The Source of Black Poverty Isn't Black Culture, It's American Culture

Americans don't want to imagine that our racist history is actually an ongoing, racist reality.

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Americans don't want to imagine that our racist history is actually an ongoing, racist reality. We like to look at racism as a thing that has gotten better (if not gone away completely) and that the way black Americans are treated in society is actually colorblind. So, if forced to pick between the idea that our country's structures and systems are biased toward white people or the idea that black communities are flawed, many pick the latter. Some doing so, of course, because they're racist.

The "culture of poverty" debate, in brief
  1. Rep. Paul Ryan's remarks on inner city poverty
  2. Ta-Nehisi Coates compares them to Obama's remarks
  3. Jonathan Chait responds
  4. Coates argues that Chait is misunderstanding history
  5. Chait says that Coates appears to have changed his mind on the issue
  6. Coates extends his argument

The past week has seen an extended and thoughtful debate between New York's Jonathan Chait and The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates over whether cultural forces within the black community are to blame for its enduring poverty. (Links to the various points of the debate are at right.) It began after Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan referred to a culture in the inner city where "generations of men" are "not even thinking about working" — remarks broadly seen as racially controversial. Coates' first post largely took aim at President Obama's similar remarks putting blame for poverty on black culture. Chait, responding, indicated that many other Democrats agreed with Obama's position (as distinct from Ryan's). Over three more posts, the argument grew more refined, as I'll outline.

Here is what is beyond dispute: In 2012, 35 percent of blacks lived in poverty, compared to 13 percent of whites. In 1970, those rates were 33.6 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Poverty in the black community is higher, and has been consistently.

There exist three options for that persistence, if we assume that culture might play a role.

  1. There is something about black culture that prevents black Americans from escaping poverty. We'll call this the black culture option.
  2. There is something about the culture of being poor that prevents the poor, regardless of race, from escaping poverty. We'll call this the culture-of-poverty option.
  3. There are no internal cultural forces at play. We'll call this, partly for the sake of stirring the pot, the racism exists option.

This distinction isn't simply rhetorical. If there are cultural forces at play, one of those three things must be true. What's more, the political implications of each are different. If the black culture explanation is correct, it suggests that admonishments against the behavior of black Americans — the sort of thing that Coates has consistently objected to — are a proper response to entrenched poverty. If there's a culture of poverty, there needs to be a broader cultural realignment among all poor people, one that's not limited to the black community. If there are no internal cultural forces at play, then the "racism exists" explanation becomes more significant.

Put more simply, there are three options for why black people continue to experience higher levels of poverty: it's in part black people's fault, it's in part poor people's fault, and it's society's fault. The best answer, without question, is the latter.

The culture-of-poverty option

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the problem lies with the second option, that there is something about being poor that results in future generations being poor.

If this culture exists, what are its components? Ryan's remarks offer one view: it involves "men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with." Or, put more crassly, parents who have been out of work take refuge in the welfare state, living on food stamps and government services, and their children learn that this is a viable means of survival.

Last November, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a study suggesting that the children of people who receive government benefits are more likely themselves to receive such benefits. "[W]hen a parent is allowed [benefits], their adult child's participation over the next five years increases by 6 percentage points," its summary reads. "This effect grows over time, rising to 12 percentage points after ten years." (The conservative National Review embraced the argument, unsurprisingly.)

The study — conducted by looking at Norwegian, not American, benefits usage — found a relationship. But the noticeable uptick in the likelihood of children signing up for benefits programs was to the effect of being 1-in-16 or 1-in-8 more likely to do so. That's hardly a suggestion there is necessarily or even probably a transfer of the inclination to avoid work over generations.

There simply isn't a strong argument to be made that identifies attributes of enduring poverty from attributes common to the black community. Chait never presents one clearly.

In fact, in his most recent response to Chait, Coates argues that his opponent confuses the first and second options, conflating black culture with the culture of poverty. Here is what Chait wrote, in the closest approximation of a definition of that culture, and citing a paper linked in this essay by Jamelle Bouie.

