A Rejoinder to “Poverty and Culture” from the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work

We live in an age in which academics are often criticized as elitists who uphold liberal values, indoctrinate our students with these values, and dismiss out of hand any ideas advocated by colleagues or others that seem to oppose those values. In response, we admit that we strive to preserve and protect the values of equity, diversity and inclusion because we view them as the foundation for a democratic and just society and the cornerstone of academic freedom. At the same time, we strive to apply these values to the pursuit of challenging and transforming the Academy in a manner that fits its diversity. We also assert that when those values are challenged, we are obligated as intellectuals, and as citizens, to respond. 

Recently, a member of the faculty of the Department of Politics at New York University published a peer-reviewed journal article that claimed that attempts to attribute long-term poverty to social barriers, such as racial discrimination or lack of jobs, have failed. In response to this alleged failure, the author argues that all racial minorities come from non-Western cultures in which most people seek to adjust to outside conditions rather than seeking change. He claims that this is in contrast to an individualist culture in which most people seek to achieve personal goals. The author further claims that:

"Westerners are moralistic about social order, demanding that behavior respect universal principles, while in the non-West norms are less rigid and depend mostly on the expectations of others. These differences best explain why minorities - especially Blacks and Hispanics - typically respond only weakly to chances to get ahead through education and work, and also why crime and other social problems run high in low-income areas."

Were it not for the fact that this author’s views are antithetical to the values of equity and inclusion that we as an academic community strive to promote, they might be considered quaint and obsolete, disproved by years of empirical research and illustrative of potential weaknesses in the system of peer review. The argument that poverty is associated with non-Western cultures fails to explain why non-Hispanic whites who were born in the United States represent the largest group of people living below the federal poverty line or why, while people of color whose families have lived in the United States for generations and have fully adopted its individualist culture, they remain in poverty. We believe the fact that such ideas are advanced in this day and age is troubling because they demonstrate the persistence of deeply-rooted values that support systemic racism, income inequality, marginalization, and social injustice, and bear resemblance to arguments advanced in past years attributing ethnic and racial inequality to genetic differences. These values historically have supported and maintained systemic racism

Ironically, while it attempts to provide a justification for inequality, the article in question is not completely in opposition to the value given to diversity, in this instance, the diversity of ideas. While we acknowledge the right of others to advance ideas that differ from our own in the interests of promoting intellectual diversity and stimulating thoughtful discussion of our differences, we also reaffirm our right to disagree and to challenge such ideas that further systems of oppression. We view articles like this as an opportunity to foster much-needed dialogue and uphold our core values and to promote them by honing our message to the wider community, but also to further the promise of democracy.

To reference the work of our faculty online, we ask that you directly quote their work where possible and attribute it to "FACULTY NAME, a professor in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work” (LINK: https://dworakpeck.usc.edu)