Cultural paternalism and liberal thought

Since the release of Moynihan Report in 1965, policymakers have clashed over what role – if any – culture plays in perpetuating urban poverty. Authored by sociologist and future senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan for the Johnson administration Department of Labor, the report famously attributed urban poverty to a “tangle of pathology” afflicting low-income African-Americans. Moynihan fixated on the role of cultural institutions in perpetuating black poverty – such as supposedly weakened family structures to community dysfunction – when coupled with economic disadvantages like dreary job prospects.

In a sense, Moynihan’s report had something for everyone. Liberals latched on to his demand for action against concentrated unemployment and economic misery, while conservatives embraced his critique of urban cultural blight. It is the latter point that has proved the most divisive, pitting liberals against conservatives – and at times, liberals against liberals – over the idea of a malignant “culture of poverty.”

Over the past two weeks, Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine and Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic have reignited this debate. The volley between Coates and Chait sparked after Paul Ryan’s comments attributing urban poverty to cultural deficiencies and poor work ethic among “inner city men.” Coates argued that Ryan’s misguided cultural diagnosis was not significantly different from targeted critiques that liberals like President Obama have also made. Chait responded, arguing that there was meaningful space separating the arguments made by Obama and Ryan, but maintaining that culture cannot be fully dismissed as a subsidiary factor in perpetuating poverty.

Chait further argued that successful anti-poverty efforts embraced by liberals concede that culture plays a role in poverty, pointing to the methods at high-profile charter school chains. “People are the products of their environment. Environments are amenable to public policy. Some of the most successful anti-poverty initiatives, like the Harlem Children’s Zone or the KIPP schools, are designed around the premise that children raised in concentrated poverty need to be taught middle class norms.” These schools are hallmarks of contemporary education reform and anti-poverty efforts. Does this mean that liberals have acquiesced to the idea that inferior culture keeps the poor down?

A closer look at how these schools operate is telling. After Chait’s column, Education Next interjected to direct readers to a 2008 article excerpting David Whitman’s book Sweating the Small Stuff. There, Whitman profiles six high-achieving schools that utilize the “no excuses education reform model, including schools from the KIPP and Achievement First charter school chains. Whitman argues that these schools are fundamentally paternalistic in that each is a “highly prescriptive institution that teaches students not just how to think, but also how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values.” This translates to authoritative discipline coupled with firm expectations of behavioral conduct in and outside the classroom.

Should liberals recoil from cultural paternalism imposed by highly educated white education reformers on low-income minority children? Not at all, according to Whitman. Today’s paternalism, he says, is a “new paternalism” – caring, benevolent, distinctly maternalistic – with its eye on getting students to succeed in high school, college, and beyond. He contrasts this with “old paternalism” practiced in American Indian boarding schools in the late 19th century, where white educators undertook “civilizing” American Indian children. This was a malevolent project of cultural extinguishment, where children’s hair was cut and traditional clothing banished.

The new paternalism exercised in today’s charter schools, Whitman argues, is necessary for these schools to make effective strides against the achievement gap. These schools see that cultivating a safe and structured environment is a threshold issue for their students’ academic success, buying into the “broken windows theory of strict enforcement for seemingly minor infractions. Yet their instruction on middle-class values is fundamentally about empowerment – with arming their students with the norms and values necessary to break themselves out of the cycle of poverty and to better navigate the channels of social and economic power.

Elsewhere, the new paternalism explicitly becomes parental paternalism. In Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, low-income expecting parents can enroll in Baby College, where instructors teach them middle-class childrearing techniques. Canada’s broader project has been nationally embraced, coming to prominence in Waiting for Superman and serving as the model for President Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative.

Are new paternalist charter schools the convergence of liberal and conservative anti-poverty commitments? Whitman suggests exactly that. “While liberals applaud these schools for placing poor kids on the path toward college (and out of poverty),” he writes, “conservatives cheer them for teaching the work ethic and traditional virtues.”

