More than just hopelessness

Inspired by the past few weeks’ debates over race and poverty, I picked up a copy of the sociologist William Julius Wilson’s More Than Just Race. Tired of the predictable arguments over urban poverty where one side blames culture and the other blames structure, Wilson set out to lend order and data to this debate, showing the interconnected relationship between structural and cultural forces in perpetuating poverty.

What Wilson ultimately found, however, was that structural and systemic factors were far more important than cultural ones. Structural impediments like past and present economic policies that have an adverse impact on poor urban communities, disinvestment in these communities, and housing policy that leads to concentrated poverty account for much of what keeps the urban poor poor. Indeed, Wilson shows that many of the cultural blights that conservatives often point toward are in fact results and symptoms of bigger structural barriers.

Take, for instance, the argument that black males are detached from the labor force because of a culture of defeatism. Not so, according to Wilson. Detachment from work is instead the result of scarcely apparent meaningful work and repeated encounters with implicit racial bias from employers – bias that we know persists from multiple studies. Wilson presents data showing that the same resume is significantly more likely to receive an interview offer when it bears a white-sounding name at the top rather than a black-sounding name. He tells us that a black job applicant was less likely to get a job offer than a white applicant with a felony conviction. (Along this vein, see Evan Soltas’s article on data suggesting that peer reviewers tend to be more critical of written work when they think the author is black.)

Wilson similarly debunks cultural attacks on the dissolution of the black family. He explains that the eligible marriage pool for low-income black women is slim. Due to the lack of meaningful jobs for men to support a family and mass incarceration of young black males, women calculate that there is little to be gained from marrying. Yet with little apparent economic opportunity in their lives, these women see raising a child as the one tangible achievement within their reach.

Wilson’s tour through sociological data and ethnographic studies shows that an assessment of poverty that rests near exclusively on cultural explanations cannot be sustained as serious analysis. This disqualifies much of what we hear from conservative politicians casting blame for urban poverty on weak work ethic and unwed mothers.

But is there yet a place for culture in our discussions of poverty? Can liberals be justified in recognizing the primacy of structural forces, but still placing some weight on cultural explanations?

Wilson affirmatively answers yes. He praises President Obama’s rhetorical pairing of structure and culture during his Philadelphia speech on race. After asking white Americans to acknowledge the structural hardships that litter black Americans’ pathway to success, Obama still “focused on problematic cultural and behavioral response to these inequities, including a cycle of violence among black men and a ‘legacy of defeat’ that has been passed on to future generations.” Obama called on blacks to parent better, to teach their children to overcome the forces keeping them down, telling them that “while they may face challenges in discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.”

I’ve argued that liberals can support projects that aim to teach low-income minority children traditionally middle-class norms. These norms are valuable economic assets in the corridors of our society that create a pathway to the middle-class. Because middle-class white children absorb these norms at home, low-income minority children have been placed at a competitive disadvantage – especially given that persistent de facto social segregation has impeded these norms from spreading naturally. Our economic system is a middle-class game, and low-income minority kids ought to be given all the requisite equipment to have a fighting chance in that game.

This is an example of what I’d call “soft” resource redistribution. It helps level the playing field for low-income minority kids, but it comes at no cost to others in society. Wilson explains that many children raised in concentrated poverty learn to avoid eye contact because such behavior might be seen as threatening on the street. Yet one who averts his eyes in the middle-class world is perceived as being untrustworthy or lacking self-confidence. This behavioral split between two worlds would seem ripe for training and empowerment in good low-income schools.

Many of the structural barriers that low-income minorities face can only be rectified through “hard” resource redistribution. Eradicating implicit bias in employment depends on a long upheaval of our segregated communities, schools, housing tracts, and beyond. “Hard” resource redistribution is often thought to be zero-sum, like taxation and benefit redistribution or collegiate affirmative action policies. It therefore engenders strong political resistance when one group is seen to be burdened for the benefit of others.

So while structure requires long-term fixes, culture might be malleable in the short-term. Though structural fixes are hard, this should not freeze liberal efforts to help today’s poor rise into the middle-class. While the long slog of rooting out prejudice marches on for generations, black parents today can surmount the barriers that remain by raising admirably and irrationally optimistic kids that can brush off slights and overcome adversity. While extinguishing employment bias will span decades, we can ask young black men to yet press on despite demoralizing encounters with an unfair system.

Culture might be dwarfed by structure in the poverty research, but for those living in it, culture may be a meaningful way forward. Our political system struggles to marshal the will to tackle the structural forces, with one party virtually denying the existence of any structural problems at all. But this ought not paralyze liberal efforts to lift the poor out of poverty. Liberals can both recognize that structural fixes are vitally necessary long-term solutions to poverty, while supporting cultural band-aids to ease the pathway into the middle-class for today’s poor. For if reforming systemic discrimination is not forthcoming, liberals must offer the poor more than just hopelessness.

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