Culture, and What It Means.

Writing for The Daily Dish, Chris Bodenner repeats, through a reader's response, an argument that's been around forever: that the problems facing many African Americans can be described by and blamed on their culture. The problem with the reader's argument, as is the problem with many similar arguments, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the word culture means and how culture arises. Here's the reader:

[I]f our success is simply a matter of changing our own internal cultural norms and mindset, the profound disparities between white and black America can be ameliorated in a generation.

Sociologists and anthropologists spend a lot of time talking about what culture is. At it's most basic, it is a set of shared values and beliefs. When social scientists talk about the cultural factors of poverty, they are referring to it, partly, as a framework for understanding the conditions of the world. Structural forces like racism, discrimination, and denial of opportunity shape culture, but it is not something that can be actively decided on and consciously changed at will by a group, as this reader seems to think it is. (As a side note, it's equally problematic to assume that African Americans possess one culture, but that's another post.)

In the context of inner-city poverty, cultural forces can reinforce structural, socioeconomic conditions, to some extent, but they're not the cause. William Julius Wilson, a Harvard sociologist who spends his time studying culture and poverty, even warned of the dangers of his own approach in a paper in May. Most people, like the reader above, seem to think that culture means the same thing as "individual behavior," and that everyone is completely in control of it.

Americans like to believe our country is full of opportunity for anyone who wants to take it. This is what makes the "culture" argument appealing. It becomes a substitute for arguments over the agency an individual has in determining the direction of their lives: the idea that circumstances are entirely beyond your control is neither inspiring nor helpful. For what it's worth, social scientists aren't saying that poor urban blacks don't have any control over their lives, either. What they're saying is that these things are complicated, and addressing the problems of poverty requires a holistic approach.

What's most interesting about these "debates," when they crop up, is how people fail to understand the interplay between society's structure and culture whenever it involves nonwhite folks. Use a combination of socioeconomic forces and cultural norms to explain the situation of lower-income whites in, say, the Ozarks, and people understand what you're saying. But when you talk about the black community, people jump straight to the explanation that it rests in some sort of pathology peculiar to black folks, and it's simply a failure of will. This tendency, especially among whites, to want to blame lower-income blacks in America for the attendant problems of poverty, might have a cultural explanation of its own: the inability of many non-blacks in America to face up to how complicit they are in contributing to it simply by benefiting from a system that favors them. Racism, after all, is a cultural force, too.

-- Monica Potts

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