A Culture of Poverty

In 2008, I was sent out to the Democratic convention to work on a piece for this magazine about Michelle Obama. I had just been hired on as a contributing editor, and was ecstatic. There was a community of young bloggers out there--Chris Bodenner, Alyssa Rosenberg, Dayo Olapade etc. Just a lot of good folks. But most of the week, I'd either been blogging, following Michelle Obama, or exploring Denver's beautiful trails.

Toward the end of the week, Alyssa invited me over to the National Journal tent where a lot of the reporters were watching some speeches, and having a few drinks. I had a couple myself and was generally having a good time. Also out there was my old buddy David Carr who, a few media tents over, was covering the convention for the Times. I was supposed to meet Carr after the speeches and grab dinner. But while I was in the National Journal area a person who I'd written about (not an employee of Atlantic Media) came into the tent and aggressively challenged me on something I'd written about him.

We spent ten frankly embarrassing minutes jawing back and forth. That's fine. People should aggressively challenge you. Toward the end, Carr, wondering where I was, came in and saw me in mid-argument, which by this point had gotten heated. He gave me that "you damn fool" look and said "I'm going to be there, [whatever the restaurant was] either you're coming or not. But this is stupid." He left, and shortly thereafter I started walking away with Alyssa and few of the other bloggers who were hanging out. The gentleman kept after me, even following me out the tent, and by this point, taunting.

At the door of the tent, and I looked at him and said, "You really need to back off."

He looked back and said, "Or what."

I closed in on him, and quietly but seriously, responded, "You really want to find out?"

He walked back inside.

I think as a younger man, I would have been proud of that moment. For surely, I had adhered to Article 2 of the Code Of The Streets--"Thou Shalt Not Be Found A Punk." Had the gentleman stepped outside, I had already made the decision that I was going to swing. I didn't believe in threatening people and then not following through. Perhaps as 14 year old, on the streets of West Baltimore, back at Mondawmin Mall, the response would have been correct. In fact, I was a 33-year old contributing editor at a well-regarded magazine who'd just implicitly threatened someone on the property of my brand new employer.

I had thought as far as the dude stepping outside--but I hadn't thought any further. I hadn't thought about getting arrested. I hadn't thought about the implications of a 6'4 260 pound black dude assaulting a 5'11 (maybe?) white dude. I hadn't thought about all of this playing out against the backdrop of Obama's nomination. I hadn't thought about losing my job. And, most criminally, I hadn't thought about my family , who were depending on that job. 

A few minutes later, I caught up with Carr. He is a man who's seen more of the streets than almost (almost) anyone I know. He's also great at getting to the point. When I told him the rest of what happened, his response was not, "You showed him." It was "You dumb motherfucker." By then the full horror of what had almost happened was dawning on me. We went to dinner that night with some of Carr's old music buddies from Minnesota, and the great Tom Morello who wore an awesome Dungeons & Dragons tee-shirt. Toward the end, Boots from The Coup showed up. But I wasn't there. I spent that night wondering how I could be so foolish, and almost ruin what I knew then, and what I know now, to be my big break.

I thought about all of this yesterday while reading this Times' piece on return of the culture of poverty. When we talk "culture," as it relates to African-Americans, we assume a kind of exclusivity and suspension of logic. Stats are whipped out (70 percent of black babies born out of wedlock) and then claims are tossed around cavalierly, (black culture doesn't value marriage.) The problem isn't that "culture" doesn't exist, nor is it that elements of that "culture" might impair upward mobility. 

It defies logic to think that any group, in a generationaly entrenched position, would not develop codes and mores for how to survive in that position. African-Americans, themselves, from poor to bourgeois, are the harshest critics of the street mentality. Of course, most white people only pay attention when Bill Cosby or Barack Obama are making that criticism. The problem is that rarely do such critiques ask  why anyone would embrace such values. Moreover, they tend to assume that there's something uniquely "black" about those values, and their the embrace.

If you are a young person living in an environment where violence is frequent and random, the willingness to meet any hint of violence with yet more violence is a shield. Some people take to this lesson easier than others. As a kid, I hated fighting--not simply the incurring of pain, but the actual dishing it out. (If you follow my style of argument, you can actually see that that's still true.) But once I learned the lesson, once I was acculturated to the notion that often the quickest way to forestall more fighting, is to fight, I was a believer. And maybe it's wrong to say this, but it made my the rest of my time in Baltimore a lot easier, because the willingness to fight isn't just about yourself, it's a signal to your peer group.

To the young people in my neighborhood, friendship was defined by having each other's back. And in that way, the personal shields, the personal willingness to meet violence with violence, combined and became a collective, neighborhood shield--a neighborhood rep. And so it was known in my time, for instance, that "North and Pulaski" or "Walbrook Junction" or "Cherry Hill" were not to be fucked with.

I think one can safely call that an element of a kind of street culture. It's also an element which--once one leaves the streets--is a great impediment. "I ain't no punk" may shield you from neighborhood violence. But it can not shield you from algebra, when your teacher tries to correct you. It can not shield you from losing hours, when your supervisor corrects your work. And it would not have shielded me from unemployment, after I cold-cocked a guy over a blog post.

I suspect that a large part of the problem, when we talk about culture, is an inability to code-switch, to understand that the language of Rohan is not the language of Mordor. I don't say this to minimize culture, to the contrary, I say it to point how difficult it is to get people to discard practices which were essential to them in one world, but hinder their advancement into another. And then there's the fear of that other world, that sense that if you discard those practices, you have discarded some of yourself, and done it in pursuit of a world, that you may not master.

The streets are like any other world--we all assume an armor, a garment to suit that world. And indeed, in every world, some people wear the armor better than others, and thus reap considerable social reward. In the main, it's been easy for me to discard the armor of West Baltimore, because I wore it so poorly. I was never, as they say, truly built for the streets. And still, even I struggled to take it off. But I know others who were masters. (My own brother, for instance.) Inducing them, and those in between, to change class, to trade their plate for robes, to trade the broad-sword for a spell-book, is the real work.