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White America Is Oblivious to the Truth About Black Poverty

A recent debate between Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehisi Coates reveals the misconceptions that rule America’s understanding of race and poverty.

There’s been a fascinating debate over the past few weeks between Ta-Nehisi Coates from the Atlantic and New Yorkmagazine’s Jonathan Chait regarding the language President Obama employs in addressing African-American communities. Obama’s been criticized by Coates and other supporters for using rhetoric that reinforces the belief shared by many on the right, that personal initiative and hard work is sufficient to overcome the obstacles confronting many young black men despite the continued existence of institutional racism in education, employment, healthcare, criminal justice and civic participation (to name a few).
Chait replied with, “I agree that racial discrimination persists, but I don’t believe this fact abnegates the possibility that a culture of poverty exists as well.” Chait believes President Obama is uniquely suited to speak to black people about changing self-destructive behavior:

But Coates is committing a fallacy by assuming that Obama’s exhortations to the black community amount to a belief that personal responsibility accounts for a major share of the blame. A person worries about the things that he can control. ….Obama’s habit of speaking about this issue primarily to black audiences is Obama seizing upon his role as the most famous and admired African American in the world to urge positive habits and behavior.

In the most recent volley of exchanges, Chait takes Coates to task for ascribing views to him he does not hold. The column is titled: Ta-Nehisi Coates Disagrees With ‘Jonathan Chait,’ and So Do I. Chait states clearly he does not equate black culture with a “culture of poverty” as do Bill O’Reilly and many on the right, but he does see a link between persistent poverty and culture.

So let me explain what I do think. The culture of poverty is not solely or even primarily a black problem. It is a problem arising from concentrated poverty, and — as a result of both historic and ongoing racism — concentrated poverty disproportionately afflicts African-American communities. Obama understands that he commands prestige that can make him an inspirational figure in say, poor black neighborhoods in Chicago that he lacks in, say, poor white towns in West Virginia. As I’ve said, I understand Coates’ practical objections to this tactic.

The reaction I’ve seen online to this debate suggests a lot of readers on both sides investing a great deal of broader meanings into it — identity, authenticity, yet another endless iteration of the meta question of How We Talk About Race. I have no interest in playing a role in that drama. What interests me is a real and vital public-policy debate over the relationship between culture and poverty.

In Chait’s view, understanding the relationship between culture and poverty is essential to developing effective anti-poverty programs. He seems to view Coates’ negation of this relationship as an example of aggressive misreading of his intentions and that of other white liberals rooted in racial hostility. Ultimately, he complains Coates negates the steady progress of U.S. race relations and the steady improvement in conditions and circumstances for the majority of African Americans.

Coates and I disagree about racial progress in America. Coates sees the Americas’ racial history as a story of continuity of white supremacy. I see the sequence (I’d call it a progression, but that term would load the argument in my favor) that began with chattel slavery and has led to the Obama administration as a story of halting, painful, non-continuous, but clear improvement. Coates associates himself with a quote from Malcolm X: “You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches, and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.”

The analogy defines out of existence the very possibility of steady progress. People who subscribe to this way of thinking won’t agree with measures that reduce but fail to eliminate racial discrimination, or those that reduce but fail to eliminate poverty, or reduce but fail to eliminate medical deprivation.

Jonathan Chait is right about one thing—this is an ongoing and somewhat circular debate of limited utility, at least within the present frame. There are valid arguments to be made that persistent poverty leads to persistent deficits that impact health, well-being and lifestyle in ways that can continue across generations, yet the percentage of poor people who generally fall into this category is fairly small.

The majority of those classified as poor in the U.S. are people who work but don’t make enough money to support themselves or their children, or they are people who have worked in the past but now find themselves permanently excluded from the workforce. The oft-cited statistic of female-headed households living in poverty—31%—is as much a result of the economic disadvantage women still face in the workforce and lack of affordable childcare as it is a reflection of their poor life choices. The “culture of poverty” can’t be used to explain why 25% of Hispanics are living in poverty, despite exhibiting the work ethic and family cohesion associated by whites with “middle-class” success. And yet conservatives and liberals alike continue to focus on the subset of people who are the “persistently poor” as representative of the whole.

So who are these people? Contrary to Paul Ryan’s admittedly inarticulate assertion, the locus of persistent poverty is not in our “inner cities.” The large majority—85.3%—of persistent-poverty counties are nonmetropolitan. Persistent poverty also demonstrates a strong regional pattern, with nearly 84% of persistent-poverty counties in the South comprising more than one-fifth of all counties in the region. Whether black, white or indigenous, the majority of poor Americans live in rural communities away from large cities. Most live in the southern region, in states whose leaders are committed to cutting assistance for the poor, keeping wages low, denying access to healthcare and empowering corporate extraction of natural resources. These facts are not new; they are consistent with trends that have endured for well over a century.

