Black People, Culture And Poverty

Sudhir Venkatesh salutes William Julius Wilson's new book More Than Just Race for its willingness to talk intelligently about the role culture plays in black poverty. I am a Wilson fan, and though I haven't seen his book, I can believe that it's all Venkatesh says it is. I have one quibble. Throughout, the piece Venkatesh uses the term "black" interchangeably with "black and poor."

The book stands to have a powerful impact in policy circles because it points to the elephant in the room. Wilson knows it is difficult to engineer cultural change. We can train black youths, we can move their families to better neighborhoods, etc., but changing their way of thinking is not so easy. Evidence of this lies in the many "mobility" programs that move inner-city families to lower-poverty suburbs: Young women continue to have children out of wedlock and, inexplicably, the young men who move out return to their communities to commit crime! These patterns flummox researchers and, according to Wilson, they will continue to remain mysterious until we look at culture for an answer.

I think it takes a real flight of fancy to dismiss the culture argument. If you are rich and you've been rich for generations, you almost certainly develop cultural habits. Likewise, if you're poor and you've been poor for generations, you do the same. If you've been wealthy for generations and you were suddenly asked to function in the ghetto, you may have problems because you didn't know the rules. You weren't acculturated. Likewise, if you're poor and you're trying to climb up the economic ladder, you may also have problems. What will keep you safe in the projects, may well get you fired from a job, or kicked out of school. I think this would be true whether you are poor in West Baltimore, or poor in West Virginia.

But one reason that a lot of African-Americans get pissed off at cultural arguments is because the "culture of poverty" is often so easily transposed over the "culture of black people." I went to public school all my life. So does my son. I've had my share of contact with the culture of poverty. But the culture that encourages people to jump the broom at weddings, isn't the same as the culture that makes drug-dealing a choice occupation. The culture at, say, Spelman isn't the same as the culture of the projects here in Harlem. And the culture at Spelman isn't the same as the culture at Howard.

To take it back to that quote, my son is a "black youth." He goes to school with other "black youth." He plays on a football team populated by still more "black youth." Some of these kids have been acculturated to poverty. Some of them haven't. We aren't trying to change how "black youth" think, we're trying to change how people acculturated to poverty think. A disproportionate number of them happen to black. Given the weight of a century of systemic wealth discrimination (from emancipation to the Civil Rights movement), I don't know why we''re surprised by that fact.

Still, I increasingly wonder what role "black" plays in anything. If you looked at the cultural practices that hold poor black people back, would you find more synergy in middle class black America, or poor white\Latino\Asian America? If you looked at the cultural practices of poor black people in cities, how much would they differ from the practices of poor people in cities historically? Culture attracts such protest from many blacks not because we think that the culture of poverty is a myth, but because the mass of us who, in the space of about 40 years, have made more progress than any group of blacks before us, don't deserve to be told that our culture is making people poor. Seriously. Fried catfish and Outkast ain't never disenfranchised nobody.