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How to Talk About Culture Without Fueling Racism
Group differences, culture, and subcultures
HOW TO TALK ABOUT CULTURE WITHOUT FUELING RACISM
Group differences, culture, and subcultures
In this essay, I argue on behalf of three claims. First, despite efforts by some progressives to suppress discussion about it, culture is an important variable in understanding group differences. Second, caution must be observed in arguments from culture, because such arguments can be used to negatively stereotype groups. Third, when we discuss the role of culture in group differences, we should disaggregate culture into distinct subcultures, which is both more precise and less likely to foment bigotry.
Stifling the discussion of culture
A prominent feature of progressive ideology is suppression of discussion of the role culture plays in generating disparities among groups. According to today’s dogma, every unfavorable disparity must be a function of a “system,” i.e., imposed from the outside by powerful forces. In this view, rampant gun violence in inner city Chicago can only be attributed to systemic racism, not to any aspect of the culture of the “Wild Hundreds” of Chicago’s South Side. The same goes for disparity among countries. Post-colonialist ideology ascribes the problems of struggling nations to historic colonial rule and the remnant of such rule that supposedly continues to hold down nations or regions. Never mind that certain former colonized Asian countries, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, have thrived in the post-colonial era.
In 1997, Jared Diamond came out with a highly acclaimed account of civilizational differences in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Diamond argued that differences in power and technology among societies originate in differences in the physical environments from which those societies emerged. But Diamond’s book years later became problematic in the eyes of post-colonialists. For example, Kathleen Lowrey, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, asserted in a widely shared and quoted article that the book “poisonously whispers: mope about colonialism, slavery, capitalism, racism, and predatory neo-imperialism all you want, but these were/are nobody’s fault. This is a wicked cop-out. Worse still, it is a profound insult to all non-Western cultures/societies. It basically says they’re sorta pathetic, but that bless their hearts, they couldn’t/can’t help it.” Lowrey and her fellow travelers simply cannot countenance any explanation of differences among nations apart from colonialism and thus accuse proponents of Diamond’s theory of propagating a toxic canard.
Wokeness is the domestic version of post-colonial ideology in that it seeks to establish a monopoly on acceptable explanations of why some American groups do better economically than others. Like post-colonialism, it insists that the sole acceptable reason for disparity is that the powerful oppress the powerless. This monopoly on acceptable explanations is maintained by calling “racist” anyone who argues culture plays a part or even suggests that it could be more complicated than “the system is the culprit.” For example, anti-racist guru Ibram X. Kendi states that “one either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist.”
In March of this year, I watched a Zoom presentation by administrators from my son’s school system in the midst of its “anti-racism audit.” John Landesman, Executive Director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives for Montgomery County Public Schools, stated, “I just wanted to add this quote from one of our colleagues, Dr. Damien Harris…: ‘students with backgrounds similar to mine remain at the bottom of most of the good categories and the top four of most of the bad categories. We either need to believe that there is something inherently wrong with our students and their families to put them in this situation, generation after generation, or there is something wrong with our system that recreates this demographic hierarchy.’” Landesman continued, “The folks on my staff, we believe the latter.” Who would want to be seen as not believing in the latter?
Why culture must play a role
Speaking about the role of culture does not, in fact, mean that there is “something inherently wrong” with demographic groups that have, on average, lower academic achievement. It can also mean that there are economic factors at work or cultural traits among a segment of the group that work against the best interests or upward mobility of group members. Such traits should not be treated as immutable characteristics, as implied in Dr. Harris’ statement. They can be and often are overcome. Just as individuals change, groups do as well, especially those previously held in check by discrimination. Cultural analysis can also be brought to bear to understand the problems in certain racialized white subcultures with rampant social problems such as opioid addiction and high suicide rates. Insisting that structure alone is the root cause of social problems makes addressing such problems much more difficult, as we may fail to home in on a primary cause. It does no one any favors, for example, to assign the entirety of blame for certain problems prevalent among black Americans to present-day systemic racism when relatively lower numbers of two parent households could well be a more salient factor.
Moreover, the prohibition on cultural explanations must be counterintuitive to nearly everyone. I imagine that even the most ardent progressive ideologue would, if he or she took a truth serum, admit to the “cultural influence” thesis. People around the world live differently, view the world differently, speak differently, approach life and work differently, experienced history differently, and think differently about gender and sex. Does none of this boundless variation have any bearing on why certain societies are richer and poorer or why certain groups within a given society are more or less successful?
Joseph Henrich, a professor in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, argues that human beings have two lines of inheritance, one genetic and the other cultural. In the genetic line, we can only inherit traits from our parents, but in the cultural line we can inherit traits from anyone. Absolutely everything humans do, Henrich argues, is governed by culture, which is in effect a biological adaptation for acquiring the skills we need to navigate the world. Given the ubiquity of culture and culture’s responsibility for human adaptive success, the argument against cultural influences on disparity is absurd on the face of it.
