Continuing the series of extracts from my books on the theme of historical fears of the masses and of democracy, this third extract from The Meaning of Race explores the late twentieth century ‘underclass’ debate, and what it tells us about the changing character of the perceptions of race and class. The Meaning of Race was published in 1996 and, to a degree, shows its age. It discusses issues specifically of that time; in the 20 years since, much of the discussion has moved on. Yet, the argument I develop here still has, I think, relevance for contemporary debates. I have not included many references here, but all can be found in the book.
Elitism and the Underclass
From The Meaning of Race, pp198-203, 205-208
The ‘underclass’ is a term similar to ‘race’ in that it is a concept that is universally used, one that most people understand, yet few would be able to define. Even in academic discourse the underclass is rarely defined in precise terms. As British sociologist Lydia Morris has pointed out in her book Dangerous Classes, ‘one of the problems facing attempts to unravel [the underclass] debate is the looseness of the definition, which in turn complicates the problem of explanation.’ According to Morris, ‘Economic marginality, alternative values and deviant behaviour appear in some combination in almost all discussions of the underclass; deviance broadly embracing both criminal behaviour and single parenthood, which are implicitly associated.’ The concept of the underclass, Morris argues, is used not so much to define a sociological category as to denote a sense of estrangement from social norms and values:
In much of its usage, those to whom the label is applied not only stand outside of mainstream society and its central institutions, they reject its underlying norms and values. In Victorian England these social outsiders were sometimes termed the dangerous classes. They are now doubly dangerous, posing not only a threat to social organisation, but also a challenge to our models for portraying and understanding social structure. Through a construction of a category of ‘outsiders’, this threat is located outside of society, which may then be perceived as internally cohesive and free from significant challenge.
Morris, and similarly critical authors such as historian Michael Katz, are very much to the point in their claim that what defines the underclass in both popular and academic debate is not its poverty or its lack of resources, but its supposedly its alien moral values. A major feature in Time magazine, for instance, defined the underclass primarily by its values and behaviour, which it believed differed sharply from those of other Americans:
Behind the ghetto’s crumbling walls lives a large group of people who are more intractable, more socially alien and more hostile than almost anybody has imagined. They are the unreachables: the American underclass. Their bleak environment nurtures values that are often at odds with those of the majority – even the majority of the poor. Thus the underclass produces a highly disproportionate number of the nation’s juvenile delinquents, school dropouts, drug addicts and welfare mothers, and much of the adult crime, family disruption, urban decay and demand for social expenditure.
The underclass is treated as somehow different from the rest of society and indeed as standing outside of society. The very term ‘underclass’ denotes people who do not fit in to the scheme of things. The underclass is seen as composed of aliens and outcasts: ‘A Nation Apart’ as one US newspaper described it.
The parallels between the debate on immigration and that on the underclass should already be apparent. Both immigrants and the underclass are regarded as alien to the body of the nation, as groups whose difference imperil the cohesion of the nation and its sense of community. And just as the supposed difference of immigrants helps retrospectively establish the mythical homogeneity of the national community, so the difference of the underclass helps define the supposed meaning of citizenship. The very inarticulacy of what one British newspaper described as ‘the Calibans in our midst’ gives voice to the ‘real’ norms and values that guide our society.
The parallels are also apparent between the contemporary debate on the underclass and the Victorian debate on the ‘residuum’. Compare the description of the underclass (or ‘lower class’ as he termed it) given by Edward Bansfield, a one-time adviser to US President Richard Nixon, with Victorian writer Henry Mayhew’s description of the poor. Bansfield writes:
The lower class person lives from moment to moment, he is either unable or unwilling to take account of the future or to control his impulses. Improvidence and irresponsibility are direct consequences of this failure to take the future into account…and these consequences have further consequences: being improvident and irresponsible, he is likely also to be unskilled, to move frequently from one dead end job to another, to be a poor husband and father.
Compare that to Mayhew’s description (his term for the ‘outcast’ working class was the ‘nomad’):
The nomad then is distinguished from the civilized man by his repugnance to regular and continuous labour – by his want of providence in laying up store for the future – by his inability to perceive consequences ever so slightly removed from immediate apprehension – by his passion for stupefying herbs and roots, and, when possible, for intoxicating fermented liquor…
Not simply the description but the very language seems to span a century. Both the residuum and the underclass are descriptions not of the poor but of the morally degenerate, a class of people which by its nature is dissolute, debauched, depraved and sinful. In both the discussion of the residuum and that of the underclass, poverty and deprivation are seen as the responsibility not of society but of individuals. In both, poverty is portrayed as a moral, not a social, issue. Members of the residuum or the underclass are disadvantaged because they do not have the personal qualities or the moral fibre necessary to make themselves into good citizens…
But if the discussion of the underclass shows striking parallels with the debate about the ‘dangerous classes’ in Victorian times, we should not regard the former as simply a rerun of the latter…The most arresting difference between the two debates lies in the manner in which ‘difference’ is conceived. In Victorian discourse the dangerous classes were seen as physically distinct, their moral decadence arising from their biological inferiority. They were a race apart because they were anthropologically discrete. Some proponents of the underclass thesis have… attempted to establish a genetic basis for social difference. But, in general, the difference of the underclass has been cast in cultural, not biological, terms. The underclass is seen as culturally distinct from the rest of society. The habits and morals that make it different are seen as being passed on from generation to generation through cultural, not genetic, transmission.
