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