The Comeback of the Culture of Poverty (Part 2)

TweetNote: This is the second part of a two-part series. See the first part here. The Annals issue mentioned in previous post caps off with an article by William Julius Wilson on “Why Both Social Structure and Culture Matter in a Holistic Analysis of Inner-City Poverty.” Wilson wants to show not only the independent contributions of social structure and culture, but also how they interact to shape different group outcomes that embody racial inequality. At first blush this appears to be a sensible, even unassailable stance. But what is Wilson getting at with his prosaic language about the interaction of structure and culture? The answer is found several pages later: One of the effects of living in a racially segregated, poor neighborhood is the exposure to cultural traits that may not be conducive to facilitating social mobility. This is tantamount to blaming blacks for the racism of employers and other gatekeepers. Like Moynihan before him, Wilson has committed the sin of inverting cause and effect. He thinks that black youth are not socially mobile because of their cultural proclivities—“sexual conquests, hanging out on the street after school, party drugs, and hip-hop music.” But a far more convincing explanation is that these youth are encircled by structural barriers and consequently resort to these cultural defenses, as Douglas Glasgow argued in his neglected 1981 book, The Black Underclass. Liebow had it right when he stripped away surface appearances and put culture in its proper social and existential context: If, in the course of concealing his failure, or of concealing his fear of even trying, [the street-corner man] pretends—through the device of public fictions—that he does not want these things in the first place and claims he has all along been responding to a different set of rules and prizes, we do not do him or ourselves any good by accepting this claim at face value. It makes little sense to compare—as Wilson does—the culture of a pariah class with that of mainstream youth, putting aside the fact that white suburban youth also strut around in saggy pants, listen to hip-hop music, and are far more prone to drug use than are their ghetto counterparts. Wilson’s theoretical postulates about “deconcentrating poverty” have also led him to support the demolition of public housing across the nation. Is this how cultural change takes place, with dynamite, the destruction of poor communities, and the dispersal of its residents? Or do we have to transform the ghetto itself, not by reconstructing the identities of its people, but through a wholesale commitment to eliminating poverty and joblessness? While he routinely violates his own axiom about the integral relationship between culture and social structure, Wilson injects what might be called the “culturalist caveat.” In a section on “the relative importance of structure and culture,” he concedes, Structural factors are likely to play a far greater role than cultural factors in bringing about rapid neighborhood change. But what structural changes does he have in mind? Despite the fact that Wilson’s signature issue for many years was jobs, jobs, jobs, since his cultural turn there has been nigh any mention of jobs. Affirmative action is apparently off the table, and there is no policy redress for the nation’s four million “disconnected youth” who are out of school and out of work. Instead, Wilson places all his bets on education—specifically, the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a schooling and social services organization predicated on the idea that the challenge is to “take the ghetto out of the child,” much as earlier missionaries and educators sought to “take the Indian out of the child.” Wilson trumpets HCZ’s “spectacular” results, citing a study by Harvard economists Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer that purports to show that HCZ students are closing the achievement gap with students in public schools. However, these findings are based on a single class on a single test in a single year. Also, the measure of progress was scoring at “grade level” in math and reading, and as critics have pointed out, grade-level work is a weak predictor of future academic success. Furthermore, thanks to score inflation—not only prepping students for the test but also lowering the score required for achieving grade level—marks were up throughout New York on the 2007 exam, the one that Dobbie and Fryer analyzed Never mind; the die is cast. With Wilson’s backing, the Obama administration has made HCZ the model for twenty “Promise Neighborhoods” across the nation. At best, however, HCZ is a showcase project that, even multiplied twenty times, is no remedy for the deep and widening income gap between blacks and others. At worst, the Obama administration is using it to camouflage its utter failure to address issues of racism and poverty. The new culturalists can bemoan the supposed erasure of culture from poverty research in the wake of the Moynihan Report, but far more troubling is that these four decades have witnessed the erasure of racism and poverty from political discourse, both inside and outside the academy. The Annals issue makes virtually no mention of institutionalized racism. To be sure, there is much discussion of poverty, but not as a historical or structural phenomenon. Instead we are presented with reductionist manifestations of poverty that obscure its larger configuration. Thus there is no thought of restoring the safety net. Or resurrecting affirmative action. Or once again constructing public housing as the housing of last resort. Or decriminalizing drugs and rescinding mandatory sentencing. Or enforcing anti-discrimination laws with the same vigor that police exercise in targeting black and Latino youth for marijuana possession. Or creating jobs programs for disconnected youth and for the chronically unemployed. Against this background, the ballyhooed “restoration” of culture to poverty discourse can only be one thing: an evasion of the persistent racial and economic inequalities that are a blot on American democracy. The methodological reductionism that is the hallmark of the new culturalists is a betrayal of the sociological imagination: what C. Wright Mills described as exploring the intersection between history and biography. Instead, the new culturalists give us biography shorn of history, and culture ripped from its moorings in social structure. Against their intentions, they end up providing erudite justification for retrograde public policy, less through acts of commission than through their silences and opacities. Note: Portions of this post appeared in a 2011 The Boston Review article. The post The Comeback of the Culture of Poverty (Part 2) appeared first on


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