Activism, Education, Top Stories

The Lawrence Mead Affair

Lawrence Mead, a long-time proponent of welfare reform, is a professor of politics and public policy at New York University. On July 21st this year, an ill-advised article he had written, ‘Poverty and Culture’, appeared in the academic journal Society.

The article began by asking, “Why do so many Americans remain destitute… even when jobs are available?” According to Mead, the answer is not “social barriers, such as racial discrimination or lack of jobs,” but rather “cultural difference.” Noting that “the seriously poor are mostly blacks and Hispanics,” he argued that such individuals have not internalised Western norms of individualism. As a consequence, he maintained, “they are at a disadvantage competing with the European groups—even if they face no mistreatment on racial grounds.”

Regarding the claim that “black social problems” are due to “white oppression,” Mead argued, “By that logic, the problems should have been worst prior to the civil rights reforms in the 1960s.” Yet in his reading of events, “The collapse of the black family occurred mostly after civil rights rather than before.” Hence Mead not only suggested that Western culture is better than non-Western culture, at least when it comes to getting ahead in America, but also that higher poverty rates among blacks and Hispanics are attributable to factors other than racial discrimination. As you can imagine, this message was not warmly received.

By July 24th—three days after the article was published—a Twitter mob had begun to form. In a tweet that got more than 2,400 likes, one commentator offered the following points of criticism: “F**K LAWRENCE MEAD! F**K WHOMEVER ALLOWED THIS TO GET PUBLISHED! F**K THE EDITORS! F**K THE REVIEWERS!” [asterisks not in original]. The next day, an account currently under the name “bring back misandry” wrote, “Tbh f**k academia. Violent anti-Blackness cloaked in bs intellectualism.”

By July 26th, there were two separate petitions calling for Mead’s article to be retracted. The first, which eventually garnered 1,053 signatures, described the article as “unscholarly” and “overtly racist.” The second, which garnered an impressive 3,510 signatures, went even further. According to the petitioners, Mead’s article expressed “racially violent narratives directed at the Black and Latina/o/X community.” Not only that, but the ideologies he espoused “are reflective of the racist, anti-Black, patriarchal, hegemonic doctrines perpetuated in society, PreK-12, and in higher education.”

On July 27th, the Faculty of Arts and Science at Mead’s own university, NYU, issued an official statement. It began by noting that Mead’s article “has caused great distress within our community.” While the statement acknowledged that “Professor Mead has the same rights to freedom of expression as we all do,” it rejected “the article’s false, prejudicial, and stigmatizing assertions about the culture of communities of color.” It also emphasised the need to “amplify our fundamental values of diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging”.

On July 30th, two more official statements were issued. The first was from Springer Nature, the publishing company that owns the journal Society. It stated, “We are deeply concerned that flaws in our publishing process resulted in a commentary article being published… without proper editorial oversight.” And it concluded, “We are deeply sorry for the distress and upset that our publication of this paper has caused.” (Knowing that a large, multinational publishing company feels something “deeply” is always reassuring.)

The second statement was from the directors of 10 poverty research centres based at American universities. Like the NYU statement, it acknowledged that “Professor Mead has the same rights to express his opinions as we all do” but insisted that his conclusions are “false, without any supporting evidence, and completely unfounded.” Also like the NYU statement, it emphasised the need to “center our work on fundamental values of diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging.” (I have noted previously that these kinds of statements often read like they were generated by an algorithm.)

On 31 July, Mead’s article was retracted. In accordance with this decision, Springer Nature issued an update to its statement of 30 July, which noted, “We are deeply sorry that this commentary was published in one of our journals”. (The company apparently felt that its earlier apology had not been sufficient.)

Likewise, Society’s editor-in-chief said, “I deeply regret the pain that this has caused.” He also explained that his original intent had been to publish Mead’s article alongside two critical reviews “that identify flaws in Mead’s arguments.”

