Beyond Culture vs. Structure

It has been impossible to ignore the shouting match that has taken place over the past couple years between Michael Eric Dyson and Bill Cosby, but their debate - which many others have weighed in on - is part of a much longer dialogue regarding class divisions among black people living in the United States. On the one hand, the black "elite" and middle class have complained that poor black folks need to hold up their end of the bargain (read: y'all are making us good negros look bad); while, on the other, poor and working class blacks have insisted that Du Bois' so-called "talented tenth" have willingly left the rest of the race behind in exchange for their share of the American dream (read: y'all do the same stuff we do, but money covers a multitude of sins). This debate is also closely tied to a similar academic conversation regarding whether the issue of poverty (often linked to a history of racism) is best addressed through structural (read: social policy change) or cultural (read: behavioral change) interventions. This debate has gone on just as long and has been equally rife with shouting matches where one side labels the other as victim blamers (cultural) and hand-out givers (structural).

Cornel West's classic 1993 text Race Matters straddled this debate - holding culture and structure in tension - and much scholarship and social criticism has since moved in this direction. The following article by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. - whose recent work on race and genetics has been the subject of much heated debate on issues of both race and class - seems to capture some of the complexities and contradictions of each of these conversations while highlighting the reality of an increasing class divide that exists not only with Black America (Gates' focus), but in the United States, generally, and between the so-called "first" and developing worlds more broadly. Discussions of DNA aside, the issue of CLASS certainly deserves a deeper dialogue that moves beyond the perceived mutually exclusive categories of culture and structure....

Op-Ed Contributor

Forty Acres and a Gap in Wealth


Published: November 18, 2007

Cambridge, Mass.

LAST week, the Pew Research Center published the astonishing finding that 37 percent of African-Americans polled felt that “blacks today can no longer be thought of as a single race” because of a widening class divide. From Frederick Douglass to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps the most fundamental assumption in the history of the black community has been that Americans of African descent, the descendants of the slaves, either because of shared culture or shared oppression, constitute “a mighty race,” as Marcus Garvey often put it.

“By a ratio of 2 to 1,” the report says, “blacks say that the values of poor and middle-class blacks have grown more dissimilar over the past decade. In contrast, most blacks say that the values of blacks and whites have grown more alike.”

The message here is that it is time to examine the differences between black families on either side of the divide for clues about how to address an increasingly entrenched inequality. We can’t afford to wait any longer to address the causes of persistent poverty among most black families.

This class divide was predicted long ago, and nobody wanted to listen. At a conference marking the 40th anniversary of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous report on the problems of the black family, I asked the conservative scholar James Q. Wilson and the liberal scholar William Julius Wilson if ours was the generation presiding over an irreversible, self-perpetuating class divide within the African-American community.

“I have to believe that this is not the case,” the liberal Wilson responded with willed optimism. “Why go on with this work otherwise?” The conservative Wilson nodded. Yet, no one could imagine how to close the gap.

For the entire article click on the following link to the New York Times