about the cultural pathologies of black people.

The New York Times led the way in this regard, sagely informing its readers that Brown was “no angel” and detailing accusations that he had committed petty theft and fought with his family. The article went on to say that Brown “lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.”

Even in those venues where this kind of attack on the character of a murdered young black man is recognized for the victim blaming it is, there is a reticence to directly confront the larger claims the culture of poverty theory makes about African-American culture. One can find any number of articles responding to the latest coded racism from the loud Republican of the moment, which point out how conservatives ignore the history of racial oppression and blame the black poor for their own suffering. Far more rare, however, is a direct confrontation with the description of black culture entailed by the culture of poverty narrative.

This is ironic, because every aspect of that narrative has been subjected to withering criticism by social scientists over the last thirty years. It is not simply that the aspects of black culture that the narrative identifies have been shaped by structural forces like racism; for the most part, they either don’t exist at all, or else are reflective of norms and values that are commonplace in the United States — and are not, therefore, unique features of the “black community.” Every component of the culture of poverty narrative is a phantasm, a projection of racial fantasies on to the culture of African Americans, which has for several centuries now served as the screen on which the national unconscious plays out.

Put more bluntly, they are lies.

Take, for example, the claim that black youth inhabit a culture that venerates criminality, in which having been incarcerated is a matter of pride. This particular trope has seen heavy circulation in the last few years, trotted out to rationalize every death of a young black man at the hands of the police or vigilantes. Constructed out of a conglomeration of supposedly “thuggish” photos, snatches of rap lyrics, or social media ephemera, it works to make respectable the narrative that, in every case, it was the black teenager who threw himself in a fury at the men with guns. Confronted with such deep-seated criminality, the pundits innocently ask, what else were the police supposed to do?

Ethnographies of returned prisoners and their families reveal a very different world, one that coincides more with the commonsense notion that people who already face discrimination in the labor market would hardly celebrate events, like incarceration, that will make their lives even harder. Donald Braman spent four years conducting interviews with prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families in the Washington, DC, area, and found that black families regarded incarceration with anything but pride.

Instead, he found a pervasive sense of shame. Families of those in prison hid the truth from even their extended family, and went to great lengths to conceal the fact from their social circles. In interviewing close to fifty families, Braman reported that not one was “out” as having a member in prison to their entire extended family. Reading the stories he collects, one gets a sense of a suffocating stigma, a desperation not to be associated with the prison system in any way.

In light of Braman’s work, the claim that young black men are happy to be locked up is perverse. There is no culture of criminality in black communities. Convenient as it may be to ascribe one to the victims of state violence, all of the evidence suggests that black families work incredibly hard to keep their members out of prison, and feel a profound sense of failure when they are unable to. In fact, compared with white families, black families place an even greater emphasis on following the rules and obeying authority. Given the disproportionate consequences black youth face for their transgressions, this differential is hardly surprising. Yet the disseminators of this lie persist, attempting to convince the nation that African Americans are (“culturally, not biologically!” they hasten to add) simply unable to assess even the most brutally obvious consequences of their actions on their lives.

The disconnect between claims of a culture of criminality and the evidence presented by reality is not at all unusual when it comes to the various elements that make up the culture of poverty narrative. Its other facets are equally guilty of inverting the world in which we live. Consider three prominent claims made by the would-be augurs of black culture: that black students devalue education out of a conception of school as a white thing, that black parents place a low value on marriage and a stable family life, and that the black poor are simply uninterested in finding work. All of these have been given voice across the political spectrum, from liberals to reactionaries, and all of them are patently false.

The notion of a black disdain for school as a “white thing” has been given voice recently by Barack Obama himself. Giving an address for his neoliberal “My Brother’s Keeper” program, Obama took the opportunity to opine that in black communities “there’s been the notion of ‘acting white,’ ” where high-achieving black students are stigmatized by their peers. Obama was relatively restrained in his invocation of “acting white theory,” as it’s called, confining himself to the assertion that it exists and is wrong, insofar as doing well in school does not compromise one’s racial authenticity.

