Posted 6 months ago on April 6, 2014, 3:41 p.m. EST by LeoYo
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White America Is Oblivious to the Truth About Black Poverty
Sunday, 06 April 2014 12:04
By Deborah Small, AlterNet | Op-Ed
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.