Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Race is How Class is Lived...Some More Reflections on Structures, Individual Agency, and the Undeserving Poor

The joys of discussing poverty, public policy, and baby daddy baby mama drama. Why not bring Dr. William Julius Wilson right into the fold to make a heady intervention? Oh the wonders of tricknology and these Internets.

As we were beginning to develop in our earlier conversation, the poverty puzzle is hard to untangle. Is poverty a function of personal responsibility (or the lack thereof), structural inequality, or some combination of the two? Because Americans do not have a class consciousness in the same way that Europeans or others do (Americans like to think of themselves as uniformly middle class be they earning 1 million a year or 10,000 dollars) it is hard to even begin to talk about the relationship between structures, politics, and individual outcomes.

When one adds the moral scripts of the "deserving vs. the undeserving poor," the waters get muddied even more as political ideology and cultural explanations inevitably trump a deep analysis of political economy and social structures.

In my commitment as a Black pragmatist to individual agency and a belief in the capacity of folks to make decisions--and to be held accountable for their outcomes--I can explain why many young sisters choose to be DNA receptacles for the semi-jobless bums and cornerboys who bring nothing to the table but "pretty eyes" and "swagga" (and other reasons including local social prestige; peer pressure; limited life chances and truncated opportunity structures; and the sickening "I wanted someone to love"). However, I can still beat my head on the ground in frustration as I try to puzzle out why so many would make poor decision making a modus operandi.

Class is the modality in which race is lived in America. The following questions logically follow. Are many black folks poor because they are black? Or are they black because they are poor?

This is a classic conundrum, one that is more difficult to resolve than how it appears initially.

The history is deep here folks:


Vesuvian Woman said...

Allow me to admit: You are a great debater. The breakdown (in my opinion) lies in the abundance of possibility. No fewer than five hundreds years contribute to the current state of the nation and the citizens held therein.

There are infinite roads leading to the present. The most relevant theories (from my humble perspective) are derived from ego and education.

Pride can mask a multitude of sins. There is a point reached by the individual where one decides to continually learn from one's environment OR to continually affect one's environment.

Hazardous OR Prosperous the outcome? All is dependent on the collective nature of intent of the
participating parties.

Apples don't win against oranges; or vice versa. There is no contest. Forcing a contest breeds hostility.

Furthermore, let us take a moment to consider decision making and the constructs of effective critical thinking...

A degree (regardless of the discipline required) does not a well-rounded human being make. However, the last fifty years of capitalism in America offer extreme resistance to such blatant truth.

In closing, someone was fully aware of the long-term effects in actively directing the country into capitalism. Making more money was deemed a prioritized relevance greater than making better people.

CareyCarey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hank Nasty said...

As a 29 year-old black man I think the onus falls primarily on individuals. While I do believe there are legacies of structural racism present today, I believe their influence has waned to the point where they can no longer decide one's fate.

Daniel Goldberg said...

The questions you ask here and in the older post are of course all the right ones, not to mention the most difficult ones. But I gotta admit that I'm not much of a fan of methodological individualism; I absolutely share Foucault's suspicion of the iron cage of modernity. You're of course right that agency is highly important, and people can make better and worse decisions. But the power of socialization and larger structural injustices suggest that while we might well hope that any given Tom or Harriet make better choices, thinking about things in the aggregate suggests there is less reason to expect the oppressed community in aggregate to rise above the powerful clustering effects of social disadvantages and oppression.

So how do we parse it all out? I dunno. I do think one has to be careful of the false choice fallacy here. We really don't need to choose between evaluating individual decisions on the basis of human agency and urging radical reform of the deleterious social and economic conditions (including racism, obv.) that work to distribute suffering so inequitably in American society. They are both important, but we might well disagree on the relative priority of each. We want to work to encourage both, but to which aim should we as a society devote more resources? (I'm a public policy guy, so I tend to think in such frameworks).

Given the powerful clustering of disadvantage, my policy priority would definitely be ameliorating the upstream factors that seem to determine risk factors and behaviors that undermine social capital, diminish health, and increase suffering. Besides which, unfortunately, we have good evidence that interventions targeted at changing individual behavior simply are not very effective, itself a fact that highlights the power of structural factors.

