When Culture Becomes a Structural Force

When a certain vein of the culture wars opens up–the one where people discuss what is wrong with Black America (usually while excluding Black America from said discussion)–the discussion inevitably falls back to the battle between culturalist and structuralist positions. To caricature, the culturalist position blames cultural phenomena within the Black community, while the structuralist position focuses on economic and legal impediments to equality.

But what if culture is, in fact, a structural phenomenon? Kelefa Sanneh (boldface mine):

In our political debates, as in cultural sociology, it can take some time for the stories to catch up to the statistics, especially because it takes a while to decipher what the statistics are saying… In the aftermath, as some other commentators talked about America’s legacy of racism, Patterson dissented. In a Slate interview, he said, “I am not in favor of a national conversation on race.” He said that most white people in America had come to accept racial equality, but added that “there’s a hard core of about twenty per cent which still remains thoroughly racist.” The startling implication is that, even now, blacks in America live alongside an equal number of “thoroughly racist” whites. If this is true, it may explain the tragic sensibility that haunts Patterson’s avowedly optimistic approach to race in America. He contends that black culture can and must change while conceding, less loudly, that “thoroughly racist” whites are likely to remain stubbornly the same.

There is a paradox at the heart of cultural sociology, which both seeks to explain behavior in broad, categorical terms and promises to respect its subjects’ autonomy and intelligence. The results can be deflating, as the researchers find that their subjects are not stupid or crazy or heroic or transcendent—their cultural traditions just don’t seem peculiar enough to answer the questions that motivate the research. Black cultural sociology has always been a project of comparison: the idea is not simply to understand black culture but to understand how it differs from white culture, as part of the broader push to reduce racial disparities that have changed surprisingly little since Du Bois’s time. Fifty years after Moynihan’s report, it’s easy to understand why he was concerned. Even so, it’s getting easier, too, to sympathize with his detractors, who couldn’t understand why he thought new trends might explain old problems. If we want to learn more about black culture, we should study it. But, if we seek to answer the question of racial inequality in America, black culture won’t tell us what we want to know.

I think once you include prejudiced people (i.e., not stone cold bigots) that number is greater than twenty percent. Regardless, when there is at least one white bigot for every African-American, this must be viewed as a structural problem. In this (which is to say, our current) regime, it is difficult, if not impossible, for an African-American to be treated equally before the law. It is difficult, if not impossible, for an African-American to have the same economic opportunities, from jobs to housing. It is difficult, if not impossible, for an African-American to have access to equal healthcare, clean air and water.

White culture–or at least a pathological section of it–becomes, for Black America, an immovable object that must be circumnavigated, a structural force as powerful as any statistical inequality.

To put this another way, we never seem to get around to discussing the pathologies in white culture that lead to racial inequality.

Odd, that.

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2 Responses to When Culture Becomes a Structural Force

  1. Min says:

    While the distinction between the undeserving poor, such as the Welfare Queen, who do not deserve our help, and the deserving, hard-working poor, who do not need much help, if any, goes back centuries in Anglo-Saxon culture, in the US it is tinged with racist attitudes and stereotypes going back to slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. Race provides the excuse for regarding certain people as inherently inferior.

  2. Tom Amitai says:

    I heard an interview with D.T. Wright, whose father was one of the white sheriff’s deputies depicted in the movie Selma. He claimed his father wasn’t a racist, he was just trying to keep the peace. He also claimed the woman portrayed by Oprah, Annie Lee Cooper, had started the violence by punching Sheriff James G. Clark. The biggest evidence of his cluelessness came near the end of the interview, when he said that he had grown up in poor rural circumstances “just like the blacks did” and he did alright, so they just needed to “get over it” and work hard like he did. Guess what career he “worked hard” to get? He became a lawman, just like his daddy! I’m sure he didn’t get ANY preferential treatment! 😉

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