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Culture of Poverty

In response to:

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

To the Editors:

When Professor Christopher Lasch suggests in his article that Italian immigrants advanced themselves by creating the Mafia, he indulges in the same sloppy analysis he accuses the writers of Black Power of doing. Mr. Lasch writes about the Italian immigrant ghetto in which I and many non-Mafia types were born. He asserts we advanced ourselves not as individuals, but through group consciousness. From there, he latches on to that ever useful chestnut: the Mafia.

Of course, crimes were high in the ghetto. The poor commit them, not college professors. But most of the Italians lived in terror of the criminal element as Negroes do now. And of course, some Italians acting in concert tried to use politics as an instrument of pressure. But many other Italians considered them trying to get something for nothing.

As studies indicate, a preponderant number of the immigrants made sacrifices of present consumption to capitalize their children. The effort had no support from liberals nor an anti-poverty program. The Italians who succeeded built on their Italian qualities. They individuated successfully not by trying to bury themselves in the Anglo-Saxon mass, but by capitalizing on their own individualities.

This is the fundamental lesson for the Negro. Mr. Lasch’s choice of analogy is excellent. His use of it is appallingly bad. He raises a question as to his capacity for scholarly restraint and precision.

J.A. Raffaele

Professor of Economics

Drexel Institute of Technology

Philadelphia, Pa.

Christopher Lasch replies:

Oscar Lewis was not making a “value judgment,” and his statement that “the poverty of culture is one of the crucial aspects of the culture of poverty” has nothing in common with the cliché that Negroes are “culturally deprived”—the “standard view” which Gitlin rightly objects to, but which he confuses with Lewis’s view. When teachers in ghetto schools say that black children are “deprived,” “disadvantaged,” and “unteachable.” they do show a “cultural smugness”—or better, a cultural aphasia—which makes them unable to talk to the children or to listen to what the children are saying. The schoolmarm’s view of “culture” assumes that poems, for instance, should conform to certain rigid standards of grammar, meter, and sentiment. Thus a poem about “The Junkies,” as Herbert Kohl notes, is dismissed as “the ramblings of a disturbed girl,” whereas the same teacher praises “Shop with Mom” for its “pleasant and healthy thought.” Similarly with music: some people can’t hear jazz, blues, gospel, or “soul” because it doesn’t live up to their arbitrary expectations of what “good music” should sound like.

These are “value judgments” with a vengeance. But Lewis was trying to understand the culture of poverty, not in the narrow sense of the term culture, but as a design for living. (In his letter, Gitlin confuses the two meanings of “culture.”) And what Lewis discovered in the Puerto Rican ghettos applies—urban blues notwithstanding—to the black ghettos as well: “the low aspiration level helps to reduce frustration, [and] the legitimization of short-range hedonism makes possible spontaneity and enjoyment,” but “there is a great deal of pathos, suffering and emptiness among those who live in the culture of poverty. It does not provide much support or long range satisfaction and its encouragement of mistrust tends to magnify helplessness and isolation.” To cite a book on the urban blues in refutation of these conclusions misses the point. The question is not whether Negro music provides a “rich” record of suffering, the question is whether the ghetto subculture gives much support to its members. It is precisely because the chief characteristics of the ghetto culture are despair and self-hatred that black nationalism has arisen as a radical cultural therapy for the ghetto.

There was nothing in my article which suggested that American society did not weigh oppressively on the ghetto; but to attribute black nationalism to the “weight of the rest of the society” deprives us of any way of understanding why black nationalism arose in the ghetto and not in the rural South, where white society also “weighs” on black people.

Yes, self-defense has become a necessity, though too often it does present itself as a radical program for social change. Yes, the war prevents reform, and as long as it continues, the simplest black demands “begin to transcend simple reformism.” But none of these facts sheds any light on the question of whether Black Power represents a workably strategy.

Putting a stop to murder cannot wait on theory.” But in fact self-defense has already come to be informed by a theory—a theory which, translated into practice, will not only not put a stop to murder but may result in more black murders than ever. The theory, as stated by Stokely Carmichael in a speech in Oakland last February 17, is that “they” are “getting ready to commit genocide against us”—“they” meaning “the white race.” In the San Francisco Express Times for Feb. 29, Marvin Garson explains clearly what is wrong with the theory that “the major enemy,” in Carmichael’s words, “is the honky and his institutions of racism,” and I should like to quote his article at some length.

I think it is a simple, obvious fact [Garson writes] that some white people are preparing genocide against black people and some aren’t…. The great majority of white people are not yet spoken for…. A black power movement that identifies “the white man” in general as its enemy will thereby throw the political battle to the forces of genocide.

Suppose, for instance, that Carmichael’s proposal to do “maximum damage in their community” [a proposal, incidentally, which goes beyond “self-defense”] gets translated into black terror raids against white neighborhoods. That can mean only one thing: white vigilante committees will form and exercise unchallenged political leadership in white communities. White radicals will be completely disarmed politically. There will be nothing for them to do but sit in their houses—with shotguns in their laps for use against anyone who tries breaking down the door, no matter what historic burden of guilt or innocence he brings with him.

In other words, if you insist that “the white man” in general is your enemy, and if you act on that assumption, you will thereby make it true.

Gitlin will probably object that while Carmichael may indulge in rhetorical exaggeration, he understands perfectly well the distinction between the white race and white racism. But the point is that this kind of distinction is very difficult to make within the framework of the Black Power ideology, which is almost irresistibly drawn toward a purely racial analysis of society. (It is interesting to note that in the same speech Carmichael insists that “socialism is not an ideology fitted for black people, period. Period.”) Thus the same nationalist ideology which may be necessary to restore the self-respect of the ghetto community tends at the same time toward a politics which may bring about the very disasters it is intended to forestall.

As for Mr. Raffaele’s “fundamental lesson for the Negro,” black people have been trying for a long time to do just what he urges them to do; but the apparent futility of their individual efforts suggests the need to reexamine the whole history of ethnic groups in America. Recent studies do not seem to bear out Mr. Raffaele’s assertion that “immigrants made sacrifices of present consumption to capitalize their children.” One of the interesting conclusions to emerge from Stefan Thernstrom’s study of Irish workers in Newburyport, Massachusetts, is that the Irish often achieved “property mobility” at the expense of their children, or at least at the expense of “the forms of mobility which required education.” Since there are not yet any comparably thorough studies of Italian immigrants, it would be foolish to dismiss out of hand the possibility that similar patterns of mobility may be discovered in their experience, or the more general possibility that we have been led badly astray, all along the line, by the myth of American individualism.

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