Morality And Inequality
Morality And Inequality
Often public discourse on class and racial inequality is reduced to discussions of the lack of morality among minorities and the poor. The disadvantaged social position of these frequently demonized groups is blamed on their immorality. This essay will challenge this tendency by presenting the argument—consistent with research findings of Michelle Lamont, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and others—that political and racial contestation creates not one static morality but rather multiple and fluid moralities. The emphasis here is that minorities and the poor often are embedded in structural contexts that shape their moralities. Before examining how the process of moral development takes place in various contexts and institutions, the meaning of morality must first be considered.
For some, morality has a religious base and is therefore a static concept emphasizing the “moral community.” In this view, political reform is “occasionally equivalent to moral reform in accord with God’s law” (Williams 1995, p. 130). Others believe the definition of morality depends on the context in which individuals live. Lamont states that “vice is not defined in clear opposition to virtue when ‘decent’ and ‘street’ people live side-to-side and have to learn to accommodate each other” (Lamont 1999, p. 7). Some definitions of morality emphasize collective elements such as solidarity and generosity, while others focus on individualistic characteristics such as responsibility, hard work, self-reliance, and protection of the family. Researchers have found that whites tend to stress the latter and minorities the former (Lamont 1999; Richardson 1999). The difference likely contributes to the demonization of minorities and the poor in a public discourse shaped by the dominant ideology of whites. The evolution of mainstream explanations for racial inequalities reflects the impact of this dominant ideology.
When explaining educational inequality, consider the “culture of poverty” thesis that argued that the poor, and therefore minorities, had a flawed culture characterized by a propensity toward violence, lack of deferred gratification and general immorality. As Oscar Lewis pointed out in 1966, the relative educational failure of these groups was seen as inevitable because of their immoral culture, regardless of exposure to greater educational and occupational opportunity. This highly individualistic view of educational inequality was refined in the 1970s with the development of oppositional culture theory. As laid out by John U. Ogbu in 1978, this theory argues that involuntary minorities, or racial groups incorporated as a result of slavery, colonization, or conquest—such as blacks, Mexicans, Native Americans and Puerto Ricans—perceive limited occupational opportunity relative to whites. This promotes pessimism and resistance to school values: Schooling is associated with whiteness and is therefore viewed as inappropriate for these minorities. Oppositional culture theory assumes that high-achieving individuals are put-down, or sanctioned, by their minority peers when they achieve school success (Fordham and Ogbu 1986).
Despite the acknowledgment of structural causes of student resistance, Lundy has criticized oppositional culture theory for essentially reverting to the culture of poverty position by emphasizing improvements in school-related attitudes and behaviors of involuntary minorities rather than addressing the limited opportunities they face (Lundy 2003). In 2000 John McWhorter stripped the oppositional culture position of its structural foundation and focused on the immorality of blacks as the root cause of their educational failure. He argued that blacks adhere to cults of victimology, separatism, and anti-intellectualism. Therefore they are solely responsible for their plight. Such emphases on blacks’ immorality as the cause of their educational failure ignores James Ainsworth-Darnell’s and Douglas Downey’s research showing that blacks actually have more positive school-related attitudes than do whites (1998). In fact, subsequent responses to oppositional culture theory—including those of Karolyn Tyson, William Darity Jr., and Domini R. Castellino in 2005 and Prudence L. Carter the same year—argue that blacks highly value education. Rather than explaining poor educational performance as an immoral cultural response, these researchers emphasize structural disadvantages and discrimination.
This pattern of mainstream ideology pointing to the immorality of blacks and the poor as the main cause of inequality (with social researchers responding by emphasizing structural disadvantages and discrimination) is repeated in literatures discussing several institutions, including the judicial system and the family.
Specifically, high crime rates among the poor and minorities are often explained by their “poor work habits, inadequate skills, and a preference for joining predatory gangs to accepting low-wage jobs” (Wilson 1992, p. 92). Many researchers, including Rachel Gordon, Benjamin B. Lahey, and Eriko Kawai, simply conclude that poor minorities join gangs and commit crimes without consideration of the structural causes of such choices (2004). Likewise, Bill Bush and Max Neutze view drug use and addiction as morally sinful, without the discussion of the broader context in which drug use takes place (2000). Alternatively, Suhir Alladi Venketesh argued in 1997 that gang activity must be viewed in relation to the structural context and social organization of the larger community. He found that economic success often leads gangs to embrace the community in a moral way. That is, gangs provide informal social services in impoverished communities. This calls into question the moral judgments often made of poor and minority criminals.
Other research shows that the widespread emphasis on the immorality of minorities and the poor can have profound effects on the treatment and outcomes they face in the justice system. George S. Bridges and Sara Steen found in 1998 that parole officers were more likely to explain crimes committed by blacks as a result of intrinsic personal characteristics of the offender. Similar crimes committed by whites were explained away as young men caught up in the wrong situation. Similarly, Steen, Rodney L. Engen, and Randy R. Gainey found in 2005 that white drug offenders faced harsh treatment only when they closely resembled the stereotypical dangerous drug offender. In contrast, black offenders avoided harsh treatment only when they clearly did not resemble minority or poor stereotypes. Several other studies echo this pattern of blacks facing harsher punishments (Graham and Lowery 2004), lower likelihood that judges withhold the adjudication of guilt (Bontrager, Bales, and Chiricos 2005), greater likelihood of being drug tested (Gee et al. 2005), and a greater likelihood of being confined in a secure detention facility (Leiber and Fox 2005).
Negative moral judgments are also used to make sense of the high teen pregnancy rates and common single-parent family structure among minority populations and the poor. Patricia K. Jennings claimed in 2004 that the dominant imagery suggests that welfare dependency leads to out-of-wedlock births and that both are major characteristics of the “underclass” culture. According to this view, single mothers are seen as lacking the “appropriate” orientation toward work and mainstream family values. Contrary to this dominant ideology, Jennings found that having children seemed to spark a desire to participate in socially valued roles and encouraged responsibility. In short, young black mothers acknowledged the negative, welfare queen image and acted against being labeled as such. In Carolyn E. Cocca’s view (2002), the conflation of nonmarital adolescent reproduction and poverty and the definition of this relationship as a moral affront to “traditional” American values furthers a conservative political agenda that limits broader discussion of social inequalities. In short, a focus on morality limits the scope of the debate and pushes structural considerations to the background, a point also discussed by Judith Stacey in 1996.
Overall, minorities and the poor are often vilified in the dominant public discourse and blamed for their own failures. The mainstream ideology compares them to the rest of society without consideration of their structural disadvantages and concludes that they have family lives and work habits that do not conform to mainstream morals, norms, and values. Many researchers turn to the moral development of these classes of people as the appropriate focus for policy reform. But this perspective addresses symptoms or a mirage rather than the true structural causes of racial and class inequality. Until policy makers and researchers stop focusing on the moral decay of the minority poor and start considering structural causes, such as poverty, residential segregation, and discrimination, discussion of class and racial inequality is destined to remain flawed and fruitless.
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James W. Ainsworth