Furthermore, some progressives treat all culture except that of the dominant group as irrelevant. Structure cannot explain the behavior of the dominant class because the dominant class is on top of the food chain. The only other explanation for how the dominant class behaves is culture. These progressives think it’s perfectly legitimate and even imperative to criticize the culture of the dominant class. It’s fine, for example, to rail against “white supremacy culture,” “white fragility,” “rape culture,” and “toxic masculinity”—the machismo culture of cis-men. How can culture not be a factor at all for marginalized groups but be the sole factor for dominant groups? Are they really saying that when structure comes into play, culture goes away?
It’s also fallacious to insist that one aspect of a group is fully determined by structural factors while another is not. If structure really is an all-encompassing force, shouldn’t it explain the vitality of the black community in addition to the problems? As Thomas Burgess wrote in Quillette, “if whiteness is responsible for black vices, isn’t it also responsible for black virtues? Wouldn’t all culture be its creation, and not just the undesirable parts? This is the logical conclusion of this kind of thinking, and it is what happens when you cede omnipotence to the oppressor. When you create a puppet master, you create puppets missing some of the most basic attributes of being human.”
Lastly, if differential outcomes among groups were really solely dictated by, say, racism and white supremacy, and culture had nothing to do with it, one would expect whites to be on top of society on all key metrics. But they are not. Why do so many non-white groups substantially outperform whites? One would think that in a white supremacist society whites would be allotted such advantages as higher average incomes and higher levels of educational achievement than other groups. However, whites are on average not faring as well as numerous non-white populations. In addition, some African immigrant groups, such as Nigerians, are doing quite well in the US. Wouldn’t a white supremacist system subjugate African immigrants, too?
The dangers of cultural arguments
Notwithstanding the explanatory power of culture, there is a reason arguments from culture have come under fire—they have often been expressed in overly broad terms that unfairly portray all members of disadvantaged groups poorly, such as when African Americans are portrayed as inherently dysfunctional and violent. It doesn’t have to be this way: there are less inflammatory, more precise, and more thoughtful ways to think about and express the role of culture in generating disparity.
Unfortunately, that’s not how cultural analysis originally took shape. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then Assistant Secretary of Labor under President Lyndon Johnson and later a US Senator from New York, issued a highly controversial report, “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action,” commonly known as the “Moynihan Report.” Moynihan argued that the rise in black single-mother families was caused not by a lack of jobs, but by a destructive streak in ghetto culture, which could be traced to slavery and Jim Crow era discrimination. The report concluded that the structure of family life in the black community constituted a “tangle of pathology...capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world,” and that “at the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family. It is the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community at the present time.” Moynihan later wrote, "The work began in the most orthodox setting, the US Department of Labor, to establish at some level of statistical conciseness what 'everyone knew': that economic conditions determine social conditions. Whereupon, it turned out that what everyone knew was evidently not so."
Moynihan correctly pointed to the salience of culture in explaining the perpetuation of social problems but was overly broad in attributing such disfunction to “Negro society.” To this day, the Moynihan Report is regarded (unfairly) by many progressives as a racist venture.
The rightwing (and highly bombastic) political commentator Dinesh D’Souza made similar pronouncements 30 years later in his 1995 book, The End of Racism:
The last few decades have witnessed nothing less than a breakdown of civilization within the African American community. This breakdown is characterized by extremely high rates of criminal activity, by the normalization of illegitimacy, by the predominance of single-parent families, by high levels of addiction to alcohol and drugs, by a parasitic reliance on government provision, by a hostility to academic achievement, and by a scarcity of independent enterprise.
Both Moynihan and D’Souza treat the idea of “black culture” as a monolith; others have been even less charitable in their assertions. Discussion of cultural arguments in the wrong hands can indeed be exceedingly insensitive and even demeaning. They can be weaponized into ugly canards, e.g., “blacks don’t value education.” Unfortunately, in the current restrictive discourse on culture, too often the only people with the temerity to say anything out loud about culture are witless boors. Speaking a partial truth in a demeaning manner does not advance understanding. Such chauvinism also emboldens progressives, some of whom genuinely want to protect vulnerable people from unfair attacks and mean-spirited stereotyping. It turns out that when moderates and liberals fail to make thoughtfully stated cultural arguments, they cede the floor to both bigots and progressive ideologues. And in abandoning the discussion, they leave only one factor standing in the public discourse: systemic racism. But there is a better approach.
