Barack Obama vs. the Culture of Poverty

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Four years ago, Ta Nehisi-Coates wrote one of the most important and memorable essays I’ve ever read. In it, Coates described a horrifying episode from an early, ascendant moment in his career, when, in the course of a heated argument with another journalist, he threatened to assault him and very nearly carried through. Coates used the episode as a synecdoche for the broader way in which the cultural mores he learned growing up in a heavily poor, heavily black neighborhood can become utterly destructive to career advancement:

I think one can safely call that an element of a kind of street culture. It's also an element which — once one leaves the streets — is a great impediment. "I ain't no punk" may shield you from neighborhood violence. But it can not shield you from algebra, when your teacher tries to correct you. It can not shield you from losing hours, when your supervisor corrects your work. And it would not have shielded me from unemployment, after I cold-cocked a guy over a blog post.

When the imprint of this culture was nearly strong enough to derail the career of a writer as brilliant as Coates, we are talking about a powerful force, indeed. He headlined his essay, “A Culture of Poverty.”

More recently, Coates has been engaging in a back-and-forth with me on this same subject. (I’d encourage those who haven’t to read his first column, my response, and then his rebuttal.) We have several points of disagreement, the most important of which is that Coates now maintains that there is no such thing as a culture of poverty.

Not ideological soulmates, after all. Photo: Pete Souza/White House

Coates initially made the provocative claim that Barack Obama’s views about the relationship between culture and poverty are not only wrong but essentially identical to those of Paul Ryan. In his follow-up, he concedes that they are not identical, but maintains nonetheless that they are wrong. Conservatives like Ryan attribute the plight of black America almost entirely to culture. Liberals (or, you could say, neoliberals) like Obama attribute it primarily to historical and ongoing structural discrimination and economic disparity, and only secondarily to culture. Coates now disputes, in his words, “the notion that black culture is part of the problem.”

Coates devotes most of his response to dissecting a casual association I made in my column. I attributed the enduring culture of poverty to the residue of slavery, terrorism, segregation, and continuing discrimination. He shows quite powerfully that slavery in many ways strengthened African-American yearning for education and family unification. It’s a powerful display of historical erudition.

Having effectively demolished my simplistic link between oppression and the culture of poverty, Coates proceeds to demand evidence that it exists at all. “Progressives who advocate the 19th-century line must specifically name the ‘cultural residue’ that afflicts black people, and then offer evidence of it,” he writes, “Favoring abstract thought experiments over research will not cut it.

That is a sound challenge. Of course, there is a great deal of research on the subject of the culture of poverty, aside from Coates’s own powerful, though now-forgotten, firsthand testimony. For instance, via Jamelle Bouie, this paper surveys some of the best research evidence of the detrimental cultural outgrowths of concentrated urban poverty on parental expectations, sexual behavior, the willingness of students to engage in beneficial activities, and other things. Culture is hard, though not impossible, to quantify, which does not mean it doesn’t exist.

Coates’s attack on the notion of a “culture of poverty,” though, goes beyond a sound demand for evidence. First, he treats it as a denial of the existence of racism. “Obama-era progressives,” he writes, in a way that seems to include me among the group, “view white supremacy as something awful that happened in the past and the historical vestiges of which still afflict black people today.” I don’t believe that. My analogy, of a basketball game in which the referees are systematically favoring one team over the other, directly implies the opposite. I agree that racial discrimination persists, but I don’t believe this fact abnegates the possibility that a culture of poverty exists as well.

Second, Coates frames the cultural critique in excessively moralistic ways, defining it as the belief that “black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding.” Obviously some people believe this. But I doubt that, to name an example, Barack Obama is one of them. To identify the culture of poverty as a contributor to poverty does not require blaming people for their failures. The circa-2008 Ta-Nehisi Coates was neither irresponsible nor immoral. Rather, he had grown up around cultural norms that inhibited economic success. 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.

Finally, we get to the question of whether it is appropriate for Obama to use his unique prestige within the African-American community to try to change the culture of poverty through rhetorical admonition. Coates argues that Obama can’t perform such a role, because Obama “isn't the coach of "Team Negro," he is the commissioner of the league.” I believe Obama can speak to the African-American community as an African-American without any wider cultural damage, but reasonable people can differ on this. In any case, Obama’s role in addressing the cultural poverty is a small piece of the overall problem of the culture of poverty, and the culture of poverty is a small piece of the larger problem of poverty itself. Here we are debating the propriety of a few speeches.

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) delivers remarks about his 'My Brother's Keeper' initiative with students from the Hyde Park Academy in the East Room at the White House February 27, 2014 in Washington, DC. As part of his 'Year of Action,' Obama announced a $200 million commitment from nine foundations to bolster the education and employment of young men and boys of color. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

What struck me, instead, is that Coates turns the question of Obama’s role as head of state into a profoundly pessimistic take on the character and future of that state:

America has rarely been our ally. Very often it has been our nemesis. …

I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life, whose vestiges and practices afflicted black people in the past, continue to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust.

I have never previously detected this level of pessimism in Coates’s thinking before. It is also deeply at odds with the hard evidence. It is hard to explain how the United States has progressed from chattel slavery to emancipation to the end of lynching to the end of legal segregation to electing an African-American president if America has “rarely” been the ally of African-Americans and “often” its nemesis. It is one thing to notice the persistence of racism, quite another to interpret the history of black America as mainly one of continuity rather than mainly one of progress.

1957: Caucasian National Guardsmen give an African-American student and his bicycle a lift to school while enforcing desegregation at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. A cameraman and a crowd watch from the sidewalk. Photo: Paul Slade/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Noah Smith points out, since the abolition of de jure segregation, most social metrics relevant to black prosperity have turned sharply upward. The achievement gap has shrunk, the black poverty rate has fallen, the rates at which African-Americans are victims of homicide has collapsed, while the proportion of black police officers has exploded.

This is also Barack Obama’s story about America. Unlike the tea party story, it does not imagine a union born of perfection and corrupted over time. It instead it describes a country whose soaring ideals sat uncomfortably aside an often cruel reality, but which — fitfully, slowly, as-yet-imperfectly, but inexorably — has bent the latter into closer conformity with the former. It is not surprising that black and Hispanic Americans report higher levels of optimism regarding the future than white Americans.

Coates is obviously entitled to a different view (and he's entitled to change his mind). But I think he is ignoring a cleavage than runs far deeper than the propriety of Obama urging black youths to study hard. Coates invokes Obama’s role as “the titular representative of his country's heritage and legacy.” Given the vast gulf between the historical optimism shared by the president and his most loyal constituents, on the one hand, and the grim fatalism to which Coates is now turning, I can’t imagine what representation Obama could possibly offer that would not disturb him.