Today, the demonisation of the underclass is a central component of the conservative backlash against the postwar consensus. But the origins of the idea that the poor belong to a distinct culture lies, as Katz has noted, ‘among liberals who advocated more active, generous, and interventionist policies on behalf of the poor’. The lineage of the contemporary concept of the underclass lies with the liberal discourse which formed the foundation of the postwar consensus.
Katz points to the anthropologist Oscar Lewis as pre-eminent in introducing the idea of the culture of poverty. In Lewis’ account of the slum-dwellers of Mexico and Puerto Rico, the poor were characterized by a set of attitudes and behaviour that was bred by the struggle to survive and which became a ‘way of life… passed down from generation to generation along family lines’. This culture of poverty played a causal role in the disadvantage of succeeding generations…
Lewis mainly studied poverty in Third World societies. Michael Harrington applied the idea of the culture of poverty to communities in the USA. In The Other America, the seminal liberal account of poverty in America, Harrington argued that ‘poverty in the United States is a culture, an institution, a way of life’. According to Harrington, ‘The family structure of the poor’, was ‘different from that of the rest of society’. He added that there was ‘a language of the poor, a psychology of the poor, a world view of the poor’.
Lewis and Harrington were liberals. Their aim was to formulate a programme of state intervention that could alleviate poverty by undermining the culture of poverty and by acculturating the poor into middle class, Middle American values. The proponents of the culture of poverty thesis were all fierce supporters of the War on Poverty and the Great Society, President Lyndon B Johnson’s sixties crusade against poverty. But the argument that the poor were different from the rest of society, that they belonged to a different culture, subscribed to a different worldview and formed different social structures had ominous undertones. It appropriated the old idea that social inadequacies were the function of racial differences and recast it in the language of postwar liberalism. The culture of poverty, observes Katz, ‘did not capture all poor people’. Rather, ‘it placed in a class by themselves those whose behaviours and values converted their poverty into a self-perpetuating world of dependence’. Underlying this thesis was the liberal assumption that ‘dependent people were mainly helpless and passive, unable, without the leadership of liberal intellectuals, to break the cycles of deprivation and degradation that characterized their lives.’
In the political context of the postwar consensus, the culture of poverty thesis was an argument for government intervention to eradicate poverty. But as postwar liberalism began to ebb, the same concept came to underpin the argument that no amount of intervention could transform poverty. Since the poor were distinct, different, apart from society, they could not be considered part of a common community but should be regarded as a threat to the integrity of society. Through this process the poor became racialised. For sixties liberals the poor were different but they believed that philanthropic intervention could alleviate their cultural deprivation and inculcate them with new values. For nineties conservatives that underclass is different and no amount of intervention can eradicate that difference.
The very failure of the liberal hopes of the sixties has given rise to the racialisation of the underclass. Today’s conservatives ask themselves the same question that has puzzled all proponents of racial theory: why is it that, despite a political goal of equality and improving social and economic conditions, social differences seem stubbornly unwilling to be eradicated? Back in the seventies, the British secretary of state for education Sir Keith Joseph asked ‘Why… in spite of long periods of full employment and relative prosperity and the improvement in community services since the Second World War, [do] deprivation and problems of maladjustment so conspicuously persist?’ Two decades later, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray faced up to the same question in the picture they drew of contemporary America in their controversial book The Bell Curve:
A great nation, founded on principles of individual liberty and self-government that constitute the crowning achievement of statecraft, approaches the end of the twentieth century. Equality of rights – another central principle – has been implanted more deeply and more successfully than in any other society in history. Yet even as the principle of equal rights triumphs, strange things begin to happen to two small segments of the population.
In one segment life gets better in many ways. The people in this group are welcomed at the best colleges, then at the best graduate and professional schools, regardless of their parents’ wealth. After they complete their education they enter fulfilling and prestigious careers. Their incomes continue to rise even when income growth stagnates for everyone else…
In the other group, life gets worse, and its members collect at the bottom of society. Poverry is worse, drugs and crime are rampant, and the traditional family all but disappears. Economic growth passes them by…
Herrnstein and Murray express with devastating clarity the central conundrum of racial thinking: how to equate a belief in equality with growing inequality. The answer for Herrnstein and Murray, as for Joseph and for all underclass theorists, as indeed it has been for all racial thinkers, is that difference is in the nature of things. Social inequality persists because society is by nature unequal. The elitism of classical racial formalism was expressed in biological terms. Today, elitist arguments are more likely to be cast in cultural or moral terms…
In his 1984 book Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, Murray argued that poverty, unemployment and other social pathologies were the result not of policy failure but of the personal failings of the poor. The underclass, he claimed, was different from the rest of American society in its values and norms. This difference was particularly revealed in its amoral behaviour, the best indices of which were the rising illegitimacy rates, increased crime and drug addiction, and welfare dependency. Murray subsequently brought his analysis to Britain, arguing that Britain, too, had created its own underclass and was heading for a social crisis similar to that which already existed in the USA.