(JMO, of course).

Thrasher said...

I think the very questions offered up by CD are a reflection of his socialization which BTW has also influenced and impacted me as well..

The very idea that we must pose these questions for Black folks leaves me pause...

I argue that the creation of this reality for Black folks has nothing to do with our role in this equation..For Black Americans we simply are a reactionary collective in America our architectural role in the design of America has been limited...

Knowing this reality allows me to define a paradigm to proceed accordingly..I think Daniel's post is reflective of some of my views on these kinds of questions..

More importantly when I wake up everyday I love me and my persona which I have created in the place we call America given it's historical and present day contempt for Black folks like me..

The tool I have always used to combat this truth about being Black in a place like America is my ATTITUDE ..This is mine and it has allowed me to defeat, reject, handle, toloerate , navigate around the centuries of America's contempt for me and my people from the poor Black folk to the middle class Black folk to the Upper class Black folk.....Just saying

chaunceydevega said...

@Vesuvian. Always so kind. Not a debate though--for that I am mean and direct--but a conversation. What of the collective nature of the parties involved in the car wreck that is the ghetto underclass? What are their goals? Do they have a long term agenda?

@Hank. Is it a lost cause if said individuals do not see anything wrong with how they live their lives?

@Daniel. You are spot on. But where I get frustrated and vexed is despite all of the myriad structural impediments that stood in the way of black people actualizing their life choices and maximizing life chances we succeeded fabulously. Folks often forget that.

So structures have never been our friend (or of people of color more generally in this society, but I focus on black folks for the sake of parsimony). Within that context how do we make sense of the poor choices that this and more recent previous generations have made so consistently?

@Thrasher. We have to walk like warriors and champions. But how do we teach those lessons of true manhood and womanhood to a wayward generation?

CNu said...

how do we teach those lessons of true manhood and womanhood to a wayward generation?

you don't, it's too late for the lost generations of ni ni's your refer to as "ignants". in the words of agent smith, "lieutenant, your men are already dead...,"

Michael Burkart said...

In his book Working Towards Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Become White. The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs, the historian David Roediger notes that two thirds of white Americans were in poverty in 1940. What changed that? It wasn't saving the meager wages that made in factory work.

I was federal dollars: jobs programs under FDR, the GI bill and the FHA. All programs that excluded black folks.

Oh yeah, in the 1840s there was a definite 'criminal' class in the US - the Irish. On every measure - mental illness, drunkedness, crime, family violence and abandonment - the Irish were represented in percentages that were several times higher than their percentage of the general population. What happened? They got affluent (in the 1940s) thanks to federal programs and moved into the suburbs. Now you no longer see the kind of crime statistics about the Irish you did when they lived in abject poverty.

I remember in the 1980s when the de-indutrilaization first hit small towns in the north. I remember watching NBC reporters expressing such surprise to find crime and drug use in these towns exploding. What they did not say was, "Wow, these folks are doing things that I only thought happened in the ghetto. Of course now the use and manufacture of methamphetamines is exploding across white America. Gotta make some money if there are no jobs.

Finally, the influx of drugs (aided and abetted by the government) did to black ghettos what had never happened before. People had always been poor, but families stuck together. The wonderful thing about drug addiction, is that you steal from your family. How do you come up with a better way to keep folks down for good.

You only have to drive though an Indian reservation to see what the lack of any money can do. They, of course, share something the black ghetto shares. The high incidence of toxic waste. Funny how you don't find that stuff in the white suburbs.

michael -a white guy

Thrasher said...


Super question..I do think we teach these lessons with humility and parity so as to not dehumanize the wounded and fractured and those unknowing..

Yes we did overcome bit was it a stage and more development is required Clearly the ghetto underclass we are musing about are under seige and inflicted with their own pathologies..

