A number of liberals reacted harshly to Ryan. I'm not sure why. What Ryan said here is not very far from what Bill Cosby, Michael Nutter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama said before him. The idea that poor people living in the inner city, and particularly black men, are "not holding up their end of the deal" as Cosby put it, is not terribly original or even, these days, right-wing. From the president on down there is an accepted belief in America—black and white—that African-American people, and African-American men, in particular, are lacking in the virtues in family, hard work, and citizenship...Coates calls these people "peddlers of black pathology."
My confusion stems from the fact that, in addition to those he listed as supposedly sounding like Rep. Ryan, I would add one Ta-Nehisi Coates - who once wrote one of the most powerful articles I've ever read on this topic titled: A Culture of Poverty. He begins with a story about how he, as an adult, almost came to blows with someone who challenged his writing. Later he reflects on what triggered that response.
I thought about all of this yesterday while reading this Times' piece on return of the culture of poverty. When we talk "culture," as it relates to African-Americans, we assume a kind of exclusivity and suspension of logic. Stats are whipped out (70 percent of black babies born out of wedlock) and then claims are tossed around cavalierly, (black culture doesn't value marriage.) The problem isn't that "culture" doesn't exist, nor is it that elements of that "culture" might impair upward mobility...It sure sounds like Coates agrees that - for too many African American boys growing up in urban areas - a "street culture" exists that must be overcome if one is to succeed in this world (whatever that means to each individual). So where does he disagree with Rep. Paul Ryan?
If you are a young person living in an environment where violence is frequent and random, the willingness to meet any hint of violence with yet more violence is a shield...once I learned the lesson, once I was acculturated to the notion that often the quickest way to forestall more fighting, is to fight, I was a believer. And maybe it's wrong to say this, but it made my the rest of my time in Baltimore a lot easier, because the willingness to fight isn't just about yourself, it's a signal to your peer group...
I think one can safely call that an element of a kind of street culture.
I'd suggest that he parts ways with Ryan the same place that President Obama does...in understanding the historical roots of that culture in a way that informs them about solutions. Here's Coates on that one:
The streets are like any other world--we all assume an armor, a garment to suit that world. And indeed, in every world, some people wear the armor better than others, and thus reap considerable social reward...Inducing them, and those in between, to change class, to trade their plate for robes, to trade the broad-sword for a spell-book, is the real work.That sounds an awful lot like President Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, doesn't it?