On the Third Rail: Race, Poverty, Culture

“Generational poverty” is often used or taken as code for “black.” Even by those who mean well.

However, rural poverty is just as persistent, and it of course is as caucasian as it is anything else and usually more so. I do find Thomas Sowell’s “Black Rednecks” thesis intriguing, that it’s lowbrow Scots-Irish culture that infects the poor of both races:

[Wiki, sorry]: “Sowell argues that the black ghetto culture, which is claimed to be “authentic black culture”, is historically neither authentic nor black in origin. Instead, Sowell argues that the black ghetto culture is in fact a relic of a highly dysfunctional white southern redneck culture which existed during the antebellum South. This culture came, in turn, from the “Cracker culture” of the North Britons and Scots-Irish who migrated from the generally lawless border regions of Britain.

Sowell gives a number of examples that he regards as supporting the lineage, e.g.,

an aversion to work, proneness to violence, neglect of education, sexual promiscuity, improvidence, drunkenness, lack of entrepreneurship,… and a style of religious oratory marked by strident rhetoric, unbridled emotions, and flamboyant imagery.”

I’ve done some poking around on my own, and as recently as 1950 or so, both marriage and employment rates for blacks and whites were approximately equal.

[See also Herbert G. Gutman’s seminal The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925.]

Something happened since then. Indeed, whites have been similarly beset by an increase in these pathologies, albeit not as accentuated as in the urban black community.

Indeed, see Theodore Dalrymple’s Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass, of which John Derbyshire wrote

Americans may find it surprising that most of the people wallowing in this slough of ignorance, illiteracy, promiscuity, bastardy, intoxication, vice, folly, lawlessness, and hopelessness are white English people. Much of what is described here is the sort of thing Americans instinctively associate with this country’s own black underclass. There is some satisfaction, I suppose, though of a very melancholy kind, to be drawn from the revelation that sufficiently wrong-headed social policies, persisted in with sufficiently dogged refusal to face simple truths, will visit moral catastrophe on people of any race.

I find this essential to keep in mind while discussing this subject. Race may be a factor but only in degree, not kind. “Code” is unnecessary [and then the predictable implication of a racist agenda] in looking at the problem, if we’re to look at it at all.

Tom Van Dyke

Tom Van Dyke, businessman, musician, bon vivant and game-show champ (The Joker's Wild, and Win Ben Stein's Money), knows lots of stuff, although not quite everything yet. A past contributor to The American Spectator Online, the late great Reform Club blog, and currently on religion and the American Founding at American Creation, TVD continues to write on matters of both great and small importance from his ranch type style tract house high on a hill above Los Angeles.


  1. Oh, in addition to you stealing my ideas (telepathically, I just know it), the whole Scots-Irish thing will be mentioned in a post soon. So now everybody will think I am just aping you.

    (Well, not really. Our styles are too different and our opinions differ significantly as well. But still.)

  2. As to the actual post itself, it’s difficult – if not impossible – to separate the issues that are bunded together. Sometimes code is code. Sometimes what is thought to be code is just somebody trying to talk about something. Sometimes the person speaking doesn’t even realize that they’re thinking along racial dimensions.

    (By way of example, when my alma mater was considering hiring a black coach, there was suddenly a lot of talk about how this coach was going to come in and “thug up our program” and we’d be on probation in a couple of years. Usually, no mention was made of race, and if it was it was in reference to it being an “affirmative action hire” and not a reference into said coach thugging up the program specifically because he was black. I actually don’t even know if the people were talking realized that the unfounded assumptions they were making about this coach miiiiiight be tied to racial prejudice.)

    At the same time, if we avoid anything that might be taken as code, we simply can’t talk about issues that we might need to be talking about. Yesterday, Stillwater commented that “generational poverty” was code. Okay, I asked, what is an uncoded way of talking about what the term means. I never got a reply (not because Stillwater was ducking me, I do not believe, the post got knocked to the bottom section). But any term we use instead of generational poverty can and will be used by people with a (knowing or unknowing) axe to grind and will be taken as code sooner or later.

