The Uncharacteristically Obtuse Mr. Chait

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.


  1. mindweapon March 20, 2014 at 10:33 am | #

    The culture of Wall Street does cause poverty because of bad behavior. Just not their own poverty.

    • edward scott March 20, 2014 at 12:05 pm | #

      Corey says of Coates “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.”
      Yes, and Chait is saying you can’t conclude one group doesn’t have bad behavior contributing to a poverty syndrome because another groups bad behavior contributes to a wealth syndrome. He’s saying the comparison can’t be enlightening, most likely because the bad behaviors are different, as are the other behaviors and circumstances contributing to poverty and wealth in our society.

      • House of Black&White (@vahlamorgulis) March 20, 2014 at 12:28 pm | #

        I’d say it’s even more complicated. Chait seems to be allowing for the structure of Wall Street to be explaining the newly acquired bad behavior found there. — Here we’re saying streeters don’t grow up on Wall Street, but instead grow up elsewhere and get jobs on Wall Street as part of a generational uptick in family income. Scions of hedge fund managers have many other options, music, art, science, travelling, philanthropy, fashion, etc.

        Whereas the culture of poverty argument goes like this: culture -> poverty, the Wall Street example is perhaps more like wealth -> abusive culture. Chait seems to be pointing out that culture-wealth interactions are more complicated and are not as dissociable as TNC seems to say.

  2. John Maher March 20, 2014 at 11:03 am | #

    A dreary business, as Butler writes, of comparing oppressions. Here the comparison is between two parts of the same dispositif, each of which is defined by and a product of the other. I normally look to Chait for the neoliberal party line but this exchange is just insipid

  3. Stuart March 20, 2014 at 11:07 am | #

    I wrote a review essay that considered some of these issues and offered a reflexive way to make such a comparison. Ultimately, culture is a useless causal variable, and criminality hold little explanatory power either. The books reviewed are Sudhir Venkatesh’s Off the Books, about a poor Chicago neighborhood, and Karen Ho’s Liquidated, about Wall Street. It’s in American Quarterly:

  4. Roquentin March 20, 2014 at 11:45 am | #

    I’ve been reading some Zizek lately, and he has this thing about how the law is necessarily supplemented by some form of obscenity. There’s a sort of Freudian/Lacanian model involved in this where the superego arises from the father/fear of castration. The shorter version is that there’s no such thing as law without violence and repression, the very thing which puts a particular person in a position to judge not only who is and isn’t obeying the law, but what the law even is. This is why I oppose Rawls (whom I admittedly don’t have much engagement with) and anything resembling a universal theory of justice. It doesn’t exist, and there is no such thing as an “original position.” Even the very idea that you are in a position to determine what is and isn’t bad behavior on the part of the black community (or even Wall Street) already assumes you have some kind of knowledge or authority which allows you to determine what their definition of the good life should be.

    This is made more difficult and complex by the very basic need to what is and isn’t acceptable in a community, what will be discouraged by coercive punishment, and who will be excluded and quarantined from the population in prison, for how long, and for which reasons. Foucault was absolutely right to focus on the prison system and disciplinary institutions, they are the backbone of our modern republic.

  5. Fact Checker March 20, 2014 at 11:52 am | #

    In reality, the black population is the only segment of the USA population whose poverty rate is in decline.

    Black poverty continues to drop even as white poverty goes up. Black poverty has been in continuous decline since the abolition of racial segregation.

    The idea of a black culture of poverty is in direct contradiction to the facts. If there is a fact to be explained by “culture,” the fact is that blacks are escaping poverty while the rest of the population is descending into it. That is, if we are going to talk about culture and poverty, there is a “black culture” of _poverty_ _escape_, not of poverty continuing through generations.

    The continuation of poverty through generations is uniquely _absent_ from the black population, as opposed to the white population or the population at large.

    The graphs don’t lie:

  6. Michael O'Reill March 20, 2014 at 12:59 pm | #

    The Fitzgerald/Hemingway back and forth was in print. Fitzgerald started out a short story with his remark about the rich being different.

  7. Tony Greco March 20, 2014 at 1:01 pm | #

    The Coates passage that you quote with approval misstates the issue. The issue isn’t whether the alleged culture of poverty is more or less virtuous than the culture of Wall Street. The issue is whether the alleged culture of poverty impedes success in a capitalist society. Wall Street demonstrates pretty nicely that virtue is hardly a determinant of success.
    Chait’s position is quite reasonable. He’s not saying that culture is all-determining. He recognizes the importance of structural determinants of inequality and the necessity for public policy to act on them. He is saying that structure shapes culture, and that culture in turn has consequences.

  8. jonnybutter March 20, 2014 at 10:52 pm | #

    The Coates passage that you quote with approval misstates the issue.

    You should read the whole piece. It’s not very long and Coates is a good writer. He doesn’t misstate the issue.

    Chait has written a really terrible, jumbled column. There is no evidence, for example, that Coates “treats the cultural explanation for African-American poverty and the structural explanation as mutually exclusive”. Where did he get that? If you see it, please point it out to me.

