Jonathan Chait is back, Barack Obama vs the Culture of Poverty. It is the fourth article in the debate that he is having with Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I discussed last weekend, White Power and Black Oppression. It discusses the reasons that blacks are doing relatively poorly in our economy. Chait claims that it the history of oppression causing cultural dysfunction in the black community. Coates argues that we shouldn’t be discussing culture and that the issue is nothing but the abuse of white power. Coates is getting the better of the argument.
In Chait’s most recent article, he cedes a lot of ground without admitting it. As usual when one is trying to lose an argument gracefully, he’s splitting hairs. And that’s fine. The truth is that his position is really not that far from Coates’. But he keeps coming back to this idea that Obama ought to be a cheerleader for “Team Negro.” He writes, “I believe Obama can speak to the African-American community as an African-American without any wider cultural damage…” I have a real problem with this.
Let’s go back to Obama’s infamous “Popeyes Chicken” speech. During the 2008 campaign, Obama was speaking to a mostly black audience in Texas. He used the opportunity to chastise the audience about their child rearing. In particular, he said that they shouldn’t feed their kids junk food. “You can’t do that,” Obama said. “Children have to have proper nutrition. That affects also how they study, how they learn in school.” But here’s the thing: the audience cheered. I think that indicates that the African Americans in that audience did not raise their children on Popeyes Chicken. Racism works on the oppressed as much as it works on the oppressor. They were all imagining a stereotype that, like most stereotypes, had only the thinnest relationship to reality.
When Obama gave that speech, he was feeding the bigots. He wasn’t helping the black community. He was harming it by reinforcing negative stereotypes. When I lived in Richmond, there was a Popeyes right on the edge of town. And it was not terribly busy. I assume that’s because, just like for nice middle class whites, getting fast food is a treat—something that is done now and then. Now that I live in a nice white suburb, I can tell you: there are way more fast food joints than there were in Richmond.
There are cultural problems in the black community. There are cultural problems in the white community. But somehow, we only ever think that cultural problems are what hold back the black community. This is especially ironic since black communities don’t have 200+ years of accumulated capital. We have a screwed up political environment where Republicans are allowed to be racist just as long as they don’t use the n-word. But Democrats are forced to show that they aren’t beholden to the black community by lecturing it on good nutrition. That skewed framing is symbolic of what is holding back the black community.