September 17, 2019
Both Democrats and Republicans attack black culture, but refuse to enact the redistribution of wealth and power that could end racial inequity‘With a bit of deciphering, we can get the gist of the message: black Americans are impacted not just by institutional racism, but by the impact that racism has had on their culture’ Photograph: Michele Eve Sandberg/Rex/ShutterstockThis weekend, Joe Biden was attacked for another bizarre, almost free association, remark. Responding to a question from the moderator Linsey Davis about what it would take to repair the legacy of slavery in America, Biden had a long, confusing reply.> Look, there’s institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Red lining, banks, making sure we are in a position where – look, you talk about education. I propose that what we take is those very poor schools, the Title I schools, triple the amount of money we spend from $15 to $45bn a year. Give every single teacher a raise to the equal raise of getting out of the $60,000 level.> > Number two, make sure that we bring in to help the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. The problems that come from home. We need, we have one school psychologist for every 1,500 kids in America today. It’s crazy. The teachers are – I’m married to a teacher, my deceased wife is a teacher. They have every problem coming to them. We have to make sure that every single child does, in fact, have three, four, and five-year-olds go to school. School, not daycare. School.> > We bring social workers into homes with parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help, they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television – make sure you have the record player on at night, the phone. Make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school – a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.With a bit of deciphering, we can get the gist of the message: black Americans are impacted not just by institutional racism, but by the impact that racism has had on their culture. Poor black parents don’t just lack the material means to provide for their children, but they lack the knowledge and culture to do so, as well.Taken along with his other recent statements, and the fact that he opposed bussing and other attempts to remedy the very institutional segregation he mentions, liberals like Time’s Anand Giridharadas have called Biden “racist, classist, incoherent”. For Giridharadas and others, the debate moment in particular was “disqualifying”.
Democrats have long blamed culture for black poverty. Joe Biden is no exception
The only problem is, wrong as Biden is, he’s just repeating what has been commonsense for generations of politicians, Democrat and Republican alike. Even Barack Obama had a knack for inventing stories about black kids being told by other black kids that studying hard in school was “acting white”, or appealing to “Cousin Pookie” and “Uncle Jethro” to be better and more engaged citizens.Black students, for what it’s worth, tend to put more emphasis on educational achievement (and show more pride in their peers’ accomplishments) than white students. Despite rightwing suppression efforts, black voters, too, now vote at a higher rate than any other group in the country.As Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out in the Atlantic at the time, how different are Obama’s comments from Paul Ryan’s lamentation:> We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.In many ways, the “culture of poverty” discourse has liberal political roots. Influenced by the anthropologist Oscar Lewis, Lyndon B Johnson’s assistant secretary of labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, wrote the influential The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (the “Moynihan Report”) in 1965. Generations of thinkers on the right had seen racial inequality as merely the reflection of the inherent inferiority of black people. Moynihan, on the other hand, was a progressive who recognized the persistence of racism and saw the roots of racial inequality as being material.But the legacy of “three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment”, he wrote, had created a culture of poverty that had to be addressed so that civil rights legislation and the ongoing war on poverty could actually uplift black Americans. If you just give the black poor money and services, the argument went, it wouldn’t have the intended effect.Whatever Moynihan’s goals, his claim that black family structures were reinforcing black poverty proved resilient. Biological explanations for racial disparities were thankfully now taboo, but it was an easy step from saying that the black poor were the victims of a culture of poverty to saying that the black poor who couldn’t pull themselves out of a culture of poverty didn’t deserve state aid.
Ronald Reagan did just that, with his stories about “welfare queens” who lived off of government assistance and refused to work. Bill Clinton continued in his footsteps, pledging to “end welfare as we know it”, and he did just that in power.Like Obama’s complaints about black schoolchildren ridiculing their studious peers for “acting white”, the generalization had no basis. As Jonah Birch and Paul Heideman write, “black job seekers are even more resilient than their white counterparts, staying in the job market longer despite persistent frustrations of their search for employment.” And that among black single mothers, “[their] families were a major contributor to the high value they placed on education and finding a career. Far from being the transmission belt of a ‘culture of dependency’, black families act as a support network encouraging their members to achieve as much as possible.”Yet the “culture of poverty” – in both its Democratic and Republican variants – persists. Though much of this mythology relies on racist tropes, it also reflects more generally what the professional middle class (and elite politicians like Obama) think about those below them on the class ladder. You can hear echoes, more vicious than Biden’s comments last week, in the National Review complaint that many poor white people were suffering because of “Bad decisions and basic human failure …” or in JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which opines that “you can walk through a town where 30% of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness”.There is finally pushback to the idea that the victims of an exploitative and violent society are sleeping in a bed of their own making. But the solution isn’t Biden taking sensitivity courses and being less racist or “classist” – we need to combat the real sources of racial and class inequality.It’s not too complicated, we all basically want the same things: a decent-paying job, quality medical care, good schools for our children, leaders who respect us and act with integrity. This cuts across backgrounds, they’re simple expectations of a good state that most working people feel like they deserve. And they’re outcomes we can guarantee through robust entitlements.Why, then, this obsession on what poor people, particularly poor black people, are doing wrong? It’s simple: both Democrats and Republicans have preferred a patchwork, punitive and degrading welfare state over an efficient, well-funded, universal one. They’d rather blame the oppressed than lift them out of oppression. They’d rather talk about culture than challenge corporations.There’s nothing wrong with Joe Biden that doesn’t afflict the political establishment as a whole.
* Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin magazine and a Guardian US columnist. He is the author of The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality
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