“Like so many other “zombie ideas” in our current moment, the culture of poverty narrative persists not because of its success in explaining reality, but in spite of it. What it does succeed in doing is providing an explanation of reality that salves the consciences of the powerful and their supporters. Unfortunately, in an era when collective action by the oppressed is still far too sporadic and ephemeral, these kinds of explanations have sunk deep roots, into both layers of left-liberal opinion and oppressed groups themselves.
Yet what the social science literature demonstrates is that however secure the culture of poverty seems as a hegemonic explanation for racial inequality, it ultimately rests on what are, at the end of the day, nothing more than lies. As the uprising in Ferguson has highlighted the connection between American imperialism and militarism on the home front, it is worth remembering that cultural explanations of structural processes have never been a purely domestic affair.
Commenting on the horrific death toll of the Vietnamese during the American war on Vietnam, William Westmoreland infamously explained to an interviewer that “the Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” For a long time, this remark epitomized the racism of the war. We should view cultural explanations of inequality with the same contempt.” – Paul Heidman and Jonah Birch’s “The Poverty of Culture”