Jonathan Chait is no dummy. He’s one of the smartest political journalists around. So this bit of obtuseness in his critique yesterday of Ta-Nehisi Coates caught me by surprise.
Coates has been writing a series of pieces interrogating the idea of the culture of poverty, the notion that African American poverty is rooted in a deep tradition of bad values, bad behavior, bad choices, especially among black men. This idea used to be the exclusive preserve of the right; a milder version of it has since migrated to the liberal left.
In his latest dispatch, Coates wrote this:
Certainly there are cultural differences as you scale the income ladder. Living in abundance, not fearing for your children’s safety, and having decent food around will have its effect. But is the culture of West Baltimore actually less virtuous than the culture of Wall Street? I’ve seen no such evidence.
Here’s Chait in response:
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.
Actually, the example undermines Chait’s point. Because Coates isn’t challenging the notion that Wall Street behavior isn’t bad or that there’s not a culture of bad behavior on Wall Street. He’s challenging the notion that it’s bad behavior, or the culture of bad behavior, that explains, in whole or in part, poverty in the black community.
All those guys on Wall Street act like jerks; yet somehow they don’t wind up poor. That’s Coates’s point. If the culture on Wall Street is not more elevated than that of West Baltimore, something other than the culture on Wall Street and the culture in West Baltimore has to explain the wealth of the one and the poverty of the other.
“The rich are different from you and me,” Fitzgerald is supposed to have said to Hemingway. “Yes,” Hemingway responded, “they have more money.” The conversation, of course, never happened. Even so, Hemingway got it right.