Mead himself refused to give any ground, telling Campus Reform that “his argument was entirely non-racial and only had to do with cultural differences between Western and non-Western groups.” He also affirmed, “There is no evidence” that serious multigenerational poverty is caused by racism.

The Mead affair, as people who follow these sorts of things will know, played out in much the same way as other recent scandals, such as the one involving Tomas Hudlicky or the one involving Norman Wang. Twitter activists sounded the alarm that a “problematic” paper had been published. Universities and other organisations scrambled to issue denunciations while reaffirming their commitment to “diversity, inclusion and equity.” After a brief “investigation,” the offending paper was retracted.

I should add, for my part, that I did not find Mead’s arguments particularly convincing. Most significantly, his claim that “non-Western culture” prevents minorities from getting ahead would seem to be contradicted by the success of Asian Americans, who enjoy higher average incomes than white Americans, and similar poverty rates. Mead even mentioned that “some Asian countries have recently become richer and more powerful,” despite the fact that “their way of life is collective,” but made no real attempt to reconcile these observations with his theory.

However, just because I was unconvinced by Mead’s arguments does not mean that his article should be ceremonially denounced by half the people in his field, nor that it should be retracted from the journal where it was published. Indeed, the criticism I made above could also be made of the claim that racism causes poverty (Asians too have been subject to racism), and I wouldn’t want papers putting forward that theory to be retracted either. Another consideration is that Mead’s paper was a “commentary,” rather than a “research article,” so there was presumably more scope for him to defend his own perspective on the subject matter.

As mentioned above, Society’s editor-in-chief had originally intended to publish Mead’s article alongside two critical reviews. To my mind, this would have been exactly the right way to handle the incident. If someone puts forward a controversial theory, others should have the chance to criticise it, and the rest of us can then decide whether that theory has any merit. However, the mere presence of Mead’s article on the journal’s website was apparently too distressing for his critics, so it had to be purged straight away.

One particularly interesting aspect of the Mead affair is that many academics now consider it “racist” to invoke culture as an explanation of group differences. Back in 2009, the psychologist Richard Nisbett noted that he had gotten “remarkably little criticism” for his work on group differences in IQ because he was “saying genetics plays no role.” However, Nisbett did argue there are subcultures “that discourage academic achievement.” One wonders if he could make the same argument today.

 

Noah Carl is an independent researcher based in the UK Follow him on Twitter @NoahCarl90.

Comments

  1. Well, if he was so wrong it should have been easy to prove such. The left however shouts rather than improving thei arguments. “he argued that such individuals have not internalised Western norms of individualism” this is his hypothesis, everyone else gets to try and prove or disprove it. However, the author of the article played fenc rider by saying he was unconvinced and pointing to Asian countries. Japan and South Korea were helped by the US, influenced greatly by Western culture - Deming spent a great deal of time in Japan. And despite their success they have still been less stable than full western countries.

    China is doing well, partly because the west got greedy for cheap stuff. But they are communist, so good luck starting a business if you live there.

    Lastly, the Hispanic PHD that responded as he did, helped his case very little. He responded like a petulant teenager rather than a person who holds critical thought in high esteem. Mead did not say every Black or Hispanic. Of course, like all groups there is a range.
    But, is he wrong about the disintegration of the black family post civil rights, nope. Ignoring this reality is unlikely to improve their current scenario…

  2. Maybe Asians are willing to “internalize Western norms” just as did immigrant Italians, Greeks, Jews, Armenians, Slavs, lots of Hispanics, and some slave-descendant blacks. The ones who don’t stay poor, and the majority of them are black and recent immigrant - likely illegal - Hispanic. To the ones sliding Mead into the guillotine, you don’t like his thesis, then you 'splain why…and rayycism, with its attendant white guilt, is starting to fall rather flat outside the realm of college indoctrinista soybois and screeching purple-haired land whales…

  3. Lawrence Mead is 77 years old, a tenured (I presume) university professor, and I have little doubt that he can retire tomorrow in financial comfort and security.