Disaggregating Culture 1: The case of the extravagant Bar Mitzvah Party
Analysis of culture need not be so shrill and can be quite nuanced if the notion of culture itself is carefully parsed and disaggregated. I’ll start with an example of disaggregating cultural analysis that hits close to home for me, an American Jew. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was not uncommon, particularly in the New York and Los Angeles areas, to hear about highly extravagant, six-figure Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations. Every now and then we’d hear that a certain wealthy family spent one hundred and fifty thousand dollars to bring such and such rockstars to perform at the party. These gaudy events bore little resemblance to the rite-of-passage religious ceremonies Jews have been conducting for thousands of years.
My friend, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, was the first to write a book about it in 1992, Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah, which described how the bar or bat mitzvah party frequently got out of hand and eclipsed the spiritual significance of the ceremony. In the 2006 comedy film “Keeping Up with the Steins,” the protagonist, 13-year-old Benjamin Fielder, resisted his parent’s plans to go all out for his bar mitzvah party and rent Dodger Stadium, complete with movie stars. Benjamin sought deeper meaning and his parents eventually relented. After he rose to the occasion at the bar mitzvah ceremony, Benjamin’s family held a casual party in the backyard with lunch, a klezmer band, and family and friends.
It would be easy to draw a sweeping inference from such cultural commentary on the lavish bar mitzvah, one that might even reinforce a common antisemitic canard that American Jewish culture had become obsessed with wealth, shallow and devoid of meaning. Yet having grown up in the more modest Columbus, Ohio and attended more bar mitzvah celebrations than I can count, I never once experienced such glaring opulence. I don’t recall laying eyes on an ice swan until my mid-twenties when I attended an over-the-top Jewish wedding on Long Island, New York. Most of my Jewish friends from midwestern communities would say the same and many Jews living in coastal areas frowned on such lavish affairs. In other words, the wildly extravagant bar mitzvah was not an expression of “Jewish culture” writ large, but of a particular subculture of Jews, mostly residing in specific parts of the country, who used their children’s ceremonies to signal their wealth and social status. That’s a much more circumscribed critique than taking aim at the excesses of “Jewish culture.”
Disaggregating Culture 2: A thought experiment on black and white drug addicts
One evening this summer, I was having dinner with my wife on the outdoor patio of a restaurant. There in the adjacent parking lot were three white people who appeared to be extremely high—probably meth, I thought—acting out and calling each other expletives. One, a man with unkempt long brown hair and tattoos covering the whole left side of his face, began loudly ranting at a similarly tattooed woman, who appeared to be just as high as he was. A third looked too stoned to even talk and on the verge of passing out. I drew no inferences about “white culture” from the scene.
A few minutes later, I walked into the restaurant and saw a racially diverse set of diners—white, black, brown—having dinner with their families. It suddenly dawned on me: if the three people outside the restaurant had been black and I had witnessed a similar unsightly spectacle, I might have indeed generalized. What inferences might I have drawn about a dysfunctional “black culture” on display? And if, after having taken notice of the scene outside, I then entered the restaurant and saw black middle-class diners eating with their families, would I have noticed that the “black culture” I had witnessed outside the restaurant looked nothing like the “black culture” I had seen inside the restaurant? Don’t the black families eating at the restaurant also reflect “black culture”? Even if I had taken note of the contrasting indoor and outdoor cultural expressions and checked a potentially unfair inference, would others have done the same?
To be sure, drawing inferences about “black culture” but not “white culture” constitutes a form of implicit bias. But the same progressive who would be quick to charge implicit bias might then make a common but unwarranted conceptual leap and assert that it is racist to say that culture has anything to do with the social problems on display outside the restaurant. But that’s also clearly wrong. The white people I witnessed outside the restaurant very likely came from a slice of white culture with rampant drug use, low educational achievement, and alienation from the wider society, as witnessed by their facial tattoos. Their behavior did not represent all “white culture,” which varies widely. It probably doesn’t even represent that of many of the people in the neighborhoods from which they came or even in their own families, but it certainly reflects a specific subculture that anyone paying attention has observed. Labeling the culture “white” or “black” unfairly characterizes most white and black people who behave entirely differently and do not in fact share those cultural traits.
Disaggregating Culture 3: Is there such a thing as “black violence”?
In recent years, there have been numerous cases of racialized black men in Brooklyn physically assaulting orthodox Jews and Asians/Asian Americans. Very often, much to the frustration of some members of the victim’s community, the media coverage has left out the racial identity of the assailant. The exasperated members of the victim’s community often whisper to each other: “If the person committing the crime had been white, the news media would have eagerly identified his race.” And, of course, they’d have a point. Notwithstanding the double standard, the contention here is that there is something about the assailant’s race or culture—“black culture”—that compelled the violent behavior toward orthodox Jews and Asians. Is that contention correct? It’s complicated.