The very fact, however, that the president felt the phenomenon was important enough to comment on suggests that he thought black attitudes on this question were skewed enough to warrant correction. Other commentators have been even bolder in their use of the theory, trotting it out to explain that black attitudes, and not white racism, are the cause of black-white educational disparities.

Despite its ubiquity in popular discussions, however, acting white theory has come under sustained criticism from education scholars. As social scientists have attempted to test the theory, they have found over and over that black and white students’ attitudes on education do not differ substantively. Black students, just like their white counterparts, express a desire to do well in school, and report higher self-esteem when they succeed.

In fact, recent research by Ivory Toldson suggests that it is white male students who express the most ambivalence about the impact of good grades on their social standing. By contrast, 95% of black female students reported that, if they did really well in school, they would be proud and tell all of their friends about it. Similarly, black students were most likely to report that their friends would be happier if they went to college than if they didn’t. Most white students said their friends wouldn’t care either way.

In light of this body of research, the attempt to pin responsibility for educational inequality on black students themselves is beyond perverse. Black students, understandably, place a higher premium on education than white students, because they know they will pay a higher price for lacking it than white students will. Yet the aspirations of black students, however well-documented, fail to make any impact on discussions of race and education in national media. White talking heads (and black conservatives, it must be said) feel no qualms whatsoever about loudly condemning the youth of an entire race for lacking ambition, while remaining criminally silent themselves on the structures that actually frustrate black students’ real and dearly-held ambitions.

The story is, if anything, even nastier when it comes to marriage and the family. Lamentations over the decline of the black family, in particular, are something of a national ritual in the United States, and have been for decades. In the inner city, we are told, there is a culture of single parenting, and having children with multiple partners. From here, descriptions of that culture frequently veer into the luridly racist, with “broodmares” being one epithet of choice for black mothers. This culture is then held to be at the root of any number of problems, as absent fathers are blamed for black children doing poorly in school or getting in trouble, and mothers dependent on welfare programs inducing a “culture of dependency” in their children.

Once again, this narrative is profoundly mistaken. Historically, as Herbert Gutman pointed out decades ago, black Americans have placed a tremendous value on maintaining family structures, and have actually had a lower divorce rate than white Americans. Since the 1960s, it’s true that single-parent households have become far more common in black communities (though not only there), and this is the era commentators typically focus on, blaming the loss of a mythological united community under Jim Crow in more liberal versions of the story, or welfare programs in more reactionary ones. Both, however, see a transformation in black attitudes as central.

But social scientists working on family structures, however, have found that variables like the ratio of employed men to women are far stronger predictors of what families look like than attitudes are. When the supply of employed, non-incarcerated men is controlled for, black and white marriage rates look more similar than different.

Attitudes towards marriage also display no great divergence between black and white Americans. Most black Americans value marriage highly, though, as is the case with whites, men tend to value it more highly than women. This last datum is particularly ironic, given the pervasive scapegoating of black men for supposedly abandoning their children after conception. In fact, as numerous studies have found, black fathers maintain high levels of contact with their children even when not co-habitating with the child’s mother, and express a strong desire to be even more present in their children’s lives. Even more significantly, as Kathryn Edin has noted, “African Americans’ higher valuation of marriage relative to that of whites narrows the racial gap in marriage.” Black culture is responsible for the gap in marriage rates being smaller than it otherwise would be, not larger.

With this in mind, the recurrent political fantasy of addressing inequality in the US through marriage promotion programs aimed at the black poor in particular is a sick joke. If people like Sam Brownback, who wrote one of the most recent such proposals, actually cared about the marriage rate among poor black Americans, he would address himself to ending things like mass incarceration and the endemic joblessness in American cities, which all the evidence suggests play a massive role in disrupting black attempts to form stable nuclear families. The irony, of course, is that his preferred alternative is predicated on attempting to sell something to African Americans that they have been trying for literally centuries to buy at a price higher than he could possibly imagine.

