Via Mohamad Bazzi of New York University, I learned last week about several articles published in the last few years by Lawrence Mead, also of NYU. I had a vague awareness of Mead as a kind of post-Moynihan “pathology of poverty” scholar who had had some influence over public policy in the 1990s, but otherwise I hadn’t really encountered his work in detail before. Bazzi was responding to a July 2020 article in the journal Society entitled “Poverty and Culture”. After I read it, I looked at a 2018 article by Mead in the same journal, titled “Cultural Difference”. The two substantially echo each other and are tied to a 2019 book by Mead, which I really dread to look at.
1. In “Culture and Poverty”, Mead is talking about “structural poverty” (though he doesn’t use the term), and yet does nothing to reference a very large body of comparative social science on structural poverty that has been published between 1995-2020. His references to poverty scholarship are entirely to work from the mid-1990s or before.
2. Paragraph 3 in the article chains together a set of assertions: low-income neighborhoods lack “order”, marriage is in steep decline, poor children do poorly in school, and “work levels among poor adults remain well below what they need to avoid poverty”. These require separate treatment, but they are chained together here to form a composite image: structural poverty causes “disorder”, it is tied to low rates of marriage and school performance, and it’s because the poor don’t work enough. This is sloppy inferential writing, but it is only an appetizer before a buffet of same.
3. Poverty arises, says Mead, from not working or from having children out of wedlock who are not supported. Not just here but throughout his article (and similar recent work), Mead seems to completely unaware of the fact that in the contemporary United States, some people in structural poverty or who are close to the federal government’s official poverty line are in fact employed. It also takes some astonishing arrogance and laziness to say that arguments that racial bias, lack of access to education, or lack of access to child care play a role in causing structural poverty have been flatly and undebatedly disproven—with only a footnote to your own book written in 1992 as proof of that claim.
4. On page 2 (and in other recent Mead writings) we arrive at his core argument, which is basically a warmed-over version of Huntingdon’s “clash of civilizations”. though even that goes unreferenced; he has a few cites of modernization theory and then one of Eric Jones’ European Miracle and McNeill’s Rise of the West, again without acknowledging or seeming to even be aware of the vast plenitude of richly sourced and conceptually wide-ranging critiques of modernization theory and Jones’ 1987 book. He doesn’t even seem aware that McNeill’s own work later on cast doubt on the idea that the West’s internal culture was the singular cause of European domination after 1500.
5. So let’s spend time with the intensely stupid and unsupportable argument at the heart of this article that vaguely poses as scholarship but in fact is nothing of the sort. Mead argues that Europeans who came to the Americas were all “individualists” with an inner motivation to work hard in pursuit of personal aspiration and that they all “internalized right and wrong” as individually held moralities, whereas Native Americans, blacks and “Mexicans absorbed by the nation’s westward expansion” were from the “non-West” and were hence conformists who obeyed authoritarian power and who saw ethics as “more situational and dependent on context”, “in terms of what the people around them expect of them”.
6. So today’s poor are “mostly black and Hispanics, and the main reason is cultural difference. The great fact is that these groups did not come from Europe…their native stance toward life is much more passive than the American norm…they have to become more individualist before they can ‘make it’ in America. So they are at a disadvantage competing with European groups—even if they face no mistreatment on racial grounds”. This, says Mead, explains “their tepid response to opportunity and the frequent disorder in their personal lives”.
7. This entire argument would not be surprising if you were reading the latest newsletter from Stormfront or the local chapter of the Klan. But as scholarship it is indefensible, and that is not merely a rejection of the ideological character of the argument. Let me muck out the stables a bit here in factual terms just so it is clear to anyone reading just how little Mead’s argument has to do with anything real.
8. Let’s start with the African diaspora and the Atlantic slave trade. In West and Central Africa between 1400 and 1800, what kinds of societies that were in contact with the Atlantic world and were drawn into the slave trade are we dealing with in terms of moral perspectives, attitudes towards individualism and aspiration, views of work, and so on?