    So, when I discuss class, I am left to discuss a bunch of poor white kids in rural “Arapaho.”

    • Yah, Will, this started as a reply to Mr. Stillwater’s comment, but started filling out in length and content.

      Mebbe we have less sympathy for hillbillies because the white poor have a chip to cash in that blacks don’t—“white privilege.” Theoretically at least, there’s no reason a hillbilly can’t walk through any door that a Kennedy or Rockefeller or Bush could.

      And even though the right argues that much racial progress has been made in the past 40+ years, it cannot be denied that there’s at least a residual racism, or that Black America started well behind as of 1964 or so, even if the playing field was largely leveled in the years since then.

      So there is a “white guilt”—and a justified one—for the plight of Black America that the “majority culture” [there’s some code forya] doesn’t feel for the rural poor.

      That’s why I like to look at places like the UK, and try to separate race from poverty as much as possible. If the white kids of England are going to hell in a handbasket—and Dalrymple attests they are—then there’s a clarity to be gleaned from it.

      • A black (of immigrant, rather than slave, ancestry) acquaintance once suggested the following:

        The criticism of urban whites towards their bumpkin cousins is rooted in the belief that their standards for behavior among whites is higher. They believe that since the hillbillies are “white like them” that they should be able to be more sophisticated just like they are. Meanwhile, with African Americans, that expectation isn’t there and so they expect little and make excuses.

        It’s not a new argument, exactly. It’s a variation of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” What was new to me about it, though, was that I had never thought about the implications as it pertained to poor whites. That poor whites, far more than anybody else, choose to be poor and dumb and backwards.

        I don’t think I actually buy it. I don’t think the thought process runs that deep, not even subconsciously. But I thought I would pass it along.

      • Tom,

        Mebbe we have less sympathy for hillbillies because the white poor have a chip to cash in that blacks don’t—”white privilege.”

        This is a topic I don’t have a lot of formed opinions on, so this might be a little vague or even completely wrong, but…

        I think you’re onto something here. Liberals who reflexively hear ‘generational poverty’ as code for ‘black’ may be assuming (counter-racially?) that hillbillies aren’t deserving of consideration because they’re white, so the causes of their poverty isn’t structural or otherwise interesting. It’s their own damn fault!

        Conservatives, on the other hand, might overlook hillbillies as being part of ‘generational poverty’ because of a culturally determined (in some sense, loosely, give me the benefit of the doubt here!) tendency to maintain a position of cultural privilege above people of color, specifically blacks.

        I dunno anything about it, really. All I can say is that for along time I rejected the suggestion that racism was a significant driving force in politics, and the more I think and read about it the more I conclude that it’s not only a driver but a really powerful one. I don’t think we’re post racial in any interesting sense of the term.

        • I dunno, Mr. Stillwater. I get to talk to conservatives when there’s nobody there but us chickens


          and mostly, it’s a frustration that politics aren’t working. Head Start doesn’t work. Joe Klein in Time:


          The idea is, as Newt Gingrich might say, simple liberal social engineering. You take the million or so poorest 3- and 4-year-old children and give them a leg up on socialization and education by providing preschool for them; if it works, it saves money in the long run by producing fewer criminals and welfare recipients — and more productive citizens. Indeed, Head Start did work well in several pilot programs carefully run by professionals in the 1960s. And so it was “taken to scale,” as the wonks say, as part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

          It is now 45 years later. We spend more than $7 billion providing Head Start to nearly 1 million children each year. And finally there is indisputable evidence about the program’s effectiveness, provided by the Department of Health and Human Services: Head Start simply does not work.

          • Gah…the data that Head Start gains fade over time is exactly precisely ….not new at all. That has been known for years. How that is an indictment of Head Start and not grade school ed is a puzzlement at best. Head Start works at what it does.
            Joe K. didn’t mention but there have been some long term gains found from HS programs.

          • Head Start is back in the news because of proposed cuts. The NYT wants to mend it not end it, or double down on it, or whatever.

            I want it to work. Can’t think of anything more appealing and intuitive.

          • How that is an indictment of Head Start and not grade school ed is a puzzlement at best.

