How to understand a culture of poverty
By Sudhir Venkatesh, Slate
Published Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Pop quiz: Who made the following observation? “At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of (black America) is the deterioration of the (black) family. It is a fundamental weakness of (black Americans) at the present time.”
Each year, I pose this question to my undergraduate students. Most will guess George Bush, Bill Cosby, Al Sharpton or Bill Clinton. This is not surprising, given their age.
More telling is their perception that such a view might come from the political left or right. It reveals just how commonplace the link of family-race-poverty is in the American mind-set.
But there is a little trickery going on: Replace “black” with “Negro” and change the date to 1965. The correct author is Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He wrote these words as part of a policy brief to help President Lyndon Johnson understand the distressed social conditions in urban ghettos. “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” leaked to the press and created a firestorm of controversy with its contention that a “tangle of pathology” engulfed black America.
The so-called “Moynihan Report” brought about a new language for understanding race and poverty: Now-familiar terms like pathology, blame the victim, and culture of poverty entered American thought as people debated whether Moynihan was courageously pointing out the causes of social ills or simply finger-pointing. Moynihan forced a nation to ask, “Is the culture of poor blacks at the core of their problems?”
A deep American schism was born. Liberals believed that black poverty was caused by systemic racism, such as workplace discrimination and residential segregation, and that focusing on the family was a form of “blaming the victim.” Conservatives pointed to individual failure to embrace mainstream cultural values like hard work and sobriety, and intact (read: nuclear) families.
In this standoff, along comes the eminent sociologist William Julius Wilson, whom I studied with at the University of Chicago in the 1990s. Wilson claims his analysis in his new book will bridge the two worlds and create a new, more enlightened way for Americans to talk about race — but he is well aware that won’t happen without controversy.
It is fitting that the most famous contemporary sociologist has decided to address the most significant policy issue of our time. Anything but shy, Wilson has devoted his career to wading into contentious debates that have enormous social implications for the way we understand race and inequality in America.
In More Than Just Race Wilson wants to explain inner-city behavior — such as young black males’ disdain for low-wage jobs, their use of violence, and their refusal to take responsibility for children — without pointing simplistically to discrimination or a deficit in values. Instead, he argues that years of exposure to similar situations can create responses that look as if they express individual will or active preference when they are, in fact, adaptations or resigned responses to racial exclusion.
Consider a young man who works in the drug economy. That doesn’t mean he places little, if any, value on legitimate work. Employment opportunities are limited in the man’s segregated neighborhood. Most of the good jobs are far away. To complicate matters, many of his friends and neighbors are probably connected to the drug trade. Survival and peer pressure dictate that the man will seek out the dangerous, illegal jobs that are nearby, even while he may prefer a stable, mainstream job. Delinquent behavior? Certainly, but more than likely a comprehensible response to lack of opportunity.
Now focus Wilson’s “socialization” lens on teen pregnancy: Young inner-city women achieve both personal identity and social validation in their community by entering into motherhood. They join others whose lives are similarly defined by early parenting.
Wilson does more than argue for the rationality of such behaviors. The actions of both the young man and the teenage mother are “cultural,” he suggests, because they follow from the individual’s perceptions of how society works. These perceptions are learned over time, and they create powerful expectations that can lead individuals to act in ways that, to the outside world, suggest insolence, laziness, pathology, etc.
Wilson describes this succinctly: “Parents in segregated communities who have had experiences (with discrimination and disrespect) may transmit to children, through the process of socialization, a set of beliefs about what to expect from life and how one should respond to circumstances. … Children may acquire a disposition to interpret the way the world works that reflects a strong sense that other members of society disrespect them because they are black.”
If you think you’re at a disadvantage (however justified or unjustified that belief may be), you internalize your status, such that your low expectations become as durable an obstacle as the discrimination you might be facing.
Wilson appreciates Moynihan for shedding light on ghetto poverty. But by focusing on the capacity of the poor to act rationally and thoughtfully, Wilson wants us to move past victimhood. In his view, neither defending the victim nor blaming the victim is very helpful in moving us forward.
Three generations of black ghetto dwellers have been relying on welfare and sporadic work and doing so in isolation from the mainstream. It is folly to believe that some distinctive behavior, values, or outlooks have not arisen as a consequence. In Wilson’s work, the recognition functions almost like confession: Let us face the truth, so that we may finally bring forth change.
The book stands to have a powerful impact in policy circles because it points to the elephant in the room. Wilson emphasizes the advantages of “race neutral” jobs programs, knowing that Americans are more likely to support initiatives that are not identified with poor blacks. Stated somewhat crudely, increasing employment will reduce the number of people who might promote or even condone deviant behavior.
Because Wilson advised the Obama campaign, it is likely that his combination of race-neutral social policies and “jobs-first” agenda will be attractive to our president.
Sudhir Venkatesh is William B. Ransford professor of sociology at Columbia University and author of Gang Leader for a Day.