Although the white ethnographic gaze was applied to black and brown people the world over, this post is about how it was applied to blacks in America. It is my take on “White Ethnographers on the Experiences of African American Men: Then and Now” by black sociologist Alford A. Young, Jr. It appears as chapter 11 of “White Logic, White Methods” (2008) edited by Tukufu Zuberi and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.
In the 1960s the American government and foundations poured a ton of money into science to study poor blacks who lived in big cities. The studies were done by and for whites. The hope was that, by studying blacks, ways could be found to pretty much wipe out poverty.
The three most important ethnographic studies of the period were:
- 1967: Eliot Liebow: “Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men”
- 1969: Ulf Hannerz: “Soulside”
- 1970: Lee Rainwater: “Ghetto Walls: Black Family Life in a Federal Slum”
I remember seeing the first two at the library back in the 1980s.
These in turn were informed by Oscar Lewis’s studies in the 1950s and 1960s of poor Latinos and his idea of a “culture of poverty”: poverty shapes culture which in turn helps to keep people poor – like by making them give up hope.
The blacks who gained the most attention of white ethnographers were unemployed men who hung out at street corners, particularly the loud, dramatic and aggressive ones. Whites studied their values, norms, attitudes and behaviour as compared those of the white middle-class. They became exotic creatures living in a strange subculture.
The advantage of this approach is that values, norms and attitudes were the stock in trade of these ethnographers.
The weaknesses, though, were several:
- Most black men worked and by the late 1960s most blacks did not live in poverty. Even among those who did, these men were not a good sample.
- The white middle-class was idealized, like something out of “Leave It to Beaver”, since it had not been studied properly at the level of fact.
- White is right: white culture was presumed to be right and good so that differences were seen as bad.
The last one let racism in through the back door, which then got backing as neutral, objective science.
Blacks who disagreed were seen as incapable of being fair-minded, unlike white ethnographers.
Yet white ethnography was so profoundly racist that it was not till the 1990s that science discovered that most poor black people were rational human beings, that they were quite capable of hard work and discipline, that they had thoughts and feelings worth taking seriously in understanding their actions. All that might seem like common sense but it was uncommon among whites.
Because black cultural differences were read mainly as the cause and effect of poverty, by the 1980s it led to the idea of the black underclass, of blacks stuck forever in poverty due to cultural pathologies – something that most White Americans believe to this day.