            As I understand it, the status quo ante was that we were unhappy with the outcomes of grade school ed, and Head Start was created with the goal of improving those outcomes. So to the extent that it doesn’t in fact improve long-term outcomes, then I think it’s fair to indict it for not achieving its purpose.

  3. Race may be a factor but only in degree, not kind. “Code” is unnecessary [and then the predictable implication of a racist agenda] in looking at the problem, if we’re to look at it at all.

    Will asked a good question at the bottom of that earlier thread: how can generational poverty be discussed in a way that won’t be understood as code? I would say clearly identifying the targets of the discussion – inner city black populations, white southern populations, hispanic western populations, etc., even down to micro-communities as small as families – would go along ways to eliminating the political connotations of the term and topic, and making it into a purely economic one.

    But Tom, I appreciate the position you’re arguing here – not only that generational poverty crosses racial lines, but that speaking of ‘generational poverty’ shouldn’t be immediately understood as ‘code’. I would be more persuaded by conservative’s claims that they aren’t racist if they used uniquely identifying language – whites in Appalachia, blacks in Detroit – rather than generalizations (like ‘generational poverty’). And the same goes, of course, for liberals, who I think have a long ways to go in admitting their own forms of racism. My side generally doesn’t dog-whistle about racial issues (at least as overtly as conservatives do IMO), but for some reason liberal urban centers are some of the most racially segregated places in the country.

    • Thx, Mr. Stillwater. I can’t speak for “conservatives,” only for meself. I will add that the rural poor are mostly out of sight therefore out of mind, so that may be a factor.

    • I appreciate you answering my question. So the answer for me is to do what I have been doing: awkwardly mention that over half of my experience with the underclass involves whites.

      My side generally doesn’t dog-whistle about racial issues

      They less frequently have the opportunity, but in Louisiana they didn’t hesitate going after “Piyush” Jindal in case anyone forgot that he was Indian. Such is the way of politics.

      Aside from that, though, they do play against the other reasonably well. Appeals on culture (which, of course, the GOP is quite good at as well) are a variation of playing Us vs Them. The absence of race from this means it loses a dimension and a degree of severity, but it’s part-and-parcel across the political spectrum.

      • Will, One thing I’ll willingly concede is that liberals play all sorts of cards. And here’s one instance where I think the whole ‘racism’ thing gets really murky, and where there’s a card liberals like to play.

        Liberals advocate welfare for blacks and minorities – everyone who is poor, really. Part of the problem here is that when conservatives want to roll back welfare payments, they often use language ambiguous between political and economic language. Hence, the ‘coded’ aspects to the way language is used. Now, I think that lots of conservative political speech is coded in a racist way – it’s a direct appeal to the segments of the population that doesn’t want their tax dollars going to blacks. And that might be bad enough all on it’s own. But here’s where it gets murky and unsettling for liberals: when a white liberals accuses a conservative of this type of language, they’re not just implying that conservatives are racists. They’re using a single metric – support of welfare for blacks – to demonstrate that they aren’t racist. As if this one single measure suffices not being a racist. And that seems like a backhanded way of playing the race card.

        I think racial issues go a lot deeper than this of course. But there’s no small measure of self-serving hypocrisy from liberals about this.

        • What’s kind of funny here is that I am not sure you’re being fair to liberals. I think that, in addition to welfare, you have EEOC law and affirmative action. Now, in my view, these two are something of low-hanging fruit. When I was more worried about not being perceived as racist as I am now, I was big on both of those things despite being more conservative on the whole than I am now. But nonetheless, they are indicative of something.

          I am kind of curious what you were getting at with this:

          but for some reason liberal urban centers are some of the most racially segregated places in the country.

          I have some ideas, but it’s not a can of worms I am anxious to open. What ideas do you have, if any?

          • “but for some reason liberal urban centers are some of the most racially segregated places in the country.”

            I’ll jump in with class as one major reason for this. And i’ll throw in that this statement is far from completely true and accurate. Many big cities are far more diverse then the rest of the country.

          • Will and greginak: Yes, on both counts. And after having thought about it some more in light of your comments, I’m not sure my initial claims make any sense.

