(This essay was originally published on Medium.com on August 31, 2018.)
(A response to “Black American Culture and the Racial Wealth Gap”)
In his recent article, “Black American Culture and the Racial Wealth Gap,”[i] Columbia undergrad Coleman Hughes argues that activities which he regards as Black-American cultural traits such as conspicuous consumption and a lack of financial education result in Whites having economic wealth that is ten times that of Blacks. Hughes believes “there are certain elements of black American culture that, if changed would allow blacks to amass wealth.” Because these elements are held by both White- and Asian-Americans, central to Hughes analysis of culture and economy is the notion that the vague entity he refers to as “white culture” is superior to that of Blacks. His assumption of white superiority is made evident in the dichotomy he constructs when referring to Irish-Americans and German-American Jews as “formerly lagging ethnic groups” who embraced so-called dominant White cultural traits and became successful. In Hughes analysis it is cultures, not social classes, that engage in certain practices that lead to economic success.
Hughes does indeed approximate a truth when referring to how culture can beset us with limitations, because he himself is an example of precisely that. He adroitly proves his limitations as an American scholar who inserts himself into an academic arena to analyze economics with the pretense that Marxist analysis of economy does not exist. As a scholar living within the depoliticized social and cultural sphere of the United States, he seems unaware of how Marxist analysis of society is able to flourish both in the academy and within the broader cultures of industrialized Europe and Latin America while not being able to do so here. Hughes is oblivious to the forces within U.S. society which have both co-opted social movements that advocate for economic change and depoliticized the populace such that there is almost no critique of the capitalist economic system. By limiting himself to the cultural confines of U.S. society, Hughes establishes two misconceptions. The first is apparent in his title “Black American Culture and the Racial Wealth Gap” in which he readily ignores the most significant analysis of modern economy done by Karl Marx and proceeds to argue that “self-defeating behaviors” in “black culture” account for Blacks having less wealth than Whites. A second misconception is his use of vague terms such as “the academic Left” and “the Left.” While the term “academic Left” may be fairly precise in the U.S. context given that Marxist analysis is accepted within the confines of the American university, “the Left” when used to refer to politics in the broader society is a nebulous term. What is this Left and who are its members? Would these be Liberal Democrats who, as economic Liberals, advocate the same laissez faire capitalism that the American Right espouses? U.S. Democrats would hardly be considered “the Left” in the industrialized societies of Europe and Latin America. Or is Hughes as limited in his provincial U.S. intellectualism as Blacks are limited by their purse strings in that same society?
According to Hughes, if small-b, black culture were to change, there would be an end to small-b, black poverty. But what is the Black culture he refers to? He is disinclined to refer to small-b blacks as African Americans. In his essay African Americans are mere appendages to the broader Euro-American culture. Would the term “African American” necessitate the writer having to discern how colonialism functions in a capitalist society and how economic and cultural dominance are intertwined? Hughes states that “Asian-Americans…are on track to become wealthier than whites.” How does the fact that Asian-Americans are not a colonized people (i.e., Native Americans, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, and Hawaiians) factor into their success? As an immigrant group that for the most part did not suffer conquest, many Asian American cultural groups have unhampered access to Confucian teachings that equate education to godliness. On the other hand, White enslavers forbade the African-American enslaved to read books and when they did, those books did not connect them to the Caribbean culture Hughes praises nor to African culture. Furthermore, various cultural groups within the United States, such as Korean Americans, have financial institutions in their U.S. communities that link them to financial assets in their highly-industrialized homelands. Yet in Hughes worldview, the dominant culture exerts no control over marginalized cultural groups and treats them all the same. But if that were the case, why then the anecdotal evidence showing Asian American parents push their children to study engineering, the sciences, etc. to circumvent discrimination in professions based on the liberal arts?