The county next to mine, Prince George’s County, Maryland, is home to one of the largest middle-class black communities in America. Sixty percent of the nearly one million people in the County are black and four percent are Asian/Asian American. As far as I can tell, there has not been a single case in which a black person attacked an Asian/Asian American person in the county. In other words, there is nothing about the “black culture” of Prince George’s County that compels black men to beat up Asians or Asian Americans.
One day this past June, I happened to be sitting on a bench at a park in Chinatown in Manhattan, waiting for my nearby hotel room to become available, and witnessed the makings of a race riot. A seemingly deranged Chinese man started shouting racial epithets at a group of black youth playing basketball. The young black men started screaming anti-Chinese epithets back at him. The two parties started throwing cans and bottles at each other. It could have gotten even uglier but the black young men wisely walked away. This is the pressure cooker of New York City, where various ethnic communities are packed into the same neighborhoods. I could sit at a park bench for a hundred years in almost any other city in America and not witness such a spectacle. Tensions bubbling just beneath the surface on both sides nearly spilled out into violence.
Does this anecdote indicate that the violence from black men against orthodox Jews and Asians/Asian Americans has nothing to do with their racialization as black or with “black culture?” No. It likely means that there is a subculture in parts of New York whose traits include resentment toward Asians/Asian Americans and orthodox Jews. A small percentage of the black people who share in this subculture and thus share these traits—often but not always mentally ill—act out violently. The violence does emerge from a distinct cultural context—the assailants aren’t, for example, Nepalese immigrants—but it’s just far too crude and imprecise to label it “black culture” writ large. We should thus move away from phrases like “black violence” and “black crime,” which cast long shadows, and instead use language such as “violence among young men in certain sharply defined neighborhoods” not to obfuscate, as some suggest, but to clarify what we mean. We thus locate the predilection to hate and commit violence against Asians/Asian Americans and Jews to specific subcultures within the black community, and not to every black person, everywhere.
Rethinking the cultural variable
The extensive writings of Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson shed light on how to speak about the role of culture in a thoughtful and precise manner. Patterson explains that “people immediately become suspicious (of cultural analysis) and it goes back to the issues in the '60s, almost certainly the name Moynihan comes up, culture of poverty comes up, and for a long time culture was simply removed” from the discourse. “You mentioned culture and power together, people look at you and there's a kind of knee-jerk response,” Patterson stated.
Patterson’s work complicates the picture. He argues that “black urban neighborhoods cultivate a variety of sociocultural configurations offering individuals a range of options for dealing with their own neighborhoods.” In his view, “the problem arises not from the plurality of configurations…, but rather from the destructive reign of violence from one of them—the sociocultural configuration of a minority that has captured the streets of the inner cities and spread what has been called a ‘culture of terror’ on their neighborhoods.” He goes on to argue that “the emphasis [on this subgroup] is justified because although they constitute, on average, no more than a quarter of the population of inner cities,…their behavior creates a state of siege for all others who live in the ghetto.”
He characterizes this subgroup as (1) possessing a strong identification with the “hood” for identity and meaning; (2) engaging in violence to protect territory; (3) exhibiting “hegemonic masculinity;” (4) emphasizing respect; (5) rejecting mainstream educational values; (6) embracing (paradoxically) the mainstream value of individualism; (7) identifying with a threatening version of blackness or the “thug life.” In other words, Patterson situates the social maladies that afflict some African American communities within a very specific subculture. Even majority-black neighborhoods that experience high crime include middle- and working-class people, and active church goers, and are predominantly composed of people who display few if any of the seven cultural proclivities listed above. In contrast to the Moynihan Report and decades of inaccurate public discourse that followed it, Patterson doesn’t claim these problems are an expression of a pervasive “black culture.” Speaking of culture and subculture in this more precise manner also makes intractable problems more soluble because we gain a better sense of where the problem lies.
Culture is simply too big a factor in causing and hence in explaining disparity—and the costs of misdiagnosing social problems are too high—for society to give into progressive admonitions to abandon cultural analysis. We should be aware, however, that such analysis, deployed carelessly and without sufficient regard for the consequences, can reinforce crude stereotypes. In order to speak precisely and thoughtfully about the role of culture in disparity, we need to wean ourselves off the habit of mind that sees race and culture as unitary when the two should, in fact, be disaggregated. No single culture is attributable to any populous, geographically diffuse group of people. Rather, there are multiple, overlapping cultures and subcultures at once part of and distinct from a whole. It’s time to adopt this more nuanced approach.
A passionate advocate of the free expression of ideas, David L. Bernstein is founder of both the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values and the Institute for Liberal Values, of which Free Black Thought is a proud member. He is past President and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and former executive director of the David Project. His book, Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews, is forthcoming from Post Hill Press this month. Follow him on Twitter.