Black Underclass: The Rehashed myth of the “culture of poverty”

By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.

I usually joke about my communist upbringings in Cuba and how you can take a girl out of the island, but not the island out of the girl. But something I do owe to a Marxist education is a, perhaps at times quasi-religious, belief in the unmitigated and unassailable power of structure to condition our lives. Certainly, it does not determine our lives – in particular, at the singular, individual level – but it establishes the conditions in which those lives are lived to a degree that is hard to dismiss.

Yes, people overcome challenges, but there is a clear and not coincidental reason why large groups of people subjected to the same historical conditions live in very similar ways. The “cultural” explanation for the condition of the wretched is very comfortable for those whose ancestors created those conditions and they are still deriving benefits from them.

Stephen Steinberg just published in Racism Review a two-part critique of the newly re-hashed “culture of poverty” argument that is a must read.

The problem is less with the questions asked than with the ones left unexamined. The editors and authors are careful to bracket their inquiries with appropriate obeisance to the ultimate grounding of culture in social structure. But their research objectives, methodology, data collection, and analysis are all riveted on the role of culture. Is obeisance enough? If the cultural practices under examination are merely links in a chain of causation, and are ultimately rooted in poverty and joblessness, why are these not the object of inquiry? Why aren’t we talking about the calamity of another generation of black youth who, excluded from job markets, are left to languish on the margins, until they cross the line of legality and are swept up by the criminal justice system and consigned to unconscionable years in prison where, at last, they find work, for less than a dollar an hour, if paid at all? Upon release they are “marked men,” frequently unable to find employment or to assume such quotidian roles as those of husband or father.

Read it, you won’t be disappointed.


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