    The people involved in publishing his article, however, are probably much younger, and perhaps not financially secure at all.

    Guess who is hiding in dark corners of their offices right now, pointing fingers at their colleagues.

    It’s not Prof. Mead. Go get 'em, tiger.

  4. The truth that dare not be spoken. The more the Left makes ideas verboten the more intriguing and interesting they become. Initially it seems odd that progressivism is the movement that seeks to ban ideas. However it actually a natural out growth of movements that embrace ideology over freedom. Conservatism embraces freedom for the sake of freedom. The regressive Left has become the establishment of the modern Inquisition.

  5. So Meade gets mobbed for “commentary” vice research and Hannah-Jones gets a Pulitzer. Makes sense to me.

  6. When did the “F-U” Twitter-verse replace effective rebuttal via actual facts and evidence? When 280 characters of emotional nonsense can destroy academic papers, the tail is effectively wagging the dog.

    I believe Twitter gained such power because journalists were generally banned from making comments on their own publication sites. So Twitter gave them this power to effectively troll. Academics also jumped on the bandwagon where the lowest common denominator rules the day. But, hey, some of these troll-tweets from the “Ph.D” crowd will have more readers than the Ph.D’s actual dissertation so maybe they feel popular…I guess.

  7. This is sad, but then it is a college prep school…

    “Even in online school, the fact that we’re in our homes (and) we still aren’t safe, we still don’t feel safe … that’s just kind of difficult to deal with,”

    Amazing.

  8. The idea that culture is mainly responsible for the failure of African American and Latino demographics to achieve economic parity with Whites is probably less convincing than racism or racial bias. Both are likely factors and the belief in omnipresent racism in particular, holds a narrative power which likely has a worse effect than the actual problem. We know that teenage boys have a tendency to give up or be led astray when they are robbed of their sense of agency, and the paternal caregivers most responsible for imparting it.

    It is perhaps better to look at the American Irish for clues as to why economic outcomes are stacking up at the bottom for the Latino and African American income spectrums. Because unlike most other demographics migrating into America, the Irish languished at the bottom of the newly expanding American society. They had disproportionately high levels of violent crime and a reputation for being violent drunks.

    Signs were put out by landlords reading ‘No Irish, Blacks or dogs.’ And like African Americans in the post Civil Rights era, the Irish were beguiled into thinking that their early achievements in powerful political representation could be the main source of their social and economic ascension, when subsequent events proved that political power was actually counterproductive, only distracting or diverting from the hard work necessary for a people to rise economically as a community.

    The American Irish did eventually manage to pull themselves out of poverty relative to other migrant groups. The mechanism was the unceasing demand by the market for low skilled and semi-skilled labour, paired with the noble aspiration to parley the sacrifices of one generation into better opportunities for the next. In this, politics only serves to distract, with politicians offering the Promised Land within the same generation, when the evidence of history paints a story of social mobility, at a community level, better likened to that of Jude the Obscure- although at least in our modern era, unlike fictional stonemasons, exceptional individuals can rise up the economic spectrum to the top.

    So what went wrong after Civil Rights? True- race was a factor, as was culture, but the real reasons lie in fundamental shifts in the economic system. Simply put, the Keynesian full employment economics of the post war liberal consensus failed not only in America, but across the Western world- as labour finally succeeded in denuding capital of all its profits, with bosses forced to pay subsequent demands for pay improvements out price rises, leading to the hyperinflation of the Seventies. The situation was only exacerbated by the fact that whilst Congress passed reforms on amnesty for migrant children, they were unable to reach agreement over plans to significantly curb subsequent illegal immigration.

    So, at the same time that labour was going through a long overdue process of rationalisation and curtailment of its relative share of the pie, the tap on continued immigration was broken, making the supply of labour as a commodity an unlimited resource in the new economics. The fault for this cannot be laid at Reagan, or indeed at Thatcher- both were simply responding to the underlying economics with greater speed, alacrity and efficiency than any of their contemporaries.