            Maybe the more cautious way to say what I was suggesting above is that liberals on average are not overtly racist; that policy-wise liberals are actively anti-racist; and that in at least some situations liberals use the race-card as a cudgel against (what they perceive as) racist conservatives. It’s the ‘using it as a cudgel’ part that confuses me about this – there’s a self-righteousness to it that makes me a bit uneasy.

            Also, you both questioned my suggestion that segregation in large cities is evidence of liberal racism, and that’s certainly fair. It may not be racism that causes segregation: greginak’s comment about class probably points to a better explanation. I used to account for it pretty much along those lines myself. Yet I have a slightly itchy feeling I cannot seem to shake that (some!) self-described liberals can be, and often are, NIMBY’s about racial integration. But maybe that’s because I’m confusing a class issue with a racial one.

          • Stillwater (and Greg),

            I am looking at two reasons. First, as mentioned, class. Second is balance. It’s easier for different groups to self-segregate when they exist in larger numbers. Small minorities have to socially integrate and be integrated (however awkwardly). A large enough minority can form its own social ecosystem and will often choose to do that.

            Where my mind goes with your observation (and hopefully this isn’t opening a can of worms) is that it’s easier to be high-minded when it comes to race when you have class doing your segregation for you.


            A city can be diverse and heavily segregated at the same time.

          • it’s easier to be high-minded when it comes to race when you have class doing your segregation for you.

            Yes. That exactly.

  4. I agree with most of what you are saying here about hypocrisy. Then again, every once in a while, some dufus running for prez says certain people should stop asking for food stamps and ask for jobs ( as if those people are actually content with a handout and don’t want jobs) then only refers to one particular group. Some things just make you go hmmmmm.

    • Demand paychecks!

      Yeah, that little speech would go over real well. I wonder if he planned another speech for poor whites?

  5. I take it someone in a previous thread expressed the sense that “generational poverty” was a loaded or coded term for “black poverty”?

    I’m going to take advantage of whatever presumption of good faith I have remaining here and just ask you all to consider the possibility that this is an idiosyncratic view. I have worked in organizations devoted to fighting poverty especially in minority communities, and while there are many terms that certainly are understood to be coded language, the language around generational poverty, often expressed as “the cycle of poverty,” is just not among them in my experience. Maybe mores have changed, but the poverty cycle was taken to be a very real thing, existing in white and minority communities alike, and not at all a racially coded idea or term. It was the thing we were engaged in dealing with. Perhaps views have changed; this was (oh my god), fully ten years ago now.

    • I take it someone in a previous thread expressed the sense that “generational poverty” was a loaded or coded term for “black poverty”?

      Stillwater said it in a previous thread.

      I’m going to take advantage of whatever presumption of good faith I have remaining here and just ask you all to consider the possibility that this is an idiosyncratic view.

      I believe you. This was the first I had heard of that particular term being code. Which is why I asked what a better term might be. According to Stillwater, there’s not a better term but it’s best to explicitly say that you’re not talking solely about black poverty.

      It’s one of the frustrating things about code. Not that I don’t believe that code exists, but that code and codebreaking both make communication a lot more difficult. That, and the fact that racial assumptions are often not even conscious to the person that is making them.

      • Certainly. Part of the problem is that the freight accrues over time, and it bleeds among artifacts of language and meaning. Partly because one day some genius came up with the term “welfare queens,” now we, legitimately I think we’d agree, need to be quite deliberate about whatever we have to say about recipients of government aid. It’s just a thing about human language. It’s embedded within cultural context that dominates the language itself in determining its meaning, meaning which – God help us! – isn’t even fully owned by we meaners!

  6. I think context matters hugely in understanding just how “coded” a word or phrase is. A knee-jerk response does little good. One must examine the larger context and implications of a phrase. At the same time, some words andphrases are dogged with so much baggage that they are best avoided. This is frustrating, since it often leaves us without the language we need, as WillT got at elsewhere. That’s not to say such phrases ought never be uttered, but the speaker/writer must recognize the minefield he is tiptoeing into.

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