    There are so many things wrong with Chait’s piece that I don’t feel like going through all of them. Aside from the fact that Coates was not endorsing the black conservative point of view when he wrote the earlier column on Cosby, but simply pointing out that that posture is not in sympathy with mainstream white political conservatism – how did Chait miss that? – I would say that an overarching problem for Chait is that his language is leading him away from understanding. Abstract language framing the problem is inappropriate to the problem itself – it muddies rather than clarifies. His use of phrases like ‘some overlap’ and ‘mutual exclusivity’ are functionally vague. What do these distinctions mean in the real world of AA experience (or any other experience)? If Chait is saying, as Tony Greco has it, that “..structure shapes culture, and that culture in turn has consequences..” then he is saying basically nothing.

    What Coates is saying is not very difficult to understand. Black people in the US, especially black men, are assumed to be deficient in virtue.

    • Anthony Greco March 21, 2014 at 10:55 am | #

      People’s circumstances (“structure”) shape their perceptions and behavior (“culture”). People who have experienced poverty, discrimination and limited opportunity over time develop perspectives and behavior that reflect their experience. It would be surprising if those perspectives and behavior weren’t different from those of people who haven’t suffered those kinds of circumstances. And those differences may well help explain why the poor are less successful than their more fortunate fellow citizens. Not fully explain, or mainly explain, but help explain. So, if you want to fight poverty, you need to change the circumstances (the structure) but it may also be helpful to try to change the culture that arose in those circumstances. That’s what Chait is saying. He’s not talking about virtue; he’s not making moral judgments. He’s saying that you can’t dismiss culture entirely.

      The thrust of Coates’s piece, on the other hand, is to deny any role at all for culture in explaining poverty. Robin agrees: “[Coates is] 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.” (emphasis added) I think to deny that culture has any role at all is dogmatic and simplistic. (I might even say obtuse.) It strikes me as a defensive overreaction to reactionaries like Ryan who would claim that culture is mainly the problem, and would use that pretext to do nothing (or worse) about structure.

      • Erstwhile Anthropologist March 21, 2014 at 12:22 pm | #

        Corey, would love to hear your response to the comment above.

        Additionally, with all this talk of ‘culture’, I find myself thinking: Where are the anthropologists in this discussion?

        Lastly, an observation: many of the behaviors been referred to (though intimated here, not so much explicated) as ‘poor Black (inner city)’ culture are also very much hallmarks of US culture writ large: materialism, individualism, consumerism. Also behaviors like drug use and extra-marital sex. It is often an issue of degree not kind, and different consequences for similar behaviors (e.g. teen pot use). There is a lot of speaking of ‘culture’ as neatly-bounded and discrete, but many of the behaviors that are marked as ‘what those poor Black people do’ are behaviors plenty of other (White) Americans are also engaged in, even if with different consequences (especially for being perceived and interpreted differently because of race/class/gender position).

      • jonnybutter March 21, 2014 at 1:24 pm | #

        Sorry I was particularly inarticulate before.

        This is, I think, a key sentence (from Prof. Robin): “Coates has been….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.”

        The key word is ‘rooted’. I would be amazed if Coates or anyone else would deny that bad cultural features create problems, including bad behaviour. That observation is what a philosopher would say is true but ‘trivially’ so.

        But what is at the root of AA poverty? Could it be hundreds of years of discrimination and persistent, shall we say prejudging of AAs, especially black men?

      • Fact Checker March 21, 2014 at 9:16 pm | #

        Explaining black poverty is easy.

        When slavery was abolished, blacks were given “nothing but freedom” (as the famous phrase puts it).

        Ever since the abolition of poverty, every generation of blacks has been less poor than the previous generation. Blacks have a culture of escaping poverty, little by little, generation by generation.

        Blacks started out “behind,” as slaves, and have been continuously “catching up” in every generation since slavery. Even now they continue to make gains relative to the white population.

        Any view of black poverty that does not begin with the reality of a black culture of poverty escape, is simply not grounded in the facts.


        Note: this isn’t true for whites. Whites have had basically the same poverty rate for the last two centuries (it goes up and down, but not nearly as much as the black poverty rate goes down and down and down).

        Of course, we know the reason: it’s because blacks started out with much more poverty, and they are gradually approaching equality. All of this right-wing garbage, that starts from the premise that blacks are trapped in poverty, is simply wrong on the facts.

  9. Lynea March 21, 2014 at 3:49 pm | #

    When you are African American in this country, you have to go out of your way to buttress yourself against the cultural assumptions and projections that come from the people around you (regardless of their ethnicity, as we all internalize cultural messaging to some degree). As a result, when a black person walks into the room, *everyone* in the room has to contend with the cultural vapors – like wafts of smoke – that cloud people’s visions and perceptions before the black person even has the chance to be seen. During those cloudy moments, innocent black men are shot by anxious police officers, well-heeled black shoppers are followed and at times harassed by shopkeepers, and black students learn at a very early age that, if they are not careful, people will think they are stupid and/or incompetent.

