Reports: “The Culture of Poverty Myth and Anti-Blackness in the 21st Century”

by Emma Brandt (Northwestern University)

On February 17, 2021, the Sociology of Culture Section of the American Sociological Association held the second virtual event of the Culture and Contemporary Life Talk Series, which explores the pressing social issues of our time through a cultural lens. The topic of the event was “The Culture of Poverty Myth and Anti-Blackness in the 21st Century.” The panelists were Jean Beaman (University of California, Santa Barbara), Monica Bell (Law & Sociology at Yale University), and Alford A. Young Jr. (University of Michigan) with moderator Jordanna Matlon (American University). The discussion focused on how the culture of poverty myth intersects with contemporary anti-Blackness and new challenges/approaches to thinking through anti-Blackness and the culture of poverty myth.

Jordanna Matlon began by asking the panelists, Why are we here? Why do we keep having this conversation? Why do we keep coming back both in popular discourse and an academic discourse, to this idea of the culture of poverty, the culture of poverty thesis on blackness in America?

MB pointed to its roots, namely in the justification for and creation of institutions of enslavement, imperialism, and settler colonialism. Historically, there have been two major justifications of racialization: biology and culture. She identified Sociology’s eugenic origins as complicit in the development of biological analyses and implicated the American ideas of individualism and inattention to structural dynamics as furthering cultural explanations for inequality. 

JB concurred and added two points, the first being that Black struggle against oppression today is antithetical to a general understanding (in the US and globally) of forward racial progress compared to the conditions of previous generations. She also spoke to the lack of acknowledgement of heterogeneity of Black life as partly why tired tropes like the culture of poverty persist.

AAYJ said that there is still tremendous social distance between African Americans and everybody else. In addition to the macro dynamics, these problems endure because there is not as much toleration of difference as there should be, despite the appearance of connection that modern technology affords.

JM asked AAYJ to explain the historical and theoretical origins of the culture of poverty.

AAYJ noted that at the end of slavery, two cultural perspectives emerged to regulate Black bodies. The first was that Black people were lazy and had to be compelled to work. The second, 50 years later, came from the rise of large-scale riots responding to the frustrating pace of the Civil Rights Movement, which led to a narrative of Black Americans as energetic, hostile, and threatening. Thus, two seemingly contradictory narratives came together to further the culture of poverty logic.

Next, JM asked panelists to speak to the role institutions play in producing and perpetuating Black poverty.

MB responded that institutions serve the purpose of protecting status quo distributions of power and wealth and must do material as well as cultural/ideological work to construct how people view the world. She has shown this in her scholarship on neighborhoods and policing by looking at the symbolic violence enacted by institutions. She pointed out that ways of moving about the world are withheld not just through the material work that institutions do, but also through lenses that shape boundaries and belonging.

AAYJ highlighted that while institutions such as schools, workplaces, social service agencies, etc. are often seen as disparate across the discipline, it is important to think about how the same patterns of regulation, surveillance, and disqualification from access to these formal institutions speak to a larger issue of what’s at stake.

JB returned to the question of agency and the importance of seeing the ways that Black people have responded to structural problems they face.

JM asked JB to speak to her research on France and a comparative framework for understanding the culture of poverty.

JB explained that in France, difference is framed as cultural and not racial, and the conversation about French identity, though not explicitly stated, has been undergirded by certain racial and ethnic underpinnings. Culture does a lot of work to flatten representations, literally and figuratively, of what France is and who French people can be. As a result, minorities in France are continually excluded and marginalized because they are not seen as white and not seen as French, even if they see themselves that way.

JM followed up by asking how we can use insights from France to nuance the conversation on American anti-Blackness and the culture of poverty thesis.

JB said that France can give us insight into the cultural language and code words being used to discuss racial difference and locate Black Americans as outside of mainstream America. 

JM asked in what ways the US context can nuance the French conversation on race. 

JB noted that it’s a tricky question because of the French perception of US conversations about race. There is fear within the French academy of American ideas like critical race theory encroaching on their institutions. What has been revealed, she said, is the ineffectiveness of colorblind frameworks. 

MB added that it is important to think outside the US context, as we have often relied on an Americanist concept of what racial justice looks like. It is important to understand the macro-structural processes and how they cut across many different groups of Black people across the globe and create additional racial categories. Cultural sociologists work to understand the reproduction of those cultural and historical dynamics, how they are continually reinforced, and their impacts. Agency is important to consider as well, but anti-Blackness is structural. 

AAYJ added that anti-Blackness is an important term because it rejects the reduction of race to only explicit acts of racism. They are important as well, but the point of anti-Blackness is to illuminate what happens in the presence and absence of Black people, which broadens our understanding of the meaning behind race.

JM asked AAYJ to speak about intersectionality, one of the important innovations of this scholarship. 

AAYJ spoke to how intersectionality opens up important ways of broadening the conversation by enabling us to think more deeply and creatively about the diversity of not only African Americans as people, but also the discourses around anti-Blackness, other perspectives that have to do with the study of the experiences of Black folks, and the consequences of how they live their lives. He noted the importance of Black feminist thought in his own scholarship, and although Sociology is still relatively new to intersectional work, he called it an inherently important project to pursue.

On the topic of intersectionality, MB noted the important role of anti-Blackness in queer spaces. She discussed how the theory rejects an assumption of shared experience with structures and power. It is crucial not just as a theory, but also in the ways we conduct ourselves as scholars and interpret our findings.

JB agreed with the other panelists and added that another way to consider intersectionality is the ways our interlocutors identify with us and make similarities and differences between their own social locations and our own experiences.

Returning to the culture of poverty myth, MB noted that it is effective at justifying a lack of full racial progress, the continued oppression, and the wealth disparities, and it keeps us from seeing the legacies of structural dynamics.

JM asked JB to discuss her thoughts on culture versus structure, and if there is a better way to think about these dynamics.

JB spoke to the importance of engaging with other subfields to have these conversations and thinking across traditional boundaries.

AAYJ added that we need to think carefully about how we are interweaving our empirical and analytical work. Structure endures in our imagination, practical reality. We need to think about this more deeply and more thoroughly given that we accept that the cultural terrain and social terrain are always in play in our empirical work.

MB added that culture is not an autonomous structure and that it is important to be context specific. To mobilize a culture of poverty myth to justify racial injustice and operate in an anti-Black way is to sync up with a particular political project that is hardly neutral or apolitical.

JM took two questions from the audience. The first is that the culture of poverty narrative seems to have scared emerging scholars from studying culture, so how do we overcome that? Second, how do the panelists personally approach studying culture given its racist history? Relatedly, how has sociology of culture helped or hurt thinking around the culture of poverty myth?

MB responded that she tries to situate any conversation about meaning making and culture within a structural narrative. Decontextualizing can lead to inaccurate understandings of claims, so as cultural sociologists, we need to attend to culture.

In her work, JB said she pays attention to cultural meanings that people are making but also the broader structural context, for example French Republicanism, which makes discussions of race and ethnicity illegitimate and illegible. There are ways in which people are talking about race and racism outside of explicitly using those terms.

AAYJ spoke to being explicit about embracing a cultural conversation that already indicts many Black folks, because the politics do not disappear by just simply going about the work. He pointed to respectability politics as a failed effort to intervene on culture.

MB added that respectability politics has been intrinsically bound up with our efforts to make institutional change. It is a special case of a culture of poverty logic that influences how we advocate in a structural context as well as structural outcomes.

JB raised the notion of the deserving and undeserving within the comparative context, particularly as respectability relates to narratives of national societal belonging.