These dueling goals, however, draw out the significant distinction between how liberals and conservatives approach culture and poverty. The modern liberal ideological commitment is to reduce poverty by giving the poor access to middle-class resources. One of these resources is knowledge of middle-class cultural norms. Cross-distribution of norms and values has long underlay liberal support for racial integration of schools, but deep residential segregation and political resistance means that many students will be educated in racially and socioeconomically homogenous environments. These schools must rely on instruction to simulate the integrative effect on norms and values. As Matt Yglesias put it: “[K]ids seem to benefit from picking up certain bourgeois modes of behavior. Bourgeois kids generally pick them up from their parents. Poor kids can pick them up from their peers, but only if they go to a school with a relatively low concentration of poverty. Poor kids in a high-poverty school can also receive explicit instruction in bourgeois conduct.”

Conservatives, on the other hand, continue to lay the primary blame for poverty on cultural degradation. The conservative commitment is to replace the culture in low-income communities with middle-class values. This posture abandons moral neutrality, veering toward outright condemnation. This becomes clear when looking back at Paul Ryan’s comments that sparked this debate: “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”

Liberals refute this analysis as confusing cause with effect. Where conservatives see weakened culture as propagating poverty, liberals see black male detachment from the workforce and lack of faith in our economic system as a result of systemic disinvestment in urban communities.

Paternalism is an uncomfortable charge in American politics. White-on-black and wealthy-on-poor paternalism causes particularly acute discomfort, given our history of ugly nativist “civilizing” endeavors. But not all paternalism is equal – it’s the difference between social empowerment and cultural displacement.

The liberal brand of paternalism has been about empowering low-income children and families with middle-class tools, not displacing preexisting cultural norms. For liberals, culture is one prong in an arsenal of anti-poverty fixes, wielding it as a single means of easing access for the poor into the middle class. Conservative paternalism, however, focuses on cultural rescue – dispatching middle-class values to lift low-income Americans out of cultural rot. Cultural advancement is the only solution conservatives offer for combating poverty because they reject the efficacy of targeted public efforts and yearn to slash key safety net programs like food stamps, Medicaid, and the Earned Income Tax Credit.

After Chait asserted that no-excuses charter schools “are designed around the premise that children raised in concentrated poverty need to be taught middle class norms,” Coates pushed back: “No,” he said, “they need to be taught that all norms are not transferable into all worlds. In my case, physical assertiveness might save you on the street but not beyond it.”

But what the new paternalism of these schools seeks to do is give their students norm fluency to transfer into other worlds – namely, white middle-class worlds. They aim to teach social charms and parenting tips, discipline and rhetoric – those skills that our social integration failures have prevented from diffusing naturally – so as to ease their students’ movement from poverty into middle-class institutions like college and business.

So while liberals and conservatives may live in convenient harmony in supporting the new cultural paternalism in these schools, there remains a gulf of difference in their broader analyses of the role culture plays in poverty. Where conservatives condemn a “tailspin of culture,” liberals see an opportunity to supplement government efforts to change economic conditions in low-income communities with a set of norms that might make transition into the middle-class a little bit easier.

Not all paternalism is something that needs to be shunned. Liberals can acknowledge the value of teaching middle-class norms in low-income schools without having to claim that a culture of poverty is a primary force behind urban disadvantage. Indeed, such an effort is entirely consistent with core liberal beliefs: that public institutions can distribute resources to the disadvantaged to strengthen the possibility of social mobility.


4 thoughts on “Cultural paternalism and liberal thought

  1. Not all paternalism is something that needs to be shunned.

    Oh? And what happens when the people that go to charter schools can’t find jobs like the rest of us? Paternalism is wrong and needs to stop. What it really means is that those doing the paternalism don’t respect the people that are being paternalistic towards.

  2. J. I like what you’ve written here. I think the difference between what you are calling liberal paternalism and the conservative approach is that liberal paternalists are providing constructive criticism to help young people thrive, whereas most conservative criticism seems to be of the destructive variety. A rare conservative who seemed to actually have empathy for the poor was Jack Kemp (even if his policy proposals may have been misguided). It would be good if Ryan could pick up the baton from his former mentor, Kemp, but so far, his critique does not seem to be constructive, and political pressures within the GOP were he to run for president would probably move him in a more punitive direction.

  3. Pingback: Birth pangs | J.DODGE blog

  4. Pingback: More than just hopelessness | J.DODGE blog

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