Murray’s theory has been controversial but it has also proved to be highly influential, particularly in the context of the conservative backlash against postwar liberalism and welfare policies that characterised the Reagan/Thatcher years. The American public policy analyst Robert Greenstein observed in March 1985 that ‘Congress will soon engage in bitter battles over where to cut the federal budget, and Losing Ground is already being used as ammunition by those who would direct more reductions to programmes for the poor’. Murray’s ideas have influenced not only conservatives but liberals too. The social policies of both US Democratic president Bill Clinton and of Tony Blair’s new look Labour Party in Britain have been shaped by the underclass thesis.
In contrast to Losing Ground, Murray’s latest work, The Bell Curve, which he co-authored with the late Richard Herrnstein, was met with almost unanimous condemnation. A series of responses to the book from eminent scholars and authors in the American magazine the New Republic ranged from descriptions of The Bell Curve‘s vision as ‘alien and repulsive’ to denunciations of Herrnstein and Murray for their ‘neo-Nazi’ outlook. There were many calls on both sides of the Atlantic for the book to be banned.
Why has there been such hostility to the work of an author who previously had been so influential? The answer lies in the way that the book confused cultural arguments for racial difference with old-fashioned biological arguments. The core thesis in The Bell Curve is the belief that America is being stratified (or ‘partitioned’ in Herrnstein and Murray’s terminology) by intellectual ability, with a ‘cognitive elite’ of highly educated professionals at the top and a growing underclass… of dullards at the bottom. The authors relentlessly insist that it is the personal intelligence, not social or economic factors, that explains the disparity between rich and poor. According to Herrnstein and Murray social pathologies such as poverty, welfare dependency, unemployment, illegitimacy and crime are all strongly related to low IQ… They claim too that differences in IQ are largely genetic and passed on from generation to generation.
At the same time as linking antisocial attitudes to low IQ, Herrnstein and Murray also resurrect traditional explanations for underclass behaviour:
A lack of foresight, which is often associated with low IQ, raises the attractions of immediate gains from crime and lowers the strength of deterrents, which come later (if they come at all). To a person of low intelligence, the threats of apprehension and prison may fade to meaninglessness. They are too abstract, too far into the future, too uncertain…
Perhaps the ethical principles for not committing crimes are less accessible (or less persuasive) to people of low intelligence. They find it harder to understand why robbing someone is wrong, find it harder to appreciate the values of civil and cooperative social life, and are accordingly less inhibited from acting in ways that are hurtful to other people and to the community at large.
Such arguments may be distasteful (and factually absurd) but they differ little from mainstream, including liberal, explanations for underclass behaviour. The most explosive argument in The Bell Curve, and the one that has drawn all the critical flak, is the assertion that differences between different racial groups can also be explained by differences in intelligence.
Observing that there is a consistent gap between the IQ levels of black and white populations in America, Herrnstein and Murray argue that this is the result of inherent racial differences in intellectual ability. Reworking figures for unemployment, wage levels and imprisonment, they claim that differences between black and white populations all but disappear once IQ levels are taken into account. The conclusion is that black disadvantage is the result not of racism but of innate intellectual inferiority…
Murray and Herrnstein have thrown together a hodgepodge of everyday prejudices, framed it with an impressive-looking set of statistics, and presented it as an academic thesis. The fundamental methodological flaws of The Bell Curve are all too apparent… Liberal intellectuals (and indeed many conservatives) were repelled by the book’s crude ethnographic stereotypes, its unintentional parody of multicultural arguments, and most of all by its seeming throwback to Victorian eugenics and prewar social theory. Yet, if the book were stripped of its vulgar racial claims, most of its critics would have been drawn to the underlying elitism of Herrnstein and Murray’s argument, and to the book’s basic proposition that America’s underclass is morally inferior and alien to the American tradition. As a review by Malcolm Browne in the New York Times Book Review suggested, ‘one of the strengths of The Bell Curve is that it devotes an entire section to the relationship between IQ and behaviour among whites alone, thereby eliminating the complications arising from interracial comparisons’…
Liberal theorists may prefer to articulate their elitist beliefs around moral issues, such as family structure, illegitimacy and crime – as Murray did in Losing Ground – rather than around claims of biological superiority and inferiority, as Herrnstein and Murray do in The Bell Curve, but the consequences are little different. In preferring the Murray of Losing Ground to the Murray of The Bell Curve, liberal critics signal that they prefer a hidden, coded form of racial argument based on the grounds of cultural and moral difference to upfront claims of racial inferiority and superiority based on biological theories.
The top image is from Shane Meadows’ 2006 film This is England.