Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehisi Coates Lose the Plot

The recent Chait vs. Coates debate attracted a lot of sustained attention for an internet pundit spat. The dispute revolved around the role of culture in black poverty. It is a perfect topic for the web: an emotionally charged Rorschach Test. The question at hand is easily answered: of course culture can play a role in retarding success (defined by standard traditional metrics). Chait’s contention should be a truism:

“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 not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success.”

The same is true of America’s indigenous, and the Roma, etc. The pattern is so common as to be banal. One way the distinct role of culture can be glimpsed is through the exceptions to this common phenomenon.

Though unaddressed by the two public intellectuals, Chait’s observation should prompt two conclusions of general public interest: 1) a ‘culture of poverty’ is obviously not, logically, an argument against eliminating numerous forms of institutional discrimination (e.g. stop-and-frisk practices, or disparities in public school funding); 2) institutional color-blindness (nor indeed, even a strong move towards the sort of broad egalitarian policies characteristic of social welfare states) would hardly be sufficient to swiftly eliminate racial disparities but would instead need to be coupled with sensitive and intelligent programs aimed at disrupting anti-social behaviors drawing from the disciplines of public health and sociology.

The heat from this debate, though, is derived from the evident utility of the ‘culture of poverty’ notion to elites who simply have no interest in the problems of the down and out. For them it is simply a cudgel enabling them to blame the victim. Chait seems to be courting that party. As for Coates, he argues contrariwise towards no particular end. One of the surest ways to drive someone into the hands of your enemy is to deny some obvious corner of reality because it does not accord with the most simplistic model of your ideology. Much the same dynamic is responsible for American leftists who deny the crimes of official state enemies. It is an arid perception of reality, bereft of nuance.

What we have here is a propaganda war being waged by politicians and punditry to blame the poor for their poverty. As always, the best propaganda builds upon a truth rather than fabricating a lie from whole cloth. The obvious response is to identify the truth and separate it from the accompanying lies. Though a talented and interesting writer, Coates stumbles badly here.

However, Jamelle Bouie advances precisely the correct argument in response to Chait at the Daily Beast:

“Culture” plays a part in answering these questions—and a growing number of academics are doinggreat work in this area—but it’s far too much to say that it ought to lie near the top of our concerns, in large part because by doing so, we ignore the broad, systemic factors that shape the lives of African Americans across the class divide. Sharkey, for instance, sees neighborhood segregation—and its attendant consequences—as a key variable for explaining persistent poverty and downward mobility:

Even if a white and a black child are raised by parents who have similarjobs, similar levels of education, and similar aspirations for their children, the rigid segregation of urban neighborhoods means that the black child will be raised in a residential environment with higher poverty, fewer resources, poorer schools, and more violence than that of the white child.

And of course, the “rigid segregation of urban neighborhoods” was shaped by decades of public policy and decades of urban disinvestment and neglect, as well as ongoing housing discrimination. “Culture” might explain the reluctance of individual households and families to leave, but it’s of limited utility when it comes to the broad phenomenon. In that case, the starting point should be the fact that African Americans deal with a unique set of durable circumstances that have festered and worsened over the last forty years (and this is to say nothing of the growth of mass incarceration, which has multiplied the disparities).

Our first priority should be to ameliorate those circumstances. This will require a massive investment of resources, both in terms of jobs, job training, and services for families and individuals. If, in the face of a sustained investment, inner-city black men continue not to work and take advantage of the real opportunities, then we can move to culture as a key factor. But it makes no sense to look at the broad disadvantage facing low-income African Americans—and the extent to which its been ignored, even during good times—and conclude that “culture” is the main hinderance to success for the group as a whole.

One striking feature of discussions of race in the U.S. is the insularity. There is rarely much reference to instructive parallel forms of racism in other nations. When they are made, they typically relate only to the ethnic groups in question (e.g. discrimination against African-descended peoples in the U.S. and Brazil). One rarely sees any attempt to explore the commonalities with the European treatment of the Roma for example, despite abundant similarities in matters like the prejudicial tropes applied to them, or internal cultural pathologies, and so on. It is hard to imagine how anyone attempting serious study of oppressive racial dynamics can fail to learn from the all too frequent material furnished by global history, right up to the present.

The dispute between the two pundits was framed largely around the theater of politicians. Obama and Paul Ryan deploy their words, carefully crafted by teams of advisers, to appeal to general or targeted audiences. They are politicians after all. Their words are of interest only insofar as the language that politicians believe to be attractive tells us something of the political climate nation. In this case, it tells us that the narrative stories used to sell the American brand of capitalism still retain force.

For the loyal liberal Chait, we are supposed to draw a distinction between when Democrats wave their hands about a culture of poverty and when Republicans do. Coates, much to his credit, wisely ridicules the liberal clucking around Ryan.

For Obama, the rhetoric of ‘tough love’ is both politically safe (the thoughts he articulated are probably widely shared within the black community; Americans generally blame themselves for their penury rather than systemic problems, perhaps because in times of political tranquility, public policy seems as implacable and impersonal as the weather) – and comfortable. It is after all the natural the language of the capitalist.


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