Now that it’s not cool anymore to explain the differences between groups based on their ethnicity or race, and it’s not yet cool to think that institutionalized racism might be a fucking thing, people are turning to “culture” to explain why black people are still way poorer than whites, why they’re the most imprisoned, why their academic performance lags behind. The argument goes, white people aren’t responsible for problems in the black community, black people are. They’ve built a culture that values criminality, material goods, sex, drugs, and fun-having more than making grades or holding a decent job or staying out of prison.
This neatly explains all the problems anti-racists claim are indicative of lingering racism (or, very prevalent cloaked racism), and shifts responsibility from whites to blacks. It also avoids the speaker revealing themselves to be racist. It trades on the idea that everyone is equal, with equal ability and potential. But, like most racists’ attempts to co-opt anti-racist rhetoric, it falls hard because of a cynical lack of respect for the concepts.
“Yes, white people enslaved black people for hundreds of years, and yes, there are lingering effects of this in modern America. But culture is a major shaping force. That is where black people live, not in the past where their ancestors were enslaved.”
At first blush, the culture argument has a pretty progressive attitude. As I said, it uses anti-racist language and ideas to look well-meaning, right-minded, and egalitarian. Blacks have the same capacity for success, the same brain chemistry, and so on. It works on the assumption that classical racism (ie, “blacks are inferior”) is factually wrong. The thing is, you’ll often see this argument being used to discredit anti-racist efforts: By trying to be mindful and kind to poor disadvantaged black people, you’re not holding them to the same standard you would whites. The phrase “soft bigotry of low expectations” sometimes comes up in this culture argument, and does a good job of encapsulating the basic sentiment.
“Soft bigotry of low expectations” was a buzz-phrase used by George W. Bush to sell No Child Left Behind. To justify NCLB’s rigorous standards, he said it was racist to not apply them across the board, because, what, do you think black kids can’t do it? The phrase has been adopted as a format for snarky article titles and, more pertinently, as a bolster for the “black culture” argument. What it’s saying is that to be truly anti-racist, you have to treat everyone equally (in this case, meaning no special programs, affirmative action, outreach, etc.) and have the same expectations for everyone. It’s like colorblind racism: shut up about race, stop worrying about race, practice what you preach, and everything will be fine. But both of these positions rely on the pie-in-the-sky notion that blacks and whites are already on equal footing.
A recent study finds that poverty changes how your brain works. Being poor, preoccupied with clawing your way out of poverty, worrying about how you’re going to pay the bills, pay for groceries, pay for things more well-off people take for granted, imparts a 13-point IQ loss. This, say the authors, is equivalent to losing a night’s sleep or being a chronic alcoholic (add this to people who actually are alcoholics, and despair). It leads to a tighter focus on basic needs, impairs decision-making, and hampers the learning process. For people living in low-income areas, it would be unfair to hold them to the same standard. This isn’t to say someone from these areas can’t succeed or excel, but simply to point out that it’s ridiculous to expect them to be as upwardly mobile and successful as people in a better position.
People love to say “It’s about class, not race.” But numbers show that that’s crap, too. Income levels between races are very imbalanced, and household wealth levels are drastically more imbalanced than that. And while people can go ahead and pull out the “ambition and hard work” argument as to why black people have less money, it doesn’t change the results of the study. Poverty is of course only part of the problem. The lasting effects of violence, of broken families, have a similarly devastating effect on the black community.
If whites were in this position, they would be exactly the same. To believe otherwise is racist. And if you wanna do that, then fine, but stop fucking saying you’re not racist. This idea erases imbalances, unfairness, prejudice, and oppression by co-opting anti-racist language. It’s very sneaky racism. It asserts that liberals care so much about caring so much that they end up being racist by treating black people like they can’t manage themselves. And this can be true. But the phrase is meant to discredit attempts to solve the problems. The real problem, they claim, is cultural, and as such, it falls on the black community to fix it, not people who want to help blacks get into college, or into better jobs, or reform the justice system that totally works. It’s not the justice system’s fault it puts so many black men in prison for non-violent offenses, it’s all that God-dang rap music and thug culture poisoning the youth.
The “culture” argument presumes that black people were never oppressed. It’s immediately unviable because it’s so often paired with a whining cry of “slavery ended almost 150 years ago!” and then sometimes they’ll be sufficiently foolish to go so far as to acknowledge Jim Crow and segregation, which happened recently enough that your parents remember it. How is this relevant to the argument that black people are killing themselves with a toxic drug-money-sex-crazed culture? Because culture isn’t just created out of nowhere. It’s a long, long, long reaction to what a group experiences. Race isn’t real in the sense that it has no concrete, objective basis, but African-Americans are a real group and their culture is heavily based upon what they, as a race, have experienced.
So even if this argument about culture was true, if black culture really was the only thing holding them back as a people, it’s still whitey’s fault. Black culture was shaped by history, by the white-run country they live in. By the white government’s War on Drugs, which has helped put 840,000 black men in prison and destroyed nearly as many black families. I mean, I can’t even talk about how black culture was influenced without taking this argument apart.
White people often feel like they’re being judged for their ancestors’ sins, and this persecution complex really speaks volumes to how much people understand but won’t consciously acknowledge. They know slavery and segregation left scars, and they know the way blacks are treated in this country holds them back. But they want to throw off the chains of responsibility and come up with some explanation for black problems that don’t involve whites. In doing so, they demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of what culture is and how it works. They have no idea how culture comes about, what its purpose is. Or, perhaps more likely, they never gave up on racism. They say black culture is the problem because they aren’t allowed to say black people themselves are the problem. People who make this argument have a choice: either they’re a racist, or a total idiot (really, it’s both).
The black community has every right to demand more from itself. Every community has this right and should exercise it. What’s REALLY NOT OKAY is for white fuckers to scold blacks for not pulling themselves up fast enough. It’s not okay for outsiders to wring their hands over black kids liking shoes and gold and whatever when they’ve been brought up in a society that, above EVERYTHING else, wants us to buy shit. It’s wrong in every sense of the word to blame black culture for the problems they face.