it’s culture, just not the one you thought

One thing that I’ve noticed in relation to discussions involving race are the comments made by people who assert that the problems that we face with race, and most especially with black people, are due to problems with the black culture. Black families are dysfunctional because they’re incomplete, they say. Blacks don’t succeed because their culture doesn’t promote a lifestyle of success, they say. Our socioeconomic status is what it is because of the ways we raise (or don’t raise) our children. It’s “typical” of us to be violent, uneducated, etc. I’ve seen these talking points so many times online that I could argue them myself. I wonder if they were handed down on high from some grand architect of internet trolling, as if the speechwriter who invented Reagan’s welfare queen was still around when the internet took off, and he convened a bunch of disenfranchished white people with everything to lose in order to give them the script. I encountered one of these guys with a belief in this culture argument the other day. I responded to him roundabout this way:

American culture – pop culture – MAINSTREAM culture – promotes violence to all Americans. Most people who are killed are killed by people who share the same race, because that’s who they live around, and that’s who they come into contact with. An unwed mother is not necessarily parenting alone, and if she is, SHE is there to teach her children right from wrong. Not all functional families are married two parent families.

It is a false narrative that “it’s culture.” That’s a euphemism for, “black people have no one but themselves to blame for their criminality and how police and others treat them.” People say this because it’s easier to believe that than to consider, for example:

  • the entire criminal justice system has flaws,
  • youthful indiscretions are punished harder in black kids,
  • the school to prison pipeline begins in preschool,
  • generational wealth among white people assists them in ways that many black people can’t fathom,
  • school funding formulas that disinvest in predominantly minority schools exacerbates the problem,
  • law enforcement tactics exacerbate the problem,
  • lawmakers are incentivized to make decisions about law enforcement that unnecessarily swell prison populations, separating families, and
  • the rise of the service economy exacerbates the problem of poverty and the underground economy.

Either white voters and taxpayers know these things, but largely don’t care about their fellow neighbors, or they don’t care to listen or believe when these things are explained, since it feels better to believe that their being born to a non-black family was all the virtue they needed, and that their “superior culture” is what kept them out of jail. White mass murder suspects are walked, alive, to custody, but black corpses keep coming up unarmed. “Culture” doesn’t explain that away. Where is the culture argument to explain angry white males who shoot up schools? Or criminal whites both in and out of jail?

The moneyed classes have excelled at this game for centuries. Pit working people of modest means against each other based on race, and they’ll be so busy in that struggle that they’ll have no hope of confronting the American elite for their exploitation of everyone else. Every time some working white guy says the black guy’s problem is “culture,” a rich white man who could buy and sell that white guy ten times over gets his gilded wings.

If we want to blame a culture, let’s blame the one where numerous videos show that police brutality against people of color is happening, but people insist that our complaints are “not backed up by anything.” That’s a culture of willful ignorance. A callous, unfeeling culture.

Many of the people who subscribe to this intellectually lazy point of view believe strongly in their own moral authority, because the privilege they are afforded in a society built for their well being and comfort to the exclusion of others makes them the default “salt of the earth.” They say they respect life, liberty, and country; they lament the lack of values in our society. But they become hypocrites when they blame the ills caused by systemic racism and poverty on the targets of those societal sins. They feel no responsibility for their refusal to meaningfully engage others. They reject any obligation to put themselves in the shoes of the people they believe are inferior¬† They reject opposing points of view. It’s a cancerous, selfish, shameful culture.

Let me be clear, this is not just a problem that racists or conservatives have. Everyone’s ego is stroked when others agree with them. Yet those of us who are people of faith, and secular people of reason are challenged to do better than that – to do right for its own sake. We are supposed to seek justice and the greater good. Without civil cooperation between people who disagree, the race relations problems in this country won’t get better, and that doesn’t just affect the minorities among us. The reckoning of all this conflict and division has consequences for us all. An answer is to turn from a culture that continues to promote and enforce white supremacist thinking. Turn from a culture that makes every disagreement into a zero-sum game. Turn from a culture that makes it acceptable to have no compassion for others who are suffering or in danger. Turn from a culture where violence is normalized to young people. Turn from a culture that makes every issue into a partisan slug fest. Turn from a culture that is reactive, fear-based, and vindictive.

When I engaged the guy who was trotting out the culture argument, he didn’t meaningfully address my response. I wasn’t surprised, but I also felt like I hadn’t wasted my time.¬† Perhaps other people learned from our exchange, or my response let them feel like they weren’t alone. Maybe next time they’ll address the culture argument better. I don’t usually engage the trolls – self preservation – but I’d like to hope that we can plant seeds that could turn into something good and be a part of the solution.

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