Other People’s Pathologies


Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic:

Over the past week or so, Jonathan Chait and I have enjoyed an ongoing debateover the rhetoric the president employs when addressing African Americans. Here is my initial installment, Chait's initial rebuttal, my subsequent reply, and Chait'slatest riposte. Initially Chait argued that President Obama's habit of speaking about culture before black audiences was laudable because it would “urge positive habits and behavior” that are presumably found especially wanting in the black community.

Chait argued that this lack of sufficient “positive habits and behaviors” stemmed from cultural echoes of past harms, which now exist “independent” of white supremacy. Chait now concedes that this assertion is unsupportable and attempts to recast his original argument:

I attributed the enduring culture of poverty to the residue of slavery, terrorism, segregation, and continuing discrimination.

Not quite (my emphasis):

The argument is that structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it.It would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did notleave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success.

The phrase “culture of poverty” doesn't actually appear in Chait's original argument. Nor should it—the history he cites was experienced by all variety of African Americans, poor or not. Moreover, the majority of poor people in America have neither the experience of segregation nor slavery in their background. Chait isconflating two different things: black culture—which was shaped by, and requires, all the forces he named; and “a culture of poverty,” which requires none of them.

That conflation undergirds his latest column. Chait paraphrases my argument that “there is no such thing as a culture of poverty.” His evidence of this is quoting me attacking the “the notion that black culture is part of the problem.” This evidence only works if you believe “black culture” and “a culture of poverty” are somehow interchangeable.

More here.