    But what this did mean, was that at exactly the time when the hard won victories of the Civil Rights era should have been pressed home, utilising the one thing politics can successfully deliver- Equality under the Law- the selfsame mechanism which every other migrant group had used to climb the economic ladder, the ability to use an unlimited demand for the supply of low skilled and semi-skilled labour into a better life for their children, was suddenly unavailable. Fate, and economics, had conspired to pull up the ladder, or at least put it out of reach for all but the tallest and most able.

    A smarter political class might have acted more quickly to curtail subsequent immigration. But the problem is that the creative destruction of the free market generated a huge degree of venture capital and subsequent distributed economic activity as it burns through the bloat and fat of a Keynesian era. And often the economic opportunities generated by such periods occur further up the economic spectrum, or, as has recently been the case in areas of employment which are better suited for women than for men.


    image
    image

    We could liken this effect to a game of musical chairs, which hits those at the bottom of the opportunity spectrum hardest. Many are probably aware of the term comparative advantage, but in the modern era we need to contend with the fact that a surplus of low skilled and semi skilled migration from abroad can create a gladiatorial arena of Social Darwinism at the bottom, with the price for failure a community level the long-term displacement of future prospects inter-generationally.

    A common theme when looking at migrant demographics is to see recent migrant populations which do better than previous generations of migrants, or those who have lived in America for a long time. We see it with recent African migrant communities to the UK, relative to the earlier waves of Afro-Caribbean migrants from the Fifties and Sixties. Similarly, recent Afro-Caribbean and African migrant communities to the States have fared much better than African American communities with their lengthy history- with many recent migrant African or Afro-Caribbean demographics excelling median white incomes. So what is going on?

    Well, it might be worthwhile comparing all the socially beneficial tools which a community has at its disposal to the steel frame structure on a tall building. Two parent families are a must, as are fathers and the prevalence of faith communities at a neighbourhood’s heart. Culture also plays a role, with thrift, hard work and a sense of agency all vital parts of this structure of cohesion. But it is clear that over time, this substructure can be undermined and corroded.

    Socio-economics plays a role, especially in an era that academic credentialism has shut off opportunities for the less affluent, when we’ve commodified education. The legacy of historical wrongs bears some responsibility as well, especially Jim Crow. But we also need to look at the well-intentioned but misguided policies of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and the way it discouraged fatherhood, by providing perverse incentives for single motherhood, and the cultural permissiveness of the Sixties and Seventies surely bears a portion of the blame.

    But the main factor affecting whether a community can rise from economic hardship to middle class status is narrative, and the degree to which said narrative can be used to confer a sense of agency, or indeed to steal it. Because for the African or Afro-Caribbean migrant community arriving in America the steel frame of culture is largely intact- coming from economically desperate circumstances to those where opportunity abounds, must surely create a narrative of agency which allows individuals and groups to surmount whatever hurdles are placed in their way by race.

    For the African American community which has not yet joined the 50% to 60% of African American communities which have entered the middle class, no such agency exists. Whatever infrastructure which once existed within the community has long since corroded into a rotting and rusted carcass. And in these circumstances it is easy to see how a narrative of racism, both real and imagined, can lead to a total lack of belief in the power of agency to affect change on an individual basis. The key distinction is to understand that however pernicious racism was in the past, its legacy is in the majority of instances purely perverse in the outcomes it produces.

    This is not to say that the situation does not need addressing. Poorer African American and Latino communities are long overdue for a major upgrade of the rusted infrastructure that girds their communities, if for no better reason than because the deep well of relative poverty which exists at the bottom of the income spectrum, paired with a structural absence of fathers, has only led to an extraordinary susceptibility amongst young males in struggling communities to the machinations of gang grooming and the concentrated violent crime it causes with the urban crime phenomenon. 50% of all violent crime happens in 2% of districts.