One final component of the culture of poverty, and in some ways the most central, is the myth that the black unemployed simply don’t want to find work. This was given particularly vulgar voice recently by Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, whose relentless self-promotion is indeed a monument to what hard-working white ethnics, with the help of a complicit media, can achieve. Commenting on the protesters in Ferguson, he suggested that the best way to disperse the demonstrators would be to hold a job fair, at the sight of which they would “scatter like leaves.” Though the sheer contempt for the black poor may be more visible in Wurzelbacher’s quip than in other instances, in substance it doesn’t differ in the least from Republican wunderkind Paul Ryan’s pronunciation that inner city men simply don’t appreciate the value of work.

This conceit has suffered perhaps more thorough rebuttal than any other component of the culture of poverty. Since the 1960s, social scientists have produced study after study demonstrating that poor and unemployed black Americans have basically the same attitudes towards work as the rest of country. In fact, a recent study found that black job seekers are even more resilient than their white counterparts, staying in the job market longer despite persistent frustrations of their search for employment. One waits in vain for such results to generate a moral panic over the decline of a work ethic in white communities.

When it comes to the notion of welfare dependency, the verdict is much the same. One study looking at black single mothers in Milwaukee found that these women’s families were a major contributor to the high value they placed on education and finding a career. Far from being the transmission belt of a “culture of dependency,” black families act as a support network encouraging their members to achieve as much as possible. The same study found that women on welfare, almost to a person, “hated it” and wished they could leave the program. However, the demands of childcare, combined with a lack of job opportunities, ensured that leaving was difficult for most.

Other studies have found similar results, with welfare being largely stigmatized in black communities. In fact, a number of studies have found that people on welfare, black Americans included, feel that people take advantage of the system and receive benefits when they should not. Here, the constant demonization of people on welfare has had an effect on welfare recipients themselves. While attributing their own use to structural factors such as discrimination and joblessness, they attribute others’ use of the system to laziness (importantly, however, this suspicion does not carry over into political support for attacks on welfare state, which are consistently opposed by people receiving benefits). The distance from the popular portrayal of black communities content to remain on the dole could not be clearer.

All of this is to suggest that the constant projections onto some kind of collective black psyche obscures the fact that African Americans and white Americans are motivated by much the same things. Still, the absence of evidence for their existence hasn’t prevented these tropes of black cultural pathologies from entering into nearly every discussion of “race relations” in recent years. Indeed, belief in a black culture of poverty has become so entrenched that it is accepted without question for the most part. The prevalence of those assumptions are inseparable from the dominance of a politics that rejects structural solutions for the social disparities and entrenched discrimination facing African Americans, in favor of an emphasis on community self-help and personal responsibility.

Thus, we find ourselves in a situation in which public discussion of problems related to high rates of joblessness, child poverty, infant mortality, and many negative social indicators among African Americans is largely restricted to exhortations for a transformation of behavioral norms and attitudes. Instead of a political agenda to deal with pervasive disparities in wealth, educational opportunities, access to employment, and the like, we’re told that upward mobility for African Americans depends on the inculcation of values that promote success; black communities, this approach suggests, must learn to celebrate family, encourage hard work, and embrace education.

Not full employment but individual initiative and a commitment to advancement through low-wage work and job training will boost chronically low employment levels. Not a substantial program of redistributive reforms but incentives to encourage entrepreneurship will boost the resources of the black community. Not strengthened anti-discrimination measures or equal access to health care but altered lifestyle choices, better parenting, and the influence of positive role models will reduce health disparities and improve social outcomes for black kids.

Implicit in all this is the idea that if African Americans have failed to overcome the racial stratification of American society, the reason is to be found — at least in large part — in the cultural and psychological character of the black community. The result has been the diffusion of a language around “race” that mirrors the “color-blind” racism associated with the post-Civil Rights era — a language that simultaneously downplays the significance of actual discrimination while stigmatizing African Americans for behaviors that go unremarked upon in the case of white Americans.

It is, for instance, not uncommon for conversations that are ostensibly addressing issues like mass incarceration and police violence to devolve into criticism of the dressing habits of young black men or the hedonism and violence in rap lyrics. The double standard at work here should be obvious: no one, for instance, questions whether the predilection of white teenagers for personal attire that can range from the bizarre to the obscene shouldn’t make them the objects of scrutiny by police or potential employers. Bill Cosby’s rant attacking black Americans for everything from the linguistic habits of black teenagers to the names given to black children was treated by everyone from Barack Obama to Bill O’Reilly as a serious call for self-reflection by the “black community.” Yet it would be impossible to imagine a situation in which the personal appearance and lifestyle choices of attendees at the annual Burning Man festival would ever inspire such anxiety.

