Thursday, August 09, 2007

More sheltered babble about black poverty

So why is there a permanent black underclass in America?

Well, it's kind of an annoying question to ask the ''experts''. If said experts are liberals, they will tell you the problem is economic, and not cultural. If they are conservatives, they will tell you the problem is cultural, and not economic. Then, they will proceed to blame each other. As far as I can tell, this has been going on for decades. It's like the Israeli/Palestinian struggle; but less marked by tolerance.

I recently posted the liberal argument about prisons. (I should have been better at deconstructing it.) Here we have the improbably named Myron Magnet making the conservative argument about the black underclass. In fact, he even says ''I suggested that, though welfare was part of the answer, the real explanation was larger. It was cultural, not economic.'' Again, the conservative explanation is always cultural. To summarize: the pernicious ideas of liberal elites have shaped black culture for the worse, and this prevents blacks from escaping the ghetto. Again, if you ask a liberal, the answer will boil down to ''Those damn conservative racists have kept the black man down.'' And, if you ask a conservative, the answer will boil down to ''Those damn liberals have destroyed black culture.''

Magnet then discusses the Duke rape case, in which a number of frat boys were falsely accused of rape by a District Attorney. A bunch of university admins decided the boys were guilty until proven innocent and acted like real douche bags. According to Magnet, this reveals the underlying worldview of ''professors''. Since I'm actually fond of professors, I'm going to parse this section.

Follow closely- ''We have to question our culturally created assumptions to clear away attitudinizing or propaganda or superstitious prejudice.''
(Right, okay. I agree.)

''But the professors sidestep this challenge, simplifying and flattening these complex truths about culture and consciousness. They reach the false conclusion that all descriptions of society and our nature are not just colored or refracted by our cultural assumptions but are mere propaganda, aimed at convincing others that the world is as our class or subgroup wishes it to be.''
(And which professors would he be talking about here? I mean, I can hear a bit of vulgar Foucault in there, but not much that I would honestly associate with scholars working in the last decade or so.)

''Moreover, since the profs believe that not just the social order but also what we take to be “human nature” is man-made, whoever wins the propaganda battle gets to mold society and human nature—human reality itself—into the shape he chooses.''
(But, of course, the Duke douches didn't think this at all. They thought that the ''human reality'' was very much set in stone and any arguments against their conclusions were mere propaganda. I wouldn't say they entirely refute his argument; but they don't support it either. And, again, who exactly is he citing here? Has he read any academic work lately? Seriously, I think that a manuscript that made this argument today would be shrugged off, if anything.)

''From these assumptions flows academe’s well-known mania for unmasking Western civilization (including its literature and art) as a machine for oppressing the nonwhite, non-rich, and non-male.''
('Well-known' is short for 'I don't plan to cite any examples whatsoever, since we all know what I'm talking about.' Incidentally, he began this paragraph by talking about clearing away our culturally created assumptions. The biggest annoyance of all of this for me is that I'm currently working on a dissertation about nineteenth-century French art and literature which makes almost the opposite argument from the one he's caricaturing here.)

Anyway, then he goes on to talk about the corrupting influence of rap music on the black underclass. This part of his argument completely falls apart if you've ever noticed how popular rap music is with young people of every class and every ethnic group in America. Somehow, upper class white kids are immune to its corrupting influences. And since I suppose Magnet hasn't lived in a lot of poor black neighborhoods, he can be excused for not knowing just how explicitly Christian their cultures tend to be. He makes the point that black kids shouldn't pretend to be gangstas since doing so holds them back. This is probably true; but I'm not sure that the larger culture exactly bends over backwards to help black youths who dress well.

But let's agree that a lot of rap music is dispiriting, to say the least. I've talked here before about how depressing I find the 50 Cent brand, as well as the fact that white, suburban kids seemingly adore rousing songs about murdering black men, and that, thus ''what sells'' is the most dismal, crude, and imaginatively-destitute albums from a genre that can, in fact, be much, much better than this. Let's just agree that a steady diet of lousy gangsta rap, consumed uncritically, probably isn't life-affirming.

I'm going to throw out a radical hypothesis here: Maybe the conservative and liberal explanations of black poverty are both correct. And maybe the reason that they're so easy to poke holes in, in spite of this, is that they are both predicated on the assumption that the other explanation is incorrect. In other words, maybe the problem is that both economics and culture are oppressive influences in poor black communities.

We recently watched the incredible documentary Rize, which details a dance subculture in Los Angeles. I can't recommend the film enough. It opens a window on how art is created as well as how people live at the bottom of the ladder in America. And, to be honest, I think it supports both the liberal and conservative arguments. The film shows the ill-effects of trends that could be roughly called ''cultural''- collapsing family structures, drug abuse, violence, gang-banger culture, and so forth. In fact, the focus of the film is on people who are trying to escape the culture of the ghetto through art. Myron Magnet might not be happy with the music that they dance to; but he would agree with their religious and philosophical beliefs.

But the film also shows the ill effects of grinding poverty. These are people who are, again, living their lives in a Christian and ethical way. And yet we see clearly that working minimum wage jobs in America is akin to wage slavery. Some of us, incidentally, didn't need to learn this from a movie. We see good, honest people who are struggling valiantly to keep their heads above water, and not always succeeding. It's hard to agree that the socioeconomic system is fair when both honest, God-fearing people and gang bangers are equally unable to escape the ghetto- something that every character in the film talks about.

Having worked minimum wage shit jobs in poor neighborhoods where nobody else was hiring, I've seen my share of cultural pathology, and my share of good, honest people who are getting fucked repeatedly by economic pathology. So, to be honest, I agree with both the cultural/conservative and the economic/liberal arguments. And I suspect that were either side actually interested in solving the problems, they would see the wisdom of each other's positions. But, they're not. They're interested, instead, in scoring points against ''conservatives'',''white males'' and ''corporations'', or ''rap music'', ''professors'' and ''liberal elites''.

When you study history, you see an endless chain of ideologies and fanaticisms that have clouded the minds of otherwise intelligent people. This is where Myron Magnet is right, incidentally. But, increasingly, it's hard for me to see contemporary American ''liberalism'' or ''conservatism'' as anything but mutually-dependent fanaticisms. It seems to me that seeing clearly will require transcending both of them, something that I'm not particularly good at. But, maybe it just means seeing where they're right, seeing where they're wrong, and moving on.


Holly said...

Coincidentally? Or because there's been some news in the US about it? Or... it's just that time of year when we think of it? There is a discussion going on in author John Scalzi's Whatever Blog about writing characters with complexion described, or not. And, because of his journalism background, I assume, Scalzi interviews other authors, and the issue of race in literature came up in his recent interview with David Anthony (a historian who writes fantasy fiction). And then there's this follow-up entry addressing some of comments about the subject. His blog has something like 12,000 hits/day, and being an author, blogging about authory things, the comments tend toward (minimally) literate, thinking people and (at best) philosophical and sometimes kind of academic. (And, also, totally puerile, because no one does that better than people who think being smart is sometimes kind of a drag.)

The interesting thing about the follow up post was from a non-white person who identifies white because (she says) that's the dominant culture. Innnnnteresting stuff.

Caveat emptor, of course, it could be a rabbit hole: The man is a prolific author, and he's under some deadlines right now, which means he'll write 10,000 words he shouldn't to avoid writing the 5,000 he is supposed to... (Plus, with 12,000 readers, the comments are frequently extensive. Apparently he reads them all-- that's really mind-blowing to me.)

Rufus said...

Also a recent study showed that nearly half of all the murder victims in the country are black, even though only 13% of the general population is African-American. So the topic seems to be in the air as of late.