Again I offer up the tool of ATTITUDE it does not require any large purchase nor classroom or massive social movement..We can depart this lesson with our youth whenever/wherever..It is an Xfactor often ignored and we never play this hand for fear that it is to simple but this tool of ATTITUDE is a simple genius which can be replicated in any venue..We can't give everyone a pill..Just sayin

CareyCarey said...

Holy Mackerel Andy! I'se regusted!

Excuse my use of my uncle's (really he is my uncle) venacular, but there's a whole lotta shakin' goin' up in here.

But if I had to pin an award on the most insightful comment, my award would go to Vesuvian Woman. In essence, she was saying the root of the problem started many moons ago (gotta get the American Indian in here since somebody mention them :-)

But seriously, racism, class struture, power and control has been around since the beginning of time, and for the most part, nothing has changed. And one size will never fit all.

So, to try to answers the questions implying that the black man and/or "underclass" bares the core, the onus of the guilt/problem, is looking in the wrong place.

Close behind are those that raise the flag "I did it, so why can't they".

When I hear the eloquent rethoric of those black faces on "the good foot" I can't help but wonder if they've really sort first to understand those beneath them? Have they and/or can they somehow wear the shoes of those who fall into this world, out of the wombs of their mothers, blinded and far behind the field?

The questions, and this conversation are deep. So, I am going to defer the rest of my opinion to the words of James Baldwin... "yes, there are exceptions. However, the inequality suffered by many, are no way justified by the rise of a few"

CNu said...

As I said CD..., "lieutenant, your men are already dead."

the planet teems with the fossilized remains of a great many formerly human occupants who paid the ultimate price for ignoring the overarching dictum to ADAPT OR DIE.

everything else is merely self-calming conversation....,

chaunceydevega said...

@Mike. Great book by Roediger and solid comment. It is funny that in these conversations, especially w. white conservatives and pseodopopulists the State is looked at as the enemy of hard working white real Americans and the friend of those poor, undeserving colored folks. The irony is that the State created the White middle class and denied the same opportunities to black GI's. Katznelson's book When Affirmative Action was White is a nice double shot w. Roediger on that point.

@Cnu--May have to cut a deal w. the architect and reboot the system.

@Carey. Be careful. You wrote, "But seriously, racism, class struture, power and control has been around since the beginning of time" Have they? Or are we normalizing, especially w. racism, what are essentially modern constructions?

@Cnu2. Be nice, my ancestors were Neanderthals.

CareyCarey said...

Opps upside my head. Now why did I leave my back door open when great debators are in the house.

Okay Chauncey, I guess I'll have to define a period because I question "modern constructions"?

Lets see, how about we use the great Roman period? Or, the ongoing battle between the Cristians and the Jews?


No racism?

CNu said...

Them dayyum neither/noirs gotta.go, gotta.go, gotta.go....,

Hank Nasty said...

@cdv: I don't know that I'd pronounce it a lost cause. I think people generally know when they are not acting in their own best interests. Unfortunately its not until we have dealt with the negative consequences that we try to correct future behavior.

Somehow we have to remind ourselves to embody the dignity that we have by virtue of being the descendants of most resilient and defiant people who may have ever lived.

Daniel Goldberg said...

CDV, you have really gotten to the heart of the matter. You're of course right about the successes of black Americans, which are quite amazing given the enormity of the injustices and oppression.

In that context, your question is really the key one: how does one make sense of the poor choices amidst the structural factors?

I guess my bias shows through here, not just because I do public policy, but also because I work in a health care setting, one in which blame and stigma on sick and disadvantaged people -- inequalities are a huge problem where I work and live, even by American standards -- is just rampant, every where I turn.

It's depressing -- these are future health care providers I am working with here -- and so I am hypersensitive to anything that remotely comes close to that kind of stigma. (Your pragmatic insistence on holding people accountable, in avoiding the soft bigotry of low expectations is of course a planet away from those who think heath and status are within one's individual power -- witness white privilege here -- and are ignorant of macrosocial factors. But that may explain my sensitivity to even highly reasonable and important efforts to focus on individual agency amidst structural injustice and oppression.

A lot of words just to say "I don't know," but I just love the opportunity to have this discussion. Thanks.

Humans are strange creatures.