The only thing more predictable than riots in the United States’ dilapidated cities is the outpouring of moralizing pseudo-explanations that accompany them. In this, as in so much else, Ferguson has been no exception. Between riffs on the venerable trope of “outside agitators,”commentators groping for an explanation of the uprising have seized on another, equally well-established mythology: the idea of a culture of poverty among black Americans.
Racists began blowing on this particular dog-whistle as soon as the murder of Michael Brown began to attract national attention. No doubt in the coming months it will only get louder. As the sheer scale and brutality of racial inequality in the US comes, however hazily, into popular focus, conservatives across the country will, much like Zionists suddenly concerned with the fate of the Syrian uprising, suddenly evince an intense preoccupation with the lives of black Americans. We will hear how welfare has made blacks dependent on the government, has broken up the black family, and has encouraged a culture of criminality and violence (as evidenced by all that rap music).
Variations on that basic narrative have, of course, become the norm in the language favored by the Right whenever it’s confronted with questions of racism. But the influence of the culture of poverty thesis extends far beyond the ranks of Republican officials, Tea Party activists, and Fox News talking heads — apparent, for instance, in the near-universal tendency to turn any discussion of the pervasive inequalities and discrimination suffered by African Americans into a moralizing sermon about the cultural pathologies of black people.