The upshot is that even sympathetic observers tend to interpret concerns about deprivation and social disorganization through the prism of cultural or psychological damage. That dynamic is particularly evident in our proclivity to attribute problems like crime or violence in black neighborhoods to ill-defined features of black men’s emotional existence. As a consequence, responsibility for these issues is commonly attributed to such causes as a lack of self-regard among African-American males, their purportedly nihilistic and myopic worldview, or their orientation on short-term, narrowly self-interested gain over long-term ambition and social uplift.

That tendency to speculate about the emotional or psychological state of young black men is emblematic of the way that “race” functions in America. In translating discussions of questions like crime and violence into explorations of group psychology, we effectively shift the focus from the social context for street violence in lower-income, predominantly black urban areas to the character of black people. That not only reinforces a blame-the-victim politics that refuses to acknowledge racism — embodied in the cynical use of the category “black on black crime” to dismiss concerns about police violence during the Ferguson protests — it also leads to a distorted view of the sources of elevated violence and chronic insecurity in black neighborhoods.

Part of the reason that the trope of “black on black crime” has garnered such traction is because it feeds on very genuine concerns about issues like the high levels of violence crime suffered by some black communities. While homicide rates have declined precipitously across the US over the past two decades, the devastating number of shooting deaths suffered by black residents in cities like Chicago has received national attention in recent years. Confronted with the destructive effects of gun violence, many observers have interpreted it as a reflection of deep-seated social pathologies — the inverse of the racism of the US criminal justice system.

Research suggests that violent crime rates are driven by a variety of social factors which tend to make American cities particularly prone to gun violence against black residents. Among the most of these factors are very high levels of neighborhood segregation, concentrated un- and underemployment, poverty and a dearth of adequate social services or institutional resources. Fundamentally, gun violence has to be treated like other kinds of public health problems — not as the basis for continuous, empty calls for an introspective discussion about “black on black violence.” And like other kinds of public health disparities, tackling high rates of inter-personal violence requires confronting the social context in which it occurs.

And yet, the culture-of-poverty narrative leads us away from that perspective, and exacerbates the widespread tendency to view social inequality through the lens of personal responsibility and cultural predispositions.

Given that the culture of poverty argument today is most strongly associated with the Right, it is surprising to learn that its provenance actually comes from the other end of the spectrum. The phrase itself achieved notoriety with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous report on the black family (“The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”), though he had himself drawn it from anthropologist Oscar Lewis’ work. In the decades since then, as “the Moynihan report” has, quite properly, come to serve as shorthand on the Left for a pathologization of the black family and a victim-blaming rhetoric, it has been easy to forget that Moynihan himself was no Strom Thurmond, but a Great Society liberal with impeccable credentials. The concept itself comes not from the Right, which was then still mired in explicitly biological racism, but from liberals cognizant of the injustice of inequality, but too attached to ideas of black deficiency to jettison them entirely.

As American liberalism has moved steadily rightward since the 1970s, versions of the culture-of-poverty thesis have gained increasingly traction. In Moynihan’s time, these sorts of ideas were counterbalanced by a liberalism that genuinely sought the expansion of the American welfare state. Hubert Humphrey, running for president in 1968, promised to hire a teacher for every policeman Richard Nixon wanted to hire, and build a house for every jail George Wallace wanted to build. By the 1990s, this sort of commitment had nearly disappeared from American liberalism, leaving culture of poverty arguments hegemonic. The importance of the culture-of-poverty approach is that it allows for recognition of the accumulated history of racism and inequality, but posits the ongoing effects of these as mediated through black cultural pathologies. It therefore permits American liberals to identify with opposition to racism while pushing them towards policy solutions geared towards the transformation of black people, and not American society.

