Barack Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Poverty, and Culture

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Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

The relationship between culture and poverty starkly divides not just liberals against conservatives, but also liberals against each other. Yet liberals rarely think through their disagreements publicly, even though — or perhaps because — they pit figures like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama against their own supporters.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is an exception, having written a series of well-received columns (a year ago, a couple months ago, and then yesterday) objecting to President Obama’s regular habit of urging higher levels of personal responsibility in the black community. Coates, who is one of my favorite writers, advocates what used to be the standard liberal view: that blaming “culture” for the problems of poor African-Americans is a way of blaming the victims and a distraction from the true causes of poverty. "From the president on down there is an accepted belief in America — black and white — that African-American people, and African-American men, in particular, are lacking in the virtues in family, hard work, and citizenship," he writes. Coates’s argument also forms part of the basis for the still-potent opposition to the 1996 Clinton welfare reform, and it’s odd that he is one of the few writers grappling with this still very raw division within the center-left. Coates interestingly adds historical precedent to his argument, and also interestingly takes on the incumbent African-American president in a frontal way. But ultimately, Coates is circling back to an argument that prevailed among liberals in the 1970s and 1980s, and which Democrats abandoned, correctly.

Bill Clinton touts welfare reform in Nashville, November 1996. Photo: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Three important problems with his argument stand out. First, Coates treats the cultural explanation for African-American poverty and the structural explanation as mutually exclusive. I can't think of a single credible historian of our 500-year tenure here,” he writes, “who has concluded that our problem was a lack of ‘personal responsibility.’” Not even Paul Ryan, whom Coates argued yesterday holds similar views to President Obama on this issue, believes personal responsibility is the singular, root cause of the African-American predicament. 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.

Coates dismisses the culture objection in his latest piece by asking sardonically, is the culture of West Baltimore actually less virtuous than the culture of Wall Street?” I think the example undermines his point. I have no idea how to compare Wall Street to West Baltimore, but it’s clear that Wall Street has an enormous cultural problem — which is to say it has normalized kinds of behavior that many of us consider bad.

It would be pretty shallow to attribute the cultural pathologies of Wall Street at their root to bad people working there. The trouble, instead, is that the structural conditions of the financial industry have fostered certain cultural norms. If you’re designing policies to fix Wall Street, you need to take into account how they will shape that culture.

A deep-rooted cultural problem.Photo: Mary Cybulski/Paramount Pictures

Second, Coates argues (in yesterday’s column) that right-wing and liberal advocates of the cultural explanation have the same worldview. “What Ryan said here is not very far from what Bill Cosby, Michael Nutter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama said before him,” he writes, “The idea that poor people living in the inner city, and particularly black men, are ‘not holding up their end of the deal’ as Cosby put it, is not terribly original or even, these days, right-wing.”

There are points of overlap, to be sure, but the Ryan argument is dramatically different. Ryan’s analysis — or, at least, the analysis that follows consistently from his remarks and his policy agenda — is that culture now represents the entirety of the problem with the black poor. He attributes that culture to incentives put in place by the government not to work, and believes that removing those harmful incentives, in the form of cutting benefit programs, would teach poor black people to fend for themselves.

Figures like Obama, Clinton, and (I think) Cosby make a very different argument. They share the view that cultural problems contribute to black poverty, but they don’t equate them with the entirety of it. Clinton combined welfare reform with a more generous Earned Income Tax Credit, higher minimum wage, and other direct benefits. Obama has done the same.

Bill Cosby in 2013.Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Coates rebukes Cosby, who famously declared that many poor people “are not holding up their end of the deal.” Conservatives love to quote this line, forgetting that “deal” implies reciprocality — the need to combine personal responsibility with traditional aid — not the unilateral assignment of blame. It’s especially strange that Coates would lump Bill Cosby’s view in with that of conservatives, since a few years ago, Coates wrote a razor-sharp piece decrying the weird tendency of conservatives to fabricate anti-black quotes and put them into Cosby’s mouth. He explained at the time:

Cosby, himself, loudly took a moral message to African-Americans a few years back, much to the delight of a certain segment of white conservatives.

But because white conservatives so poorly understand black people, they never quite understood Cosby or the organic black conservative tradition he was speaking out of. (I wrote about this for the magazine a few years back.) That tradition argues traditional conservative "up from your bootstraps" ideology, but has no real interest in acting as foil for white conservatives who want to downplay racism.

Having previously taken apart the habit of equating Cosby’s ideas with right-wing thought, Coates is now doing it himself.

It’s not clear what proportion of the blame for black poverty Obama assigns to personal responsibility. (Obviously, much less than Ryan does.) 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. If I’m watching a basketball game in which the officials are systematically favoring one team over another (let’s call them Team A and Team Duke) as an analyst, the officiating bias may be my central concern. But if I’m coaching Team A, I’d tell my players to ignore the biased officiating. Indeed, I’d be concerned the bias would either discourage them or make them lash out, and would urge them to overcome it. That’s not the same as denying bias. It’s a sensible practice of encouraging people to concentrate on the things they 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. Coates is equating exhortation with analysis when he cites Obama urging African-Americans to “get off the couch and stop watching SportsCenter and go register some folks and go to the polls.” Coates responds acidly that African-Americans “voted at higher rates than any other ethnic group in the country. They voted for Barack Obama. Our politics have not changed.”

The Obama quote cited by Coates is from January 2008. Before then, black people turned out in presidential elections at lower rates than white people. Since, then, they have turned out at higher rates.

Is this a case of Obama being wrong? No, it’s a case of Obama galvanizing African-Americans to get their friends and relatives to vote, and it is working.