• Email
  • Print

Culture of Poverty

In response to:

A Special Supplement: The Trouble with Black Power from the February 29, 1968 issue

To the Editors:

Christopher Lasch raised some good questions about the Black Power slogan, [“The Trouble with Black Power,” February 29] but too many of his main assertions are ungrounded, and there is too much he leaves out. The analysis he calls for cannot begin where he leaves off.

(1) He cites approvingly Oscar Lewis’s view that “the culture of poverty is a relatively thin culture,” and applies it to urban blacks. This is the standard view everywhere from the war on poverty to the sociology departments, though I think Lewis would be the first to grant that it is a value judgment and not a statement of anthropological fact. And implicit within this judgment is a cultural smugness which Lasch does not even examine. When did he last listen to Otis Redding, B.B. King, the Impressions, etc. etc.? Must academicians go on ignoring the work done by Charles Keil (Urban Blues, U. of Chicago Press, 1966), and others in showing the richness of the ghetto culture? (On the other hand, social scientists seem more interested in poking around the statistics of fatherlessness—and Lasch does not cite Oscar Lewis’s strictures against Moynihan—than in coming to grips with a real culture. An important exception is David Wellman’s “Putting-On the Poverty Program,” forthcoming in Trans-Action).

(2) In digging for the roots of black nationalism, Lasch skips over the political context. While nationalism has its own dynamic and in times like these may take on a life of its own, it is also a function of the racism of the outside, white world. When the main institutions are not prepared—are the opposite of prepared—to treat Negroes equally or to share public resources equitably, nationalism of one sort or another is inescapable: at least in the interim. Allan Spear (Black Chicago, U. of Chicago Press, 1967) traces the rise of nationalism in Chicago, in the first decades of this century, to the walls erected by white Chicago during the first great waves of migration from the South, but Lasch goes on treating the present black mood as if the ghettos did not feel the weight of the rest of the society.

(3) He is absolutely right in asking whether the great corporations actually need the ghettos, but his question is still miscast. What is at issue is not the abstract need, but the practical political possibility of classical liberal reform. And this is in turn opaque without an understanding of the militarization of the economy and the turn from an already feeble reform impulse to better-equipped police. Lasch does not even mention the war as a factor affecting the likelihood of the most modest reforms. As the mechanisms of political control turn to brute force, the simplest black demands begin to transcend simple reformism. I.e., they cannot be achieved through “normal” channels.

(4) Of course self-defense is not a program for radical change: it shouldn’t pretend to be. But it has become a matter of necessity. Since Lasch wrote, three black students were massacred and dozens wounded in an attempt to desegregate a bowling alley in Orangeburg, S.C. (no turn to black power, let alone violence, this); the police have run amok in Nashville, San Francisco-Oakland, Philadelphia, and God knows where else; Bobby Seale, head of the Oakland Black Panther Party, and his wife, were arrested Feb. 26 in liberal Berkeley, their home ransacked (of course without search warrant), and they were charged, among other things, with “conspiracy to murder”—someone unnamed (“for his own protection,” said the Asst. D.A., throwing out an interesting new legal concept). No one watching the mood of the urban cops or their technological preparation for this summer’s pacification has the right to dispute armed self-defense (however self-defeating it may turn out to be) without proposing another defense. Putting a stop to murder cannot wait on theory.

Todd Gitlin

Carmel, California

  • Email
  • Print