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White America Is Oblivious to the Truth About Black Poverty

A recent debate between Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehisi Coates reveals the misconceptions that rule America's understanding of race and poverty.

There’s been a fascinating debate over the past few weeks between Ta-Nehisi Coates from the Atlantic and New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait regarding the  language President Obama employs in addressing African-American communities. Obama’s been  criticized by Coates and other supporters for using rhetoric that reinforces the belief shared by many on the right, that personal initiative and hard work is sufficient to overcome the obstacles confronting many young black men despite the continued existence of institutional racism in education, employment, healthcare, criminal justice and civic participation (to name a few). 

Chait replied with, “I agree that racial discrimination persists, but I don’t believe this fact abnegates the possibility that a culture of poverty exists as well.” Chait believes President  Obama is uniquely suited to speak to black people about changing self-destructive behavior:

But Coates is committing a fallacy by assuming that Obama’s exhortations to the black community amount to a belief that personal responsibility accounts for a major share of the blame. A person worries about the things that he can control. ….Obama’s habit of speaking about this issue primarily to black audiences is Obama seizing upon his role as the most famous and admired African American in the world to urge positive habits and behavior.

In the most recent volley of exchanges, Chait takes Coates to task for ascribing views to him he does not hold. The column is titled:  Ta-Nehisi Coates Disagrees With ‘Jonathan Chait,’ and So Do I. Chait states clearly he does not equate black culture with a "culture of poverty" as do Bill O’Reilly and many on the right, but he does see a link between persistent poverty and culture.

So let me explain what I do think. The culture of poverty is not solely or even primarily a black problem. It is a problem arising from concentrated poverty, and — as a result of both historic and ongoing racism — concentrated poverty disproportionately afflicts African-American communities. Obama understands that he commands prestige that can make him an inspirational figure in say, poor black neighborhoods in Chicago that he lacks in, say, poor white towns in West Virginia. As I’ve said, I understand Coates’ practical objections to this tactic.

The reaction I’ve seen online to this debate suggests a lot of readers on both sides investing a great deal of broader meanings into it — identity, authenticity, yet another endless iteration of the meta question of How We Talk About Race. I have no interest in playing a role in that drama. What interests me is a real and vital public-policy debate over the relationship between culture and poverty.

In Chait’s view, understanding the relationship between culture and poverty is essential to developing effective anti-poverty programs. He seems to view Coates' negation of this relationship as an example of aggressive misreading of his intentions and that of other white liberals rooted in racial hostility. Ultimately, he complains Coates negates the steady progress of U.S. race relations and the steady improvement in conditions and circumstances for the majority of African Americans.

Coates and I disagree about racial progress in America. Coates sees the Americas’ racial history as a story of continuity of white supremacy. I see the sequence (I’d call it a progression, but that term would load the argument in my favor) that began with chattel slavery and has led to the Obama administration as a story of halting, painful, non-continuous, but clear improvement. Coates associates himself with a quote from Malcolm X: “You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches, and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.”

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