    The best means of achieving this upgrade to infrastructure has to be massive expansion of vocation training for those not well served by the school system. In 2019, there was a skills shortage for vocational training, with 7 million jobs going unfilled. For some, this might only mean extending the umbrella of student loans to cover vocational training, but for those growing up in these shattered communities it might mean free training or a graduate contributions scheme.

    To those who want a full accounting over race this must surely seem anathema- it would seem to nothing to address the power differentials of race and income gaps further up the economic spectrum, beyond the $60K or so one might reasonably expect for a vocationally skilled job. But this ignores the fact that much of the higher income gains which exist in economically liberal societies are produced by surpluses further down the economic spectrum. Even before we consider China’s economic miracle, its worth noting that previous efforts at Black entrepreneurship might have been less efficacious than hoped for, simply because their wasn’t enough money embedded in the African American community.

    And we need to consider the positive social impacts of introducing a generation of reasonably well-paid young men into poorer communities. Declining rates of fatherhood have been due, at least in part, to a shortage of admirable males in poorer communities with which young women can form stable long-term relationships. These future fathers could, in turn, provide a healthy dose of male stoicism and agency to young children growing up, as well as acting as immunisers against future gang grooming. We also have to consider the possibility that the problems which have afflicted marginalised communities for so long, might be soon due to afflict other demographics as rates of fatherhood decline…

  9. Very well put together! I heard a similarly convincing case by John McWhorter in his discussion with Sam Harris, parts of which are freely available on Youtube on Sam’s podcast.

    McWhorter also sees a major problem in the high number of non marital birth rates, the lack of respectable father figures (due to many of those being jailed for petty drug crimes), and a constant grooming of badly educated young males (in lack of an alternative career) into drug related crime gangs. He proposes three important changes that would improve the situation of african american:

    1. No longer criminalization for petty drug crimes (like cannabis).
    2. Long term contraception for young woman
    3. Increase of true literacy rate of african american communities.

    McWhorter also stresses the fact that black immigrants from Africa (he particularly mentions Nigeria) are usually very successful in the US, despite having to struggle against some form of racism and prejudice. But they do not seem to listen too much to white priviledged college kids or journalists telling them that they have no chance in this country. They just get their act together and improve their life.

  10. A digression, but let me get this straight. David Martinez, a PHD, wrote:

    FUCK WHOMEVER ALLOWED THIS… .

    ??? How do you get a PhD without knowing the difference between subject and object pronouns?

  11. Considering how much business literature emphasizes company culture as key to success, why is culture dismissed as influencing the success of communities and individuals ?

  12. I have a feeling that if everyone is given freely a basic income of $1,000 per month then the average monthly expenses of an American will just rise by $1,000. The scheme is never going to work. Wealth is always and only relative. The government cannot ever totally remove scarcity. Once a particular scarcity is removed, then some other, new object of desire is what wealthy people want and poor go without.

  13. In the culture of victimhood, which is black culture today, having agency is a huge mistake. Your status as “victim” is defined by your inability to succeed. If you are able to succeed, you are no longer a victim. This is why “Uncle Toms” are specific enemies. These are black persons who have risen above their place. They are no longer victims, and that means that they are race traitors.

  14. Well, when you write nonsense like this in your professional bio

    Davíd G. Martínez is a protean school finance policy critical scholar connecting policy and praxis through multi-method inquiry. His research focuses on the intersection of School Finance Policy, Critical Theory/ Critical Race Theory, and Equity of Educational Opportunity. Through the lens of Rawlsian Social Justice and Aristotelian Equity Davíd seeks to understand how school funding policy/ reform impacts fiscal capacity and spending in low-income, ethnically and linguistically diverse, minoritized communities.

    …you’d be hard-pressed to convince me that you know anything useful at all.

Continue the discussion in Quillette Circle

91 more replies

Participants