9. First off, we’re not dealing with one generically “African” perspective across that vast geographical and chronological space, and we’re not dealing with collective or individual perspectives that remained unchanged during that time. I’m going to be somewhat crudely comparative here (but what I’m calling crude is essentially about ten magnitudes of sophistication above Mead’s crayon scrawling: in his 2018 essay “Cultural Difference”, Mead says “most blacks came from Africa, the most collective of all cultures”.) Consider then these differences, quickly sketched:
a. Igbo-speaking communities in the Niger Delta/Cross River area between 1600-1800 famously did not have chiefs, kings or centralized administrative structures but were woven together by intricate commercial and associational networks, and in these networks both men and women strove to ascend in status and reputation and in wealth (both for themselves and their kin). There was a strong inclination to something we might call individualism, a tremendous amount of emphasis on aspiration and success and something that resembled village-level democracy.
b. Mande-speaking societies associated with the formation of the empire of Mali in the upper Niger and the savannah just west of the Niger and subsequent “tributary” empires like Kaaba in upper Guinea were structured around formal hierarchies and around the maintenance of centralized states with an emperor at the top of the hierarchy. But they also invited Islamic scholars to pursue learning and teaching within their boundaries (and built institutions of learning to support them) and reached out to make strong new ties to trans-Saharan merchants. Moreover, the social hierarchies of these societies also had a major role for groups of artisans often called nyamakalaw: blacksmiths, potters, weavers, and griot or ‘bards’, who not only were a vibrant part of market exchange but who also had an important if contested share of imperial authority that involved a great deal of individual initiative and aspiration.
c. The Asante Empire, one of a number of Akan-speaking states in what is now Ghana, rose to pre-eminence in the 18th and 19th Century, and both its rulers and its merchant “middling classes” showed a tremendous amount of personal ambition and investment in individual aspiration, as did their antagonists in the Fante states to the south, who were heavily involved in Atlantic trade (including the slave trade) and who were very much part of Atlantic commercial and consumer culture. Cities like Anomabu and Cape Coast (and others to their east) were commercial entrepots that in many ways resembled other cosmopolitan Atlantic port cities in Western Europe and the Americas.
d. (I can keep going like this for a long while.) But let’s throw in one more, just because it’s illustrative, and that’s the Kingdom of Dahomey. It was an authoritarian state—though so was most of “the West” in the 17th and 18th Century, coming to that soon—but it was also deeply marked by religious dissent from those who profoundly disagreed with their ruler’s participation in the Atlantic slave trade, as a number of scholars have documented, as well as very different kinds of personal ambitions on the part of its rulers.
e. The upshot is that you cannot possibly represent the societies from which Africans were taken in slavery to the Americas as conformist, as uniformly authoritarian, as fatalistic or uninterested in personal aspiration, or as unfamiliar with competitive social pressures. I think you can’t represent any of them in those terms (I’m hard-pressed to think of any human society that matches the description) but none of the relevant West or Central African societies do. It’s not merely that they don’t match, but that they had substantially different ideas and structures regarding individual personhood, labor, aspiration, social norms, political authority, etc. from one another.
10. Let’s try something even sillier in Mead’s claims (if that’s possible), which is the notion that “Hispanics” or “Mexicans” are “non-Western” in the sense that he means. Keep in mind again that the argument depends very much on a kind of notion of cultural difference as original sin—he doesn’t even take the easy Daniel-Moynihan route to arguing that the poor are stuck in a dysfunctional culture that is a consequence of structural poverty—an argument that has a lot of problems, but it is in its way non-racial (it’s the same claim that undergirded J.D Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, for example): culture is a product of class structure which then reinforces class structure in a destructive feedback loop. Mead is pointedly rejecting this view in favor of arguing that cultural difference is an intact transmission of the values and subjectivities of societies from 500 years ago into the present, and that the impoverishing consequences of this transmission can only be halted by the simultaneous “restoration of internal order” (e.g., even tougher policing) and the black and brown poor discovering their inner competitive individualist Westerner and letting him take over the job of pulling up the bootstraps.