[The paper] surveys some of the best research evidence of the detrimental cultural outgrowths of concentrated urban poverty on parental expectations, sexual behavior, the willingness of students to engage in beneficial activities, and other things. Culture is hard, though not impossible, to quantify, which does not mean it doesn’t exist.

Coates' point, in part, is that Chait is pointing to things that are primarily specific to communities of color as being representative of the culture of poverty at large. But, further, that blurring that line tends to happen more when the "roots of poverty" being identified are more rampant in the black community.

This elision is not particular to Chait. In the 1960s, when 20 percent of black children were found to be born out of wedlock, progressives went to war over the "tangle of pathologies" choking black America. Today, 30 percent of white children are being born out of wedlock. The reaction to this shift has been considerably more muted. This makes sense if you believe that pathology is something reserved for black people.

The black culture option

Perhaps another assumption is in order. Let's assume instead that the black culture option is the correct explanation. That pathology actually is something reserved for black people.

But again: What are the components of that culture? Paul Ryan got in trouble because he implied that the problem was, in short, laziness. Coates frames it loosely in similar terms — "black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding" — which Chait quickly steps away from, preferring the gauzy expression "cultural norms that inhibited economic success." The paper cited by Chait indicates a number of very specific behaviorisms and attitudes, some of which he notes, but it also downplays the idea of "culture" as an organizing force.

The clean overlap with longstanding anti-black stereotypes embodied in the Ryan argument and in Coates' formulation is the problem. It's what got Ryan in trouble. And it's why, from the outset, the black culture formulation should be considered suspect.

In his most recent post, Coates makes an exhaustive argument demonstrating the lengthy history of racist policies and programs that existed to help white Americans at the expense of black Americans. Chait presents the evolutionary repeal of programs explicitly targeting blacks as progress — the end of slavery, the end of Jim Crow. Coates presents it as refinement, as a softening and blurring of the approach society takes toward putting the interest of whites over blacks. It's the Lee Atwater-ization of institutional racism, manifested on the front page of The New York Times — on the same day that Coates published that essay — in the form of expanded voting restrictions that would keep more black (Democratic) voters from getting to the polls.

The racism exists option

Believing that black culture is primarily at fault means believing that black cultural attitudes are why the black unemployment rate has always been at least 50 percent higher than white unemployment. It likely means assuming that vague, hard-to-identify and complex cultural attitudes are responsible for most of the things on this bulleted list: flat wages, higher rates of arrest for possession of marijuana, higher rates of incarceration, a greater likelihood of being arrested at school, a lower likelihood of being accepted to top-tier colleges. When The Wire noted that black preschoolers are more likely to be expelled from their preschool programs, multiple people wrote in to blame the black culture of single parenthood. It was blamed on black culture.

Is black culture why this 2003 study found that job applicants "with white-sounding names are 50 percent more likely to get called for an initial interview than applicants with African-American-sounding names"? American history demonstrates countless examples of racist obstruction of black economic success. Ongoing examples show countless ways in which black Americans are still obstructed in the same way. 

In his essay, linked to by Chait, Jamelle Bouie makes the point that certain aspects of behavior might influence certain aspects of the fight against poverty. But he then makes a critical ancillary point: that the addressing the systemic problems that obviously block black success — like the intentional neglect of poor urban communities — should happen regardless. "'Culture' might explain the reluctance of individual households and families to leave" those communities, he writes, "but it’s of limited utility when it comes to the broad phenomenon. In that case, the starting point should be the fact that African Americans deal with a unique set of durable circumstances that have festered and worsened over the last forty years." The dominant white culture articulated by Coates and that neglected those communities is the more obvious problem.

Is this so impossible to imagine? America was born with sin and keeps sinning. No matter how fervent your belief in the perfection of the American ideal, you've certainly met enough Americans to know that the ideal may not always be met. Racism is the simplest answer and racism, of all theories, is the one with a robust evidentiary trail.

Finally, consider this: The poverty level in the Hispanic community was 33 percent in 2012. In 1970, the figure was 24.3 percent. Poverty is entrenched in the Hispanic community. Do we blame black culture? Latino culture? Maybe we should consider that Coates is right, and admit that America needs to fix itself before it starts trying to fix the cultures it has spent a long time breaking.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.