Today, these ideas are given voice by all manner of actors residing left of center on the political spectrum. Barack Obama’s few engagements with the subject of racial inequality all draw on the idea of a culture of poverty, even if never explicitly named as such, from his condescending hectoring of black fathers to his gross suggestion that too many black parents feed their children fried chicken for breakfast. Jonathan Chait has also recently revealed himself to be an adherent, criticizing Ta-Nahesi Coates’ recent writing for being insufficiently attentive to the deficiencies of black culture.

The Reverend Al Sharpton gave a particularly abhorrent reminder that conservatives have no monopoly on the culture of poverty at Michael Brown’s funeral. In his eulogy, Sharpton lectured the assembled audience on the need for greater personal responsibility in the black community: “We have got to be outraged by our disrespect for each other, our disregard for each other, our killing and shooting and running around gun-toting each other,” he said, “so that they’re justified in trying to come at us because some of us act like the definition of blackness is how low you can go. . .” In contrast to earlier generations of African Americans, who were presumably more worthy of equal rights, black people today exhibit a proclivity for bad behavior and bad manners, Sharpton said, concluding “Now, you want to be a n—– and call your woman a ‘ho.’ You’ve lost where you’re coming from.”

For many on the Left, it’s easy to recognize how backwards and self-defeating this kind of rhetoric can be. In shifting the locus of responsibility for the deep-seated inequities of American capitalism to the very people who are the victims of its greatest injustices, Sharpton is playing into the hands of the white conservatives who so often attack him for playing the “race card.”

And yet the notion that the entrenched racial disparities of US society are, at least in part, the product of black cultural pathologies, retains enormous traction. Sharpton and Cosby are hardly alone among black Americans in identifying with versions of this narrative. A recent survey, for example, revealed that black men both tend to value education and work highly, yet thought that other black men spent too much time thinking about sports and sex. So pervasive is this ideology that people who know it to be false of themselves are willing to believe it of others. The argument can also take a more nationalist register, as in the contention that slavery damaged black American culture so profoundly that the resulting cultural deficiencies, often identified as a lack of community or self-respect, explain aspects of black inequality today, from educational disparities to economic impoverishment.

Forty years ago, both black nationalism and American liberalism existed in forms that looked squarely at the basic structure of American society for an explanation of racial inequality. The shift of both these ideologies away from that orientation in subsequent decades is in line with the larger retreat of the Left away from structural solutions and into more local and personalized projects. Effectively, the Left’s horizons have shrunk in tandem with its social power.

When it comes to race, however, this retreat has had particularly pernicious effects. The shrinking of ambition to the personal level here has resulted in a convergence with the kinds of victim-blaming narratives peddled in official “colorblind” ideology. When liberals or black nationalists agree that black crime contains some larger meaning about the state of the black community, they make the work of racist ideologues easier. They reinforce the basic point that black crime must be agonized over as a barometer of the cultural values of the race, while white crime may be treated as a normal aspect of a complex society.

In doing so, they give succor to those who seek to block any attempt at addressing the real causes of racial inequality, while rendering half-hearted and tenuous those attempts still being launched from within American liberalism itself. And all on the basis of ideas that, for all liberals’ supposed commitment to reason and moderation, are no more connected with reality than birther fantasies.

Like so many other “zombie ideas” in our current moment, the culture of poverty narrative persists not because of its success in explaining reality, but in spite of it. What it does succeed in doing is providing an explanation of reality that salves the consciences of the powerful and their supporters. Unfortunately, in an era when collective action by the oppressed is still far too sporadic and ephemeral, these kinds of explanations have sunk deep roots, into both layers of left-liberal opinion and oppressed groups themselves.

Yet what the social science literature demonstrates is that however secure the culture of poverty seems as a hegemonic explanation for racial inequality, it ultimately rests on what are, at the end of the day, nothing more than lies. As the uprising in Ferguson has highlighted the connection between American imperialism and militarism on the home front, it is worth remembering that cultural explanations of structural processes have never been a purely domestic affair.

Commenting on the horrific death toll of the Vietnamese during the American war on Vietnam, William Westmoreland infamously explained to an interviewer that “the Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” For a long time, this remark epitomized the racism of the war. We should view cultural explanations of inequality with the same contempt.