11. Right, I know. Anyway, so Mead has a second group of people who are carrying around that original sin of coming from the “non-West”, full of conformism and reliance on authoritarian external commands and collectivism and avoidance of individual aspiration: “Hispanics”, which at another point in the article he identifies more specifically as “Mexicans”. I would need a hundred hands to perform the number of facepalms this calls for. Let’s stick to Mexico, but everything I’m going to say applies more or less to all of Latin America. What on earth can Mead mean here? Is he suggesting that contemporary Latinos in the United States who have migrated from Mexico, are the descendents of migrants from Mexico, or are the descendents of people who were living within the present-day boundaries of the United States back when some of that territory was control either by the nation-state of Mexico or earlier as a colonial possession of Spain, are somehow the product of sociohistorical roots that have nothing to do with “the West”?
12. Mead does gesture once towards the proposition that by “Western” he really means “people from the British Isles and northern Europe”; at other times, he seems to be operating (vaguely) with the conception of “Western” that can include anybody from Europe. He could always make the move favored by Gilded Age British and American racists and claim that Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece are not really Western, that their peoples were lazy collectivists who liked authoritarian control, and so on—it’s consistent with the incoherence of the rest of the argument, but he may sense that the moment he fractures the crudity of “Western” and “non-Western” to make more specific claims about the sociopolitical dispensations of 1500 CE that produced contemporary “cultural difference”, he’s screwed. In his 2018 essay, it becomes clearer why he would be screwed by this, because then he couldn’t contrast European immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe in the late 19th Century with the really-truly “culturally different” black and brown people—if he drops Spain out of “Western” (by which he really means “white”), he’s going to lose his basis for saying that Giovanni DiCaprio had a primordial Western identity but Juan Castillo is primordially non-Western.
13. He’s screwed anyway, because there is no way you can say that Mexican-Americans are “non-Western” because they derive their contemporary cultural disposition from some long-ago predicate that is fundamentally different than that of white Americans and that this has nothing to do with the ways that societies in the Americans have structured racial difference and inequality. What is he even thinking is this ancient predicate? That Mexican-Americans are reproducing the sociocultural outlook of Mesoamerican societies that predate Spanish conquest? That Spain was non-Western, or that the mestizo culture of early colonial Mexico was totally non-Western? I can’t even really figure out what he thinks he is thinking of here: the Ocaam’s Razor answer is “well, he’s a bigot who wants to explain African-American and Latino poverty as a result of a ‘cultural difference’ that is a proxy for ‘biological difference’”, because his understanding of the histories he’s flailingly trying to invoke is so staggeringly bad that you can’t imagine that he is actually influenced by anything even slightly real in coming to his conclusions.
14. To add to this, he clearly knows he’s got another problem on his hands, which is why Asian-Americans aren’t in structural poverty in the same way, considering that most of his Baby’s First Racist History Stories conceptions of “cultural difference” would seemingly have to apply to many East, Southeast and South Asian societies circa 1500 as well. (And to Europe too, but hang on, I’m getting there.) In his 2018 essay, he’s got some surplus racism to dispense on them: some of them “become poor in Chinatowns” (citing for this a 2018 New York Times article focused on “Crazy Rich Asians”), and saying that despite the fact that they do well in school, Asians do not “assert themselves in the creative, innovative way necessary to excel after school in an individualist culture” and “fall well short of the assertiveness needed to stand out in America”. But he’s not going to get hung up on them because they pretty well mess up his argument, much like anything remotely connected to reality does.
15. Another reality that he really, really does not want to even mention, because he can’t have any conceivable response to it, is “well, what about persistent structural poverty in parts of the United States where the poor are white? And not just white, but whiteness that has pretty strong Scots-Irish-English roots, like in parts of Appalachia?” In terms of how he is conceptualizing cultural difference, as a cursed or blessed inheritance of originating cultures five or six hundred years old, he’s completely screwed by this contemporary structural fact. He can’t argue that it’s just a short-term consequence of deindustrialization or globalization—the structural poverty of Appalachia has considerable historicity. It used to give white supremacists fits back in the early 20th Century too.