    I’m a Yale educated, mixed race (African-American & Latina) woman born and raised middle- or perhaps upper-middle class (depends on how you assess it) in Connecticut. I am not from the ghetto, and I do not come from a culture of poverty. However, I do have to make efforts at times (that my caucasian counterparts rarely think about) to move other people past their assumptions and their cloudy vision to see me as I am, not as the “black woman” they have been trained to expect. If I did not have the confidence, education, and social training (which is primarily the result of my socio-economic status growing up) to diplomatically and skillfully clear people’s visions without fighting or upsetting anyone, I know that my own thought processes could hold me back or sabotage my ambitions and expectations in life.

    I am not particularly neurotic when it comes to race, yet I understand how myself and nearly all (if not all) African Americans have to contend psychologically with negative and detrimental thought processes — “Maybe they’re right, and I really am stupid? Maybe I really am just an affirmative action baby? Maybe I shouldn’t go there or join that club or take that class because there are no black people there? Maybe they hate black people? Is that person assuming I’m an idiot? But I really am smart, right?” I didn’t create these thoughts as a child; my parents didn’t teach me to live with the heightened awareness that I would be perceived (for my entire life and regardless of my accomplishments) as somehow “less than” others who are white and do and behave in the same ways I do. These memes/mentalities are not Black cultural ideas or inner city ideas, they are ideas created by the American culture that has, deeply embedded within it, the messages from a history of systemic racism that affects us all – from how we feel to what we believe to how we interact with people of different skin colors.

    To fix the problem, the American culture of racist thinking has to be changed, because no human being (we are empathetic and social creatures, are we not?) can ward off the depth and consistency of the messaging in this country around who black people are and who they are not. And, the problem only gets worse for those who have little education, little money, high exposure to violence and trauma, and overtly predatory financial and criminal justice frameworks built around their communities and perhaps, as a result, may begin to believe, internalize, and self-destructively (though understandably) react to all the BS they have been told.

    • Erstwhile Anthropologist March 22, 2014 at 9:07 am | #

      Thank you so much for writing this. I am also a Yale-educated Black woman from CT born to middle-class parents. What you wrote deeply resonated, especially as I am dark-skinned and treated terribly as a result, because of the extent to which people stereotype me and constantly assume me to be things I am not, looking right past my dress, education, speech patterns because they are solely focused on my being Black (and with short natural hair I am seen as ‘unfeminine’ and ‘masculine’ and ‘threatening’, especially since I am also dark-skinned).

      I just don’t think many people want to reckon honestly with the discrimination and implicit bias you’re writing about, and so long as this is true the focus on ‘culture of poverty’ arguments will continue. People like Paul Ryan are never going to have empathy for an experience of the world they will never inhabit: and they know they will never inhabit it and are happy about this social fact, and we just need to be more honest about it. Arguments like Ryan’s aren’t about understanding poverty and inequality, they’re about justifying it so they can continue to benefit from the status quo.

  10. BrianO March 22, 2014 at 1:27 am | #

    Just before reading this I read a review of two Ayn Rand biographies by none other than Jonathan Chait. In it Chait describes the obsessive belief of the political Right that there is an intimate connection between virtue and income, and that luck or personal circumstance have no connection to this. Chait should have re-read his own article before replying to Coates.

  11. Heliopause March 22, 2014 at 6:49 pm | #

    “Additionally, with all this talk of ‘culture’, I find myself thinking: Where are the anthropologists in this discussion?”

    Been wondering that myself. Not just in this thread but in the larger discussion generally virtually no one has been using the term as anthropologists do (or at least the way I learned it) in the technical sense. For instance, the notion that Wall Street bankers and poor people living a few miles away are from different cultures is a little bizarre to me.

  12. Robin Marie March 26, 2014 at 7:17 pm | #

    “This idea used to be the exclusive preserve of the right; a milder version of it has since migrated to the liberal left.”

    This is not quite right. Lefty liberals & plain old liberals actually originated the concept of a culture of poverty. Of course, they thought its logic lead to the responsibility of the government to do more, not less, to address poverty in the ghettos. But the idea that a self-defeating culture had been created which operated at least somewhat independently of structural factors started out as a liberal and even leftist project, from the anthropologist Oscar Lewis, to Michael Harrington’s use of the idea in The Other America, to the more simplistic and conservative employment by Moynihan. Let’s not let the original popularizers of this theme off the hook just because conservatives like Charles Murray and Edward Banfield went on to push their logics to their most brutal conclusions.

    • Erstwhile Anthropologist March 27, 2014 at 2:00 pm | #

      Bravo, thanks for pointing out the Oscar Lewis connection which I was alluding to and was at the root of my questioning where the anthropologists are in this debate. My query was as much about indicting anthropologists for falling silent on largely public debates about race/racism/anti-Blackness and structural inequality in the US as it was questioning how the concept of ‘culture’ is being used by non-anthropologists. Your point about divorcing poverty from structural causes and instead attributing it to a self-defeating ‘culture of poverty’ is spot on. In both cases, from the political left and the right, it is about a fundamental lack of empathy for the reality of poverty versus abstractions of it. Easy to talk about ‘those people’ without being more honest about the biases one has (rooted in the same structural inequalities which produce poverty) that allow for racialized us/them binaries.

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