Revisiting the “Culture of Poverty”

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We do have role models but if we spend all our time studying the deviants, the abnormal, the devastated, the destroyed, the destitute, the desecrated, then we’ll end up with the image of a destitute, desecrated, destroyed image of the black man. If we want to know how to survive, let’s look at the images of those who did survive.–Dr. Na’im Akbar

The article by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times a little over a week ago entitled the “Culture of Poverty Makes a Comeback” forced me to pause and examine why this school of thought has currency.  Conservatives are strong proponents of this social theory, which distills various unflattering hypotheses regarding the cycle of poverty and the poor.  The theory advances the proposition that the poor have embraced a particular system of mores (pathological) which perpetuate the cycle of poverty.  Implicit in this theory is the belief that the poor are beyond helping and government programs and policies geared to ameliorate the ravages of poverty are useless.

In the article, Harvard Sociologist Ralph J. Sampson attempts to illustrate the pathology of the poor by advancing the “broken window theory.”  He described his research study, which involved walking in various neighborhoods in the summer months in Chicago and dropping stamped addressed envelopes to see if the lost letters would be mailed.  His premise is that the poor have no sense of community as mailing the letters would display a positive community culture.

Where he chooses to drop the addressed stamped envelopes to see if they would be returned reminds me of the book by Joyce A. Ladner entitled “The Death of White Sociology”.  I will connect Dr. Ladner’s book to the discussion shortly.
Dr. Sampson drops the stamped envelopes on Grand Boulevard where the Robert Taylor Homes Housing Project were and in affluent communities.

Having lived in Chicago and being familiar with this area (Robert Taylor Homes), the lack of mailboxes or a post office in this neighborhood would pretty much guarantee that the letters would not get mailed.  Prof. Sampson gleans from the fact the letters were not mailed that the community’s cultural norms are deficient, moral cynicism is pervasive and disorder is common place.

Prof. Sampson does not discuss whether the communities had the same number of mailboxes or if they had a post office near the old Robert Taylor Homes.  Personally, his study would have more credibility if he had discussed this aspect of his research.

Subsequently, studies like Professor Sampson’s fuel bureaucrats and conservatives who believe that minorities cannot learn; they are lazy and are criminally prone.  As a result of these types of studies, bureaucrats justify their policies which refuse money from the federal government to direct toward educational programs such as Headstart.  These same bureaucrats turn a deaf ear to the disproportionate incarceration of minorities, the high unemployment rate of minorities, and the achievement gap and other social indicators which describe the health of minority communities. Their mantra is that they have thrown billions of dollars to help these minority communities and they still lag too far behind to help.

Given that the ‘culture of poverty’ social theory has made a comeback, it is time for “the death of white sociology” movement to make a comeback to combat studies such as Professor Sampson’s.  As Lerone Bennett points out in the book “The Death of White Sociology”, “It is necessary for us to develop a new frame of reference which transcends the limits of white concepts”.  Moreover,  Bennett underscores the inimical impact of allowing the reality of the poor to be conceptualized by a small minority of white men in Europe and North America.

Ladner ascribes the distortion of African American culture to white sociologists like Professor Sampson.   These negative conceptualizations of blacks have been passed down through history by white sociologists.  Furthermore, when white sociologists such as Professor Sampson study African Americans they study us through the lens of us being disorganized, pathological, and an aberrant group.  Ladner contends “The myths of cultural deprivation, innate inferiority, social disadvantagement, and pathology characterize the writings of many sociologists up to our present time”.  Professor Sampson continues the legacy of white sociology.

We need a serious discussion which does not always define African Americans as perpetrators and creators of social pathology and not its victims according to Ladner. Consequently, white sociologists are affected by the historical roots of psychology and the book “Even the Rat Was White: A Historical View of Psychology” reinforces Ladner’s call as to why white sociology must not have a rebirth.

Byron E. Price is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University and the author of Merchandizing Prisoners: Who Really Pays for Prison Privatization?

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