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Don’t blame black culture

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Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.

[ THIS OP-ED ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE BALTIMORE SUN ON NOVEMBER 8, 2006. ]

Don’t blame black culture

By Algernon Austin and Jared Bernstein

For decades, scholars and opinion makers have been seduced by cultural explanations for economic problems. Recently, comedian Bill Cosby has caught the bug, leading him to inveigh against aspects of black culture he views as intimately linked to problems among African-Americans, from poverty to crime and incarceration.

Mr. Cosby is merely the latest and most visible in a long chain of cultural critics. Researcher Charles Murray (before turning to genetic explanations) and columnist Thomas Sowell have been making the “bad culture” argument about African-Americans for decades. David Brooks has a long-running column in The New York Times linking culture and economic outcomes.

This work is misguided at best and destructive at worst.

One key to the success of the cultural argument is the omission of inconvenient facts about social and economic trends. For example, people arguing that African-Americans are suffering from a culture of poverty stress that blacks are much more likely to be poor than whites. True, but this fact misses the most important development about black poverty in recent years: its steep decline during the 1990s.

Black poverty fell 10.6 percentage points from 1993 to 2000 (from 33.1 to 22.5 percent) to reach its lowest level on record. Black child poverty fell an unprecedented 10.7 percentage points in five years (from 41.9 percent in 1995 to 31.2 percent in 2000).

The “culture of poverty” argument cannot explain these trends. Poor black people did not develop a “culture of success” in 1993 and then abandon it for a “culture of failure” in 2001.

What really happened was that in the 1990s, the job market finally tightened up to the point where less-advantaged workers had a bit of bargaining clout. The full-employment economy offered all comers opportunities conspicuously absent before or since. Since 2000, black employment rates have fallen much faster, and poverty rates have risen faster, than the average.

What this episode reveals is how we squander our human resources when slack in the economy yields too few decent employment opportunities for those who want to work.

Black poverty is only the most visible example. The “bad black culture” argument also overlooks positive trends in critical areas such as education, crime and teen pregnancy (pregnancy and birth rates among black teenagers are down 40 percent since 1990).

Those same critics are too dismissive of anti-black discrimination in the labor market. Mr. Cosby says black people use charges of discrimination to avoid dealing with their cultural failings. The Manhattan Institute’s John H. McWhorter claims they “spit in the eye of [their] grandparents” when they say their lives are limited by racism. Journalist Juan Williams argues that poor black people are squandering opportunities opened up by the civil rights movement.

Yes, there are far more opportunities available to black Americans today, but the conclusion that racial discrimination is no longer a serious issue is simply not supported by the evidence.

In two recent studies, Princeton University sociologist Devah Pager showed that young black men who have played by the rules and have no criminal record are much less likely to be offered a job than similar white men. In fact, white men with criminal records had an equal or better chance of being hired than did young black men with no record. Contrary to Mr. McWhorter’s assertion, ignoring this racial discrimination is “spitting in the eye” of everyone, black and white, who struggled for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.

Don’t think for a nanosecond that we are satisfied with the progress that’s been made. Even if black poverty remains low in historical terms, having a quarter of blacks in poverty is a national tragedy. But by creating an erroneous causal link between “bad culture” and black poverty, the “Cosby consensus” prevents the country from recognizing success and building on it to create the economic opportunities that are missing for too many African-Americans.

The cultural argument of the Cosby consensus succeeds because conservatives and liberals both tend to exaggerate the cultural differences between white and black Americans. We forget that white and black audiences enjoyed The Cosby Show in the 1980s; that white and black youths listen to rap today; and, most important, that neither white people nor black people like being poor. The record is clear: When economic opportunities are available to black Americans, they take them. When opportunities are scarce, they fall behind, and culture has very little to do with it.

Jared Bernstein is a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Algernon Austin is a sociologist and director of the Thora Institute.

[POSTED TO VIEWPOINTS ON NOVEMBER 8, 2006. ]


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