Black Pathology Crowdsourced

Why we need historians in debates about today's cultures
Photographs from the Wilmington coup of 1898 (North Carolina State Archives)

I think it might help this discussion to offer some sense of how I came to my views on culture and white supremacy. I want to go back to the original piece I wrote, "A Culture of Poverty," and highlight an exchange I had in comments. Then I want to point to a recent note I received which helped clarify things even more.

Many of you know Yoni Appelbaum. He came to us originally under the handle Cynic. I can name several academics who've influenced my thinking over the past five years—Barbara Fields, Nell Irvin Painter, Drew Gilpin Faust, Patrick Sharkey, Arnold Hirsch, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Tony Judt, and a bunch more. As much as any of the people, Yoni has helped me really sharpen my thinking on the centrality of white supremacy in American history. (This is not gush. There's an entire section of this piece that I owe to him.)

In the original column I had a hazy notion about practices fitting environments. Put differently, I believed that culture made sense when understood within the context in which it operated. One might note, for instance, that married black women—as a practice—tend to have fewer children then married white women. I actually don't know why that is. But if I wanted to find out, I would start from the premise that there is something tangible, discernible, and knowable in the world of married black people that animates that practice. Too often "culture" is basically spoken in the way one might say "magic."

I later sharpened that point in other columns. But it was Yoni who first bought this home for me:

Spot on.

But I'd add that it works this way in reverse, too. It's a point seldom made. I was reading a new memoir the other day, by a Harvard graduate who went to work as a prison librarian. Much of the book is an account of his acculturation. He discovered that his robes and spell books, so to speak, were a lot less useful than plate and a broad-sword. That he couldn't afford to be seen as a punk. He was perfectly equipped for a comfortable, upper-middle-class life—and wholly unprepared for his new environment.

We tend to associate culturally-specific practices with the relative successes of the cultures with which they're associated. Things rich people do must be beneficial; habits of the poor, not. The reality is more complex. Culture of Poverty is a label attached to a wide array of behaviors. There are behaviors—physical assertiveness—well-suited to that environment that may tend to inhibit success elsewhere. There are other behaviors—emphasis on familial and communal ties—that will cut both ways, sustaining people in difficult times but sometimes making it harder for them to place their individual needs above the demands of the group. And there are others—initiative and self-reliance—that are largely positive, and in many ways, even more advantageous if carried further up the social scale.

I bristle when I see people discuss the culture of poverty as a pathology. That's too self-congratulatory, and too cramped a view. The reality is that, like all cultures, it has aspects that translate well to other circumstances, those that translate poorly, and those that are just plain different. And that's no different than the Culture of Affluence.

That was crucial. I understood that cultural practices made sense in their context. But Yoni complicated it even further—some practices hurt, some practices help, and some practices don't matter at all. This really was a knock-you-on-your-ass moment for me, because I could think of my own life and see exactly that. At Howard University, I had a culture—a set of practices—that I employed in intellectual debate that are different than most people I encounter online. We tended to argue from history, and there was premium (somewhat obnoxious) on book citations.

That tradition came out of a sense that we had been "robbed" of history and culture and had to reclaim it—as Douglass did, as Malcolm did, as Zora did. Consider the constant (if inaccurate) quip employed in the black community that the easiest place to hide something from a nigger (and that was how it was said) was between the pages of a book. We were responding to that. My style of arguing—a practice coming out of my environment—was formed there. I would not trade it for anything.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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