Hughes claims “a nation’s wealth has more to do with the economic system it adopts and the set of skills its citizens possess.” But just like surplus value in a capitalist economy, the exact economic system he refers to remains an unstated allusion. Capitalism is the dominant global economic system; yet, Hughes dares not call it by name because that would require reference to its arch critic, Karl Marx. If, as he states, wealth is indeed based only on the current economic system (capitalism) and the skills of its citizens, why is U.S. capitalism wealthier than that of not only Nigeria or Mexico, but also of Great Britain and Finland which both have lower per capita gross domestic product rates than the U.S.? Is this where culture, referred to in Hughes’ title, becomes a dominant factor? Yet European societies have experienced intense levels of industrialization. Perhaps Europeans lack the skills to produce the American products sold by apple, Nike, and Mattel. But Americans no longer manufacture most American consumer goods now that U.S. companies outsource production internationally seeking cheap labor to enrich U.S. CEO’s and leaving the U.S. worker deskilled.
In his negation of racial discrimination as delineated by Ibram X. Kendi and his repudiation of a call for justice through reparations as advocated by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Hughes argues solely for a form of self-help to end Black poverty. Denigrating any form of reparations for Black Americans, Hughes states “slavery is hardly the root cause of America’s prosperity (because) if it were, we would expect American states that practiced slavery to be richer than those that did not.” Hughes contrasts the wealth in the Northeast of the U.S. with the poverty of the former slave-holding South with no reference to northern industrialization as if the U.S. were still a horse-and-buggy economy. Yet to remain dumbfounded about why a geographical region is not wealthy after its wealth and natural resources have been expropriated is akin to asking why a worker is not wealthy after his labor has been appropriated to create surplus value. Following Hughes argument that cultures, not social classes, engage in certain practices that lead to economic success, he believes entire swathes of “children from one culture may routinely hear phrases like ‘asset diversification,’ ‘mutual fund,’ and ‘inflation rate.’” Yet how ironic that while these terms are supposedly heard by Asian-Americans and Whites regardless of class and despite where they live in the U.S., Hughes remains oblivious as to how wealth can be extracted from a specific region with scant benefit to that region just as wealth can be expropriated from a worker with surplus value going disproportionately to his or her boss, the company, or the corporation that employs that worker
In a capitalist economy the wealthy get wealthier and the poor get poorer according to Marxist analysis. This reality can be seen not only in U.S. society but in the global arena as well. As such, it is not incomprehensible that in the U.S., the groups that started with the least, Native Americans and African Americans, would have minimal economic advantage in a laissez faire capitalist system that added genocide, slavery, racism, and colonialism to the brutal economic system it imposed. Citing “spending patterns” as a direct cause for Black cultural deficiency, Hughes ignores the economic system in which African Americans live as he constructs a false argument that culture determines wealth. In his disregard for the breadth of global, intellectual wealth on the topic of the economy, the writer’s attempt to analyze the circumstances of Black Americans is constricted by the limitations of the dominant, depoliticized, provincial American culture he fetishizes.
How will the circumstances of small-b blacks change according to Hughes given that “no element of culture harms black wealth accrual more directly than spending patterns”? The writer criticizes Blacks ownership of smart phones, at 71 percent, and contrasts it with that of Americans in general, at 62 percent. Ironically, even though Blacks purchase more technology, Hughes concludes Blacks “are ill-suited for success in the information economy.” At the close of his essay, he appears to allude to the fact that the revolution will occur via media as he laments both the “ignorance” of the American “Left” and the “impotence” of “the Right” and emphasizes how the latter cannot help change Black culture because they are “too far from the media channels through which blacks tend to communicate.” If the revolution is going to occur via media, why bemoan the purchasing of smart phones by Black people? If technology in an “information economy” will be used to transform culture in a future with no reparations because the latter “would not address the root causes of black underachievement,” wouldn’t the purchase of smart phones be advantageous? Yet the “information economy” the author refers to exists in the present economic order which is capitalism. And yes, capitalism impels reparations — for Black Folk and all exploited peoples as well.
[i] Hughes, Coleman. “Black American Culture and the Racial Wealth Gap.” Quillette 19 July 2018: 1–11. <https://www.quillette.com/2018/07/19/black-american-culture-and-the-racial-wealth-gap/>