Scholars of Poverty and Inequality Face Their Own Racial Reckoning

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tags: poverty, racism, sociology

The United States is in the midst of a long-overdue racial reckoning, and the fight is not only happening in the streets.

The field of poverty scholarship, a discipline that includes researchers and academics across universities, think tanks, advocacy organizations, and governments, has become embroiled in its own debates over racism within its ranks. The field has spent decades debating how much of the persistence of Black poverty can be attributed to “cultural” versus “structural” issues. Cultural arguments place emphasis on individuals’ behaviors, while structural arguments highlight the role of discrimination and racism. Cultural arguments are now coming under deserved new scrutiny.

Blaming Black people for their own hardships is its own kind of tradition, and seems to make a comeback at very regular intervals. Citing a “culture of poverty” and lack of “marriage culture” are two of its mainstays. Which is why the response to a recent article in an academic journal by Dr. Lawrence Mead, a long-standing professor of public policy and politics at New York University, is noteworthy.

The hypothesis of Mead’s commentary, titled “Poverty and Culture,” is that Black and Hispanic people are still disproportionately living in poverty decades after the civil rights movement because of their own cultural shortcomings. Specifically, Mead says Black and Hispanic people lack “individualism” and “ambition” because these groups did not come from Europe (notably, Mead provides no analysis of the downsides of “individualism” as primary human motivation). He also provides almost no data to support his claims. Understandably, outrage followed.

Following more than a week of increasingly visible pushback, the scholarly journal that published the offensive piece decided to retract it—an unusual move in academia. Those publicly rejecting Mead’s article included educators, scholars, researchers, advocates, and community leaders, along with folks within his own institution, NYU, who took to Twitter and signed petitions and denounced its racist conclusions.

But these ideas are not new for Mead: In his 1992 book The New Politics of Poverty: The Nonworking Poor in America, Mead asserted that “the worldview of blacks makes them uniquely prone to the attitudes contrary to work, and thus vulnerable to poverty and dependency.” Still, the timing of the release of his newest article, in 2020, against the backdrop of a global pandemic, political turmoil, and a spotlight on systemic racism, seems to have triggered an “aha” moment for much of the field.

This raises a hopeful possibility: Is 2020 the year researchers and academics finally confront their field’s complicity in peddling racist ideas about the causes of poverty, ideas that remain far too influential in the development of public policy? Just as phrenology–which was used to justify racism–was eventually discredited by scientists, could poverty scholars finally be ready to abandon theories about Black cultural pathology, and see them for what they really are?

Read entire article at The Nation

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