The Trouble with Intellectuals and the Culture of Poverty

by fayemi shakur

As a young person, being identified as an intellectual always made me cringe. In elementary school, I loved it because it seemed to make me special in some way. By the time I reached high school, I seriously disliked the association and rejected opportunities to attend a school for the academically gifted. Even in college I gravitated more to community meetings than classrooms. Back then I couldn’t articulate why the academic intellectual label rubbed me the wrong way. It’s a good thing to be a person who thinks. However, intellectuals go too far sometimes and yet not far enough. I am cautious and mindful of the way intellectuals share their gifts and how much authority and influence they are given to define people and places.

My brilliant friend and cultural anthropologist, Dr. Aimee Cox, shared a recent New York Times article about the culture of poverty making a comeback among scholars. It reminded me all over again why some intellectuals and intellectualism still rubs me the wrong way.

The article shares “new” studies that are surfacing about the culture of poverty. For those who remember or studied the Moynihan Report of 1965 similar studies were used back then to influence policy in ways that negatively impacted impoverished communities. So this resurgence of scholarship on culture makes me stop dead in my tracks.

Why? The article acknowledges that the topic generates much interest on Capitol Hill because so much of the research intersects with policy debates.

Then I read this:

To Robert J. Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard, culture is best understood as “shared understandings.”

“I study inequality, and the dominant focus is on structures of poverty,” he said. But he added that the reason a neighborhood turns into a “poverty trap” is also related to a common perception of the way people in a community act and think. When people see graffiti and garbage, do they find it acceptable or see serious disorder? Do they respect the legal system or have a high level of “moral cynicism,” believing that “laws were made to be broken”?

Researching levels of moral cynicism and disorder, Sampson did a tired and lame study dropping stamped envelopes around a housing project to see who would mail it back as a sign of caring about members of their community. Is he serious? That’s what he’s using to judge whether or not these communities look after each other? And he teaches at Harvard?

Next the article mentions a favorite topic: why low-income women are unmarried. The findings report these women noted potential partners are not “marriage material”. Simplistic, trite findings like this don’t give me much faith in what these studies will report. It should be common knowledge that marriage rates in low-income communities are low due to the high numbers of men who are incarcerated and under the probation system and therefore unavailable. Some women are also rejecting and reconsidering marriage altogether for an array of reasons. The research doesn’t go far enough. It still sounds like making judgments based on values.

I get seriously territorial and protective when I hear things like this. I want to know who is doing the studying, how is it begin done, why is it being done and how it will be used.

Forget the conversation about values and morals. We know the answers already but nobody’s listening. Crime is connected to joblessness. Duh.

Morality? No, how about a discussion about spirituality, overall health and the impact the lack of quality supermarkets and high concentration of fast food restaurants has on low-income communities? Or what about how media programming influences young people?

Education? I can’t. I’ll be here all day. All types of excuses are used to explain why our children are left at a disadvantage, underprepared for their futures, and guaranteed a continued cycle of poverty –and how we, not government must fix it. It’s a sad truth but then where’s the accountability. It’s just not the same in places like Montclair, NJ and don’t tell me it’s because the parents are more involved. I’ve seen them, most of them just drop their kids off at school like most people do.

Attempting to explain why or how neighborhoods become “poverty traps”, blaming a “culture of poverty” or “shared understandings” sounds dangerously close to blaming the victim. I don’t support the idea of victimization. I’m glad some social scientists are willing to examine sustained racism and economic factors that create the isolation and “culture” in the first place. But, the fact that these studies are being reignited at all tells me that low-income communities are under the microscope again and policy related decisions will soon follow.

The only point that matters to me is: these challenges low-income communities face are honestly too big to expect individuals to be able to overcome on their own. The pull your self up by the bootstraps philosophy may have worked for some, but that type of individualistic thinking rarely helps the collective. Some people need more support than that and we should care more.

Thank goodness there are some intellectuals who really get it. Be an intellectual by all means, but be an intellectual that affects policy with a clear understanding of the people’s needs, rather than an elitist or simplistic perspective.

It’s always fascinating to me that some elitist intellectuals hold so much value but because of their own conceit they don’t know how to best use their influence to help others. Some just don’t care to think about it in that way.

In 2004, I had an opportunity to help organize and produce the National Hip-Hop Political Convention. There I met hundreds of grassroots activists from all over the country doing incredible work. No one waited or cared about the results of any study to roll their sleeves up and get involved in affecting real change. From prisoner rights groups to reproductive health activists, these young people were on it and truly involved in the communities some people only talk about it. Why not work with them and frame new perspectives and solutions? Some scholars actually do this and believe in the value of collaboration over mere research.

One amazing woman I met briefly was Adrienne Brown, an activist from Detroit and current Director of the Ruckus Society and a National Coordinator of the 2010 US Social Forum. Reflecting on a short story by Ursula K. Lee entitled “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, Adrienne recently wrote an analysis of Lee’s work. Her words stay with me. She says “we must transform ourselves to transform the world. We have a moral imperative to reject happiness or luxury that relies on the systemic dehumanization of another – even if we don’t know what the alternative might be. We have to be willing to confront and walk away from systems founded in inequality…and we need to evolve our community organizing practices to be collaborative, not competitive.”

Is the academic community ready for that? Should policy decisions be made based on intellectual pap? I know lots of brilliant people who can do this effectively. If the academic community seeks to define our communities it should be done by intellectuals who inspire, support and create solution oriented action in a forward direction. And they need to really think out of the box. We don’t need Moynihan revisited – at all.

2 thoughts on “The Trouble with Intellectuals and the Culture of Poverty

  1. This is something I try to be critical and aware of and i know that there is only so much work that can be done in academia. Academic institutions have great resources and researchers have knowledge and technical skills, however the power of organizing is paramount, and there will be no significant social change with out it.

    I enjoy working in research, yet, I know that my approach is founded in the work I have done in labor and education outside of academia. I know that I need to work in advocacy and activism through community based organizations and networks, only through this work will I be able to bring back to the table more effective politics and knowledge.

    As far as the culture of poverty discussion goes, it is tired, very tired, as you said. Some scholars and even many outside of academia are still tied to dangerous, albeit effective, ideologies which maintain these regressive approaches and focus on individual responsibility and merit.

    I do value understanding and flushing out these ideological, theoretical foundations. Instead of rejecting theory as abstract, we must understand how these ideas came to stay, and how to effectively operate against them.

    Thank you for writing this.

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