U.S. and ‘Them’

A leading voice on welfare reform is accused of racism after he publishes an article linking poverty to "culture." Journal faces calls for retraction.

July 28, 2020
 
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Lawrence Mead speaks at Texas Tech University in 2018.

Scholars in the U.S. and abroad are demanding that Springer’s Society journal retract a recent commentary called “Poverty and Culture” by Lawrence Mead.

New York University is facing related calls that it terminate Mead, an influential professor of politics and public policy there who has long advocated writing work requirements into welfare programs.

While many academics disagree with Mead’s views on social safety nets and who deserves them, critics of his new commentary say it crosses the line from controversial policy argument to overt racism.

Mead denies the piece is racist, saying on Monday, “It's all about how differences in world cultures help explain long-term poverty in America.”

The piece, which is based on Mead’s 2019 book Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Difference and American Power, says that poverty in the U.S. can’t be blamed on racism or policy failures. Rather, the long-term poor themselves -- namely Black and Latinx people -- are lacking the individualism, ambition and “enterprising temperament” of descendants of European immigrants, Mead argues.

“Today, the seriously poor are mostly blacks and Hispanics, and the main reason is cultural difference,” he wrote. “The great fact is that these groups did not come from Europe. Fifty years after civil rights, their main problem is no longer racial discrimination by other people but rather that they face an individualist culture that they are unprepared for.”

Cultural difference, Mead says, “helps to explain the two most puzzling things about the long-term poor: their tepid response to opportunity and the frequent disorder in their personal lives.”

Demands for Retraction

These are not unfamiliar arguments. But they’re usually dog whistled on cable news shows or shouted on AM radio, not featured in peer-reviewed academic journals. And there’s the rub, at least where Society and Springer are concerned. Several circulating petitions demand that the journal retract Mead’s article and investigate and explain how it was ever published in the first place.

“The piece is unscholarly, overtly racist and has no place in a publication that purports to be a serious academic journal,” reads one petition to the journal signed by some 700 academics as of Monday evening.

“That this paper was accepted raises serious questions about the editorial process and the credibility of your journal,” the petition continues. “The author makes extreme claims about the causes of poverty but does not back these up with empirical evidence. He also makes sweeping statements about the capacities and virtues of entire racial and ethnic groups, again without attempting to evidence them.”

Another petition says that Society and Mead "demonstrate that outdated and odious suppositions about BIPOC still hold sway in the very academic circles that should be challenging, not strengthening, racism. As a group of community-focused advocates, we are committed to confronting racism and anti-Blackness, and would be culpable if we did not condemn this publication and hold the editorial board of Society responsible for publishing such irresponsible commentary in its journal."

Mead’s commentary is not technically a research article, meaning the bar for data-backed argument is lower. Still, to critics’ point, the piece is long on theory and very short on empirical evidence. It ignores vast swaths of the U.S. dominated by poor white people and the vast research on inequality linking many aspects of poverty to systemic racism. Mead also uses the othered “they” repeatedly, and it's often unclear exactly whom he's talking about.

Case in point: "Their native stance toward life is much more passive than the American norm." In America, Mead wrote, "they face less hardship than they did where they came from, but also more competition. They now must strive to get ahead in school and the workplace while avoiding crime and personal problems. They also must take much more responsibility for themselves than they did before."

Asked what he meant by "they," Mead said it was typically the long-term poor, who "will typically have been in the country for several generations and become immured in a life of survival rather than progress. That's mostly blacks and Hispanics."

Concluding his central argument, Mead wrote in the article that “they have to become more individualist before they can ‘make it’ in America. So they are at a disadvantage competing with the European groups -- even if they face no mistreatment on racial grounds.”

Mead’s final thoughts are an endorsement of charter schools, which he describes as vehicles for teaching children “the norms of good behavior that individualists need in a free society” and “how to make the many choices that a free society leaves open to them.”

“Dependent people,” he says, “must finally take charge of their own fate rather than waiting more passively for outward change. Whether the poor can do that is central to whether they get ahead.”

Springer said in a statement, "We are deeply concerned by the publication of this article and have launched a full investigation." 

Jonathan B. Imber, Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College and editor in chief of Society, did not respond to a request for comment.

NYU has addressed some of the criticism, including via a statement by several arts and sciences deans and other administrators.

“We recognize that Professor Mead has the same rights to freedom of expression as we all do and are firm in our commitment to the principle of academic freedom,” the deans wrote. “At the same time, we reject what we believe to be the article’s false, prejudicial, and stigmatizing assertions about the culture of communities of color” in the U.S.

Now more than ever, the deans said, “it is imperative that we amplify our fundamental values of diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging, and that we consistently strive to create a culture of care and respect.” The institution’s success “depends on fostering an inclusive and welcoming environment for all members of our community, and we must hold one another accountable in the education and support of our students and of each other.”

“Racism, bigotry, hatred, intolerance and discrimination,” they continued, “have no place in our classrooms or in our academic community.”

Denials and Consequences

Regarding the controversy, Mead said that his article contains “no connection to race.” Instead, he said, it “emphasizes that cultural change among blacks explains why a black middle class has emerged. A racist argument could never explain that.”

Mead does reference a Black middle class, saying that "despite origins in Africa," these Americans "have become individualists themselves" and "display the same temperament as most whites." He adds that "most middle-class whites already study and work alongside blacks like this, so living in the same neighborhoods becomes imaginable."

As to the scholarly value of his piece, Mead said via email that "long-term poverty is a serious social problem that I've worked on for 40 years. No expert has a good explanation. Economic theories of poverty have clearly failed. My theory is the best answer I've come up with."

He added, “I am not a racist but a leading expert, and this is the conclusion I am driven to.”

It’s precisely Mead’s status as a leading expert on poverty that worries other scholars who work in the field.

Zach Parolin, a researcher at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy who has written about how states’ use of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families federal welfare program perpetuates racial inequalities in poverty, called Mead’s analysis not just “incorrect” but “actively harmful.”

“Mead's views, albeit often in their less overtly racist form, have been influential in shaping the modern American welfare state. That comes with consequences,” Parolin said. Reciting some of his criticism of TANF, he explained that states with a larger share of Black residents are less likely to provide direct cash assistance to low-income families and more likely to fund programs that attempt to influence how they run. Specifically, Parolin has found that these states are more likely to allocate federal funds to programs with stated goals such as encouraging the formation of two-parent families and reducing the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies. It amounts, to critics, to a kind of race-based social engineering founded in theories like Mead's.

Noting that Mead’s prior scholarship helped shaped the federal welfare program, Parolin said, “We can delete Mead's paper from an academic journal, but we cannot undo the negative influence that his brand of thinking has had on the development of the American welfare state and the economic well-being of families across this country.”

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