I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Conservatives and liberals alike prefer to focus on perceived deficits in black and brown people than on structural racism and the concepts of white supremacy that undergird it as the principal reasons for disparate conditions and outcomes for many blacks and Hispanics. White privilege means not having to think about the many ways the lives of those who are classified as white are enhanced and protected by the subjugation and exclusion of racial minorities. White privilege provides white ethnics escape from the stigma of poverty. As historian Nell Irvin Painter aptly distinguishes, “Not all black people are poor, but among the people in America defined by race, black people tend to be the poorest.”

Similarly, the link between poverty and criminality is dubious at best. The vast majority of poor people do not engage in criminal activity despite our tendency to label more and more things crimes. Lack of opportunity breeds disillusionment, which leads to disorder, a conclusion reached more than four decades ago by the Kerner Commission charged with investigating the causes of urban rebellions in the summer of 1967:

Although Negro men worked as hard as the immigrants, they were unable to support their families. The entrepreneurial opportunities had vanished. As a result of slavery and long periods of unemployment, the Negro family structure had become matriarchal; the males played a secondary and marginal family role—one which offered little compensation for their hard and unrewarding labor. Above all, segregation denied Negroes access to good jobs and the opportunity to leave the ghetto. For them, the future seemed to lead only to a dead end.

Today, whites tend to exaggerate how well and quickly they escaped from poverty. The fact is that immigrants who came from rural backgrounds, as many Negroes do, are only now, after three generations, finally beginning to move into the middle class.

By contrast, Negroes began concentrating in the city less than two generations ago, and under much less favorable conditions. Although some Negroes have escaped poverty, few have been able to escape the urban ghetto. Pervasive unemployment and underemployment are the most persistent and serious grievances in minority areas. They are inextricably linked to the problem of civil disorder.

What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.

Therein lies the essential dilemma beneath this debate. What should be the focus of attention and reform efforts: changing the behavior of people trapped in cycles of poverty and marginalization, or changing the economic, social and political institutions that sustain the racial and economic status quo? The bootstrap approach advocated by President Obama and majority of the elite community seems to accept the intractable nature of white privilege and keeps the burden on poor communities of color to continuing absorbing the harms of institutional racism while white Americans continue the slow work of transforming their racial attitudes.

What Chait’s liberal analysis of American racism fails to acknowledge is racism was created to achieve an economic purpose. Anglo-Americans didn’t start out as racists, they became racists in order to justify their chosen economic system, which relied on the exploitation of enslaved black labor. The principal motive for racism was and still is, profit.

One of the many things that infuriates black people, at least it does me, is the obliviousness of white Americans to the ways they project onto black people the pathological and violent behavior they have engaged in and seem to have collectively whitewashed from their memories. In the almost 400 years that African people have been in this country we’ve been subjected to continuous murder, rape, brutality, dehumanization and mob terror at the hands of whites (lynching ended a century ago only to be replaced by extra-judicial police killings) and yet the contemporary narrative is that whites are justified in their fear of blacks, especially black men. Seriously? Modern policing is based on this premise—one that whites rarely question and have trouble understanding as a source of black rage.

On the subject of pathology, there is a huge disparity between what white America did and what it remembers it did. Here’s a quick refresher that we can’t forget and you must remember:

I don’t know any instances in American history where thousands of black people gathered to watch the ritualistic killing of a white person as spectator sport.

Lest you say, those are isolated events from the past and the majority of white people are not like that anymore, I call your attention to a recent report demonstrating a substantial gap in support for the death penalty, with whites much more in favor than blacks or Hispanics. According to a recent Pew Research poll overall support for the death penalty is 55%. Among whites, however, support for the death penalty jumps to 63%, compared to 40% for Hispanics and 36% for blacks. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie argues persuasively that white support for the death penalty is rooted in its history as a tool for whites to control and protect themselves from blacks. He connects the past to the present with the results of another recent study:

In 2007, two researchers tried to gauge racial differences on capital punishment and assess how blacks and whites responded to arguments against the practice. Their core findings with black Americans weren’t a surprise—in general, blacks were receptive to any argument against the death penalty.

Their findings with whites, on the other hand, were disturbing. Not only were whites immune to persuasion on the death penalty, but when researchers told them of the racial disparity—that blacks faced unfair treatment—many increased their support.

White privilege permits people to ignore the reflection of their own pathologies in others.

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