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(African) American Exceptionalism

July 7, 2010

At TAPPED, Jamelle Bouie writes:

In my experience, the “acting white” charge was reserved for black kids, academically successful or otherwise, who didn’t fit in with the main crowd. In other words, this wasn’t some unique black pathology against academic achievement; it was your standard bullying and exclusion, but with a racial tinge . . .

My problem with these discussions is that they seek — inadvertently or otherwise — to pathologize the experience of some African Americans, blind to the fact that these are problems common to a whole host of socially and economically isolated groups. In this at least, poor African Americans aren’t exceptional, popular opinion notwithstanding.

This reminded me of a 19th century report issued by the Parisian Police Prefecture, as quoted in a footnote of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution:

The circumstances which oblige the workers to move out of the centre of Paris have generally, it is pointed out, had deplorable effects on their behaviour and morality. In the old days they used to live on the higher floors of buildings whose lower floors were occupied by businessmen and other members of the relatively comfortable classes. A sort of solidarity grew up between the tenants of a single building. Neighbours helped each other in little ways. When sick or unemployed the workers might find much assistance within the house, while on the other hand a sort of feeling of human respect imbued working-class habits with a certain regularity. (203)

It’s been about six years since I last read The Truly Disadvantaged, but this sounds a lot to me like William Julius Wilson’s argument about the detrimental effects of the exodus of the black middle class on the lower class blacks left behind in the inner city.

Wilson’s book was important because it challenged two simplistic explanations of black poverty – white racism and a black “culture of poverty” – by positing that the declining fortunes of urban African American communities was a result of class segregation. Class segregation has nothing to do with race. Its effects should be universal. Yet, as far as I can tell, Wilson’s work is much more likely to be framed as a contribution to the study of race in America rather than to the study of class structures in modern industrial democracies.

In Jamelle’s words, some people mistake that “racial tinge” as evidence that we are dealing with a wholly novel phenomenon – blackness – instead of a variation on the theme of human experience. At its mildest, blindness “to the fact that these are problems common to a whole host of socially and economically isolated groups” leads well-meaning intellectuals to close-read hip hop lyrics in hopes of discovering why some black kids are mean to other black kids. Plenty of other people, however, are willing to take the logic of African American exceptionalism beyond its mildest implications.


Also, check out Gomorrah. With the exception of skin color, Italian urban poverty looks a lot like American urban poverty. Of course, northern Italian stereotypes about southern Italians bear a certain resemblance to American racial stereotypes.


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One Comment
  1. holly permalink

    I’m discouraged by how racialized poverty is and continues to be even in our department. I’m thoroughly resentful of how little cache we’d give anyone who walked in and says, “Hey, I want to study non-urban poverty” despite the fact we all know it’s a subject that sorely needs sociological attention. I think, in part, because anyone who studies the topic of poverty qualitatively is constrained in pursuing anything but that which has really paved the field for all our fore-fathers.

    Though it has its flaws and its limitations, the work of Kefalas on rural white social geography in Hollowing Out the Middle ( and her work on inner-city whites in Working-Class Whites ( is a good start on fixing this problem. There’s some good stuff being done on the meth epidemic which is touching on the universality of the drug trade in the midwest.

    I think our department is thoroughly guilty in perpetuating an idea that the only poverty in America worth studying is the kind found in isolated urban contexts and is of a very particular racial character.

    How are things, by the way? It’s been a while since I’ve seen ya!

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