Poor Reason

Steinberg_36.1_moynihansenateStephen Steinberg in Boston Review:

“‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback.” So read the headline of Patricia Cohen’s front-page article in the October 17, 2010 edition of The New York Times.

The article was prompted by a recent issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science under the title, “Reconsidering Culture and Poverty.” In their introductory essay, the editors, Mario Luis Small, David J. Harding, and Michèle Lamont, strike a triumphant note:

Culture is back on the poverty research agenda. Over the past decade, sociologists, demographers, and even economists have begun asking questions about the role of culture in many aspects of poverty and even explicitly explaining the behavior of the low-income population in reference to cultural factors.

Cohen begins with a similar refrain:

For more than 40 years, social scientists investigating the causes of poverty have tended to treat cultural explanations like Lord Voldemort: That Which Must Not Be Named. The reticence was a legacy of the ugly battles that erupted after Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant labor secretary in the Johnson administration, introduced the idea of a ‘culture of poverty’ to the public in his 1965 report on ‘The Negro Family.’

Cohen uncritically accepts two myths woven by William Julius Wilson, the prominent Harvard sociologist, and repeated by his acolytes: first, Moynihan was clobbered for bringing to light compromising facts about black families, and second, that this torrent of criticism constrained a generation of social scientists from investigating the relation between culture and poverty, for fear that it would be pilloried for “blaming the victim.” Thus, a third, patently self-serving myth: thanks to some intrepid scholars who reject political correctness, it is now permissible to consider the role that culture plays in the production and reproduction of racial inequalities.

These myths add up to something—a perverse obfuscation of American racial history. They suggest that for four decades academia has abetted a censorial form of anti-racism that prevented serious research into the persistence of poverty among black Americans. If only, the mythmakers insist, we stopped worrying about offending people, we could acknowledge that there is something amiss in black culture—not, as the politically correct would have it, the politics of class—and that this explains racial inequality.

Notwithstanding the election of Barack Obama, the last 40 years have been a period of racial backlash. The three pillars of anti-racist public policy—affirmative action, school integration, and racial districting (to prevent the dilution of the black vote)—have all been eviscerated, thanks in large part to rulings of a Supreme Court packed with Republican appointees. Indeed, the comeback of the culture of poverty, albeit in new rhetorical guise, signifies a reversion to the status quo ante: to the discourses and concomitant policy agenda that existed before the black protest movement forced the nation to confront its collective guilt and responsibility for two centuries of slavery and a century of Jim Crow—racism that pervaded all major institutions of our society, North and South. Such momentous issues are brushed away as a new generation of sociologists delves into deliberately myopic examinations of a small sphere where culture makes some measurable difference—to prove that “culture matters.”