Culturalism of the 'Culture of Poverty' Discourse (was Re: Question concerning race and class)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Fri Jul 3 01:02:40 PDT 1998

Wojtek wrote on lbo-talk:
>To summarize, my main problem with cryining 'racism' is the culruralist and
>psychological connotations it evokes. If racism means only economic
>exploitation then fighting racism is synnymous with fighting capitalism.
>However, racism is a very poorly defined concept. It has a host of other
>cultutralist and psychologiocal connotations that tend to to obscure the
>economic inequality. And I think that because of those connotations, the
>ruling class and its agents, like Clinton, use racism as a stock phrase.
>It is precisely because they hope to direct public iattention toward those
>culturalist and psychological aspects while obscuring the systemic roots of
>poverty in this country.
>On the top of it, there is a host of moral entrepreneurs, symbol
>manipulators, academics, reverends, politicians, literary critics etc. who
>see it as an opportunity to either sell their cultural commodity or to
>spring themsleves to leadership positions. They might not be conscious
>collaborators, but their talk about 'racism' dove-tails with the ruling
>class efforts of blaming the psychological phenomena instead of blaming the
>Paraphrasing Marx: religion, culture and pop-psychology are the opiates of
>the people. They distract our attention away from the material world, and
>stymie social change.

And Wojtek also wrote (in a thread very similar to the one he started here), in an exchange with Steve Rosenthal on PSN (Progressive Sociologists Network):

>>[Steve Rosenthal]
>>The "culture of poverty" is a racist and anti-working class concept.
>>It does not cease to be racist because it is also applied to white
>>workers. The Bell Curve didn't cease to be a racist book because
>>Murray and Herrnstein asserted that a large population of poor
>>whites are genetically and culturally inferior to rich whites. It
>>is a victim-blaming one-sided view of poor people. According to the
>>culture of poverty theory, poor people perpetuate their own poverty
>>through their own values and behavior and are therefore unable to
>>take advantage of opportunities to get out of poverty that society
>>makes available to them.
>I do not think that the culture of poverty argument is inherently racist,
>the fact that some used to defend racist policies notwithstanding. Would
>you claim that Marxism is a totalitarian or imperialist ideology, because
>it was used by Soviet leaders to prop up their totalitarian and imperial
>I think wee need to recognize human agency and micro-structural social
>forces acting independently of the global forces of capitalism. The fact
>that a worker is exploited by a capiotalist does not mean that he is
>incapable of exploitation of, say, his wife. That is, the fact that
>someone is oppressed or explited does not mean that he or she is exonerated
>of all wrongdoing on his/her part.
>In fact, the culture of poverty argument can be used to explain how
>exploitation can lead to adaptation to- rather than changing the status
>quo. Crime, drug addition, exploitation of women are ways of coping with
>poverty rather than changing. I may add that exonerating those petty thugs
>as 'victims of oppression' - perhaps a pc thing to do for limousine
>liberals -- is an insult to the working poor expolited not just by the
>forces of capitalism, but by the parasitic elements in their own
>communities - pimps, druggies, dealers, thieves, fencers, hooligans,
>vandals, etc.
>BTW, Michael Burawoy in his _Manufacturing Consent_ describes how the
>working class culture helps the workers to adapt to- and cope with-
>capitalist exploitation. That argument is structurally identical to the
>"culture of poverty" - yet it does not draw any ire for alleged "blaming
>the victims." I see double standards her that tell me that some criticisms
>of the culture of poverty arguments may be disingenuous.

Wojtek's argument that the term racism tends to have 'culturalist and psychological connotations' and therefore diverts attention from the economic is a curious one, not only because anti-racism of the Left should take on institutional + structural aspects of social relations + ideology (irreducible to, though not exclusive of, a matter of culture and psychology on the individual level), but also because, when it suits him, Wojtek doesn't seem to have much problem with culturalism, as is attested by his endorsement of the 'Culture of Poverty' discourse. At the very least, Wojtek had better be consistent in his own theoretical framework.


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