OxBlog

Monday, October 27, 2003

# Posted 11:35 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

CHANGING THE SUBJECT: There is more to say about Iraq, but not today. So I will change the subject to something that is no less depressing but still different: the devastation of inner-city America. My interest in this subject is more personal than political. Growing up in a metropolis, the issues of race and poverty were never far from my mind, even as a child.

In New York City, if a child is old enough to leave the house by himself, he is also old enough to instinctively sense the unspoken divide between white, black and Latin. Sometimes, that divide becomes more explicit. The Crown Heights riots were one such moment.

It is precisely because I have such vivid but clouded memories of New York's past that I was fascinated by Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities. With incredible detail, it evoked the confusion and fear of upper-middle class white New York.

However, Wolfe does not tell us much about poor, black New York. I believe that this decision is a reflection of Wolfe's honesty as an author. He will not write about that which he does not know. There is artistic value to this decision as well, since less impressive sections might have marred the exquisite observational writing that fills the rest of the book.

Still, being curious about that which I do not know, I decided to purchase of a copy of Code of the Street, by UPenn sociologist Elijah Anderson.

When browsing the shelves at the Harvard Bookstore, I didn't recognize the connection between Wolfe's writing and Anderson's. When I browse, I mostly look at those books that have been remaindered, since I am not inclined to pay full price for my casual reading. I suspect that because of this haphazard approach to book-buying, I didn't even notice what an impressive and surprising array of authors had chosen to publish their praise on the jacket of Prof. Anderson's book. A partial list includes Cornel West, George Will, Marian Wright Edelman and William Julius Wilson.

Having now read half of the book, I think I can see why it appeals to such a broad swathe of the political spectrum. Anderson's work is richly descriptive but subtly analytical. As the author explains, his purpose was to produce an ethnography of inner-city life. He seeks to document what is, rather than focusing on why it is so or how it should be. While one cannot charge Anderson with ignoring such issues, he certainly does not place them in the foreground.

In short, I think it would be best to place Anderson's work in the 'culture of poverty' tradition. Although I am not familiar with the classics of that canon, I believe that they emphasize how the greatest barrier to the advancement of the poor are not purely economic or structural, but are rather the product of a culture that they themselves embrace.

As such, it isn't hard to see why this tradition has considerable appeal for conservatives. If ethical failures are responsible for the perpetuation of poverty, than one can argue persuasively that increased welfare funding and expanded affirmative action programs are not the answer.

However, one can also argue -- and Prof. Anderson often seems to do so -- that increased funding or greater racial justice might be able to break the hold that the culture of the inner city has on its inhabitants. Even so, such sentiments comprise an undercurrent in Anderson's book, rather than its main stream.

As someone almost completely unfamiliar with the academic analysis of urban poverty, I must say that I have been profoundly shocked by what I have read. What Anderson describes is nothing short of a culture that glorifies uncontrolled violence and conspicuous consumption while forcefully disparaging the virtues of responsibility, modesty, and compromise.

Anderson says time and again that it is not wrong to fear a young black man walking towards you with a North Face jacket, Timberland boots and an unwelcoming expression. And it is not just white America that fears him. Decent black America fears him. Other young black men may fear him. And perhaps most disturbing of all, this is exactly the reaction that the young man in question wants to provoke.

Frankly, if this book didn't have endorsements given by West, Edelman and Wilson, I would not believe a word it says. How, in the absence of first-hand knowledge, could I possibly conclude that so many black men (and women) subscribe to a set of principles that I (and most black Americans) believe to be nothing short of perverse? How, in the absence of first-hand knowledge, could I accept a version of reality that seems designed to validate an extreme political agenda?

The most heartbreaking section of Prof. Anderson's book concerns inner-city attitudes toward parenting. For the young men Anderson describes, persuading the mother of your child to accept your total abdication of responsibility for its welfare is an achievement, a demonstration of masculine bravado. In contrast, supporting one's child -- either financially or through marriage -- is considered a weakness.

I found this so heartbreaking because it seems to go against the most fundamental source of human compassion, the parental bond. I found it so heartbreaking because the victims of this insanity are innocent children.

While disapproving of it, I understand why many young black women and women denigrate academic achievement, denigrate respect for the law, and denigrate respect for their elders. But to destroy one's own children is more than I can comprehend.

I am still afraid that someone will respond to this post and point out a glaring flaw with Anderson's work that I have missed. A flaw I did not detect because of my own ideological blinders. A flaw exposing a willingness to believe the worst, a willingness that is analytically indistinguishable from racism. But for the moment I am persuaded that this is real.

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