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 sneaky 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.
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 tonotapply 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, little dear, 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 beunfairto 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 toexpectthem to be as upwardly mobile and successful as people in a better position.
This entire article is pretty perfect so far. [emphasis mine]