16. Moreover, of course, everything I’ve said above about the complexity of the West and Central African origins of people taken across the Atlantic as slaves goes very much for Europeans arriving in the Americas. The idea that the Puritans, for example, represent a purely individualistic Western culture pursuing individual aspiration who are not ruled by and conforming to external authority is a laughably imprecise description of the communities they made. The sociopolitical and intersubjective outlooks derived from the local origins of various Europeans arriving in the Americas between 1500 and 1800 were substantially different. The states that many came from were absolutist, hierarchical, authority-driven, and the cultures that many reproduced were patriarchal, controlling, and not particularly anything like Mead’s sketch of “Western” temperaments, which is just a kind of baby-talk version of the Protestant work-ethic, a concept which actual historians doing actual research have complicated and questioned in a great many ways. Moreover, as many scholars have pointed out, the conflicts between these divergent origins were substantial until many colonists found that the threat of Native American attacks and slave revolts pushed them towards identifying as a common “white” identity.
17. Speaking of slavery, it’s another place where the entire premise of Mead’s article is just so transcendently awful and transparently racist. Mead is arguing that somehow the cultural disposition of a generic “Africa” survived intact through enslavement, which even the most enthusiastic historian of black American life would not try to claim for more positive reasons, and that slavery had no culture-making dimension in its own right. The debate about African influences, “Africanisms” and so on in the African diaspora is rich and complicated and of long-standing by scholars who actually do research, but that same research amply documents how the programmatic violence of slavery aimed to destroy or suppress the diverse African heritage of the enslaved. That research also documents the degree to which Africans in the Americas participated in the making of new creole or mixed cultures alongside people of European, Native American, and Asian descent. It’s easy to see why Mead has to make this flatly ridiculous claim and avoid seeing slavery as a culture-making (and culture-breaking) system, because it leads right away to the proposition that structural poverty among African-Americans has causal roots in enslavement, in post-Civil War impoverishment, in racial discrimination and segregation in the 20th Century. It also takes some spectacular, gross misperception, by the way, to see slave-owners collectively as canonical examples of “Western” hard-working, aspiration-fulfilling individualists. Right, right, having a hundred slaves plow your fields for you under threat of torture and death is the essence of inner-driven individualism and hard work
18. I’m leaving completely aside in all of this an entire different branch of absurdity in the article, which is that Mead says nothing about growing income inequality and lack of social mobility in the United States over the last thirty years, and nothing about what life is actually like for people who are working minimum wage jobs with all of what he calls “Western” motivations—with an individualist sensibility, with aspirations for improvement, and so on. He might say that getting into the historical details about Western and non-Western cultural differences is just beyond his remit in a short article connected to a long project. I don’t think he can say that legitimately, because extraordinary claims call for extraordinary evidence, even in a short article. But there is no way that he can excuse not citing or being even aware of the last thirty years of social science research on structural poverty in the United States. The footnotes in both his 2020 article and his 2018 article are like time-capsules of the 1990s, with the occasional early-2000s citation of scholars like Richard Nisbett.
19. I’ve bothered to lay all this out because I want people to understand that many critiques that are dismissed breezily as ideological or “cancel culture” derive from detailed, knowledgeable, scholarly understandings of a given subject or concept—and that in many cases, if a scholar or intellectual is arguing that another scholar should not have a platform to publish and speak within it is because the work they are producing shows extraordinary shoddiness, because the work they are producing is demonstrably—not arguably, not contentiously, but unambiguously—untrue. And because it is so dramatically bad, that work has to raise the question of what that scholar’s real motivation is for producing that work. Sometimes it’s just laziness, just a case of recycling old work. That isn’t anything that requires public dismissal or harsh critique.
But when the work is not only bad, but makes morally and politically repellant claims, it’s right to not merely offer public criticism but to raise questions about why a respectable scholarly journal would offer a place to such work: it mocks the basic ideals of peer review. It’s right to raise questions about why a prestigious university would regard the author of such work as a person who belongs on its faculty and tout him as an expert consultant in the making of public policy. That may be an accurate description of his role in setting policy on poverty in the past and his past work may possibly be not as awful as this recent work (though the contours of some of this thinking are visible, and reveal anew just how deeply flawed the public policy of the Clinton Administration really was). This is not about punishing someone for past sins, nor for their political affiliations. It is about what they have chosen to put to the page recently, and about the profound intellectual shoddiness of its content, in service to ideas that can only be called racist.