Cultural deficiency refers to a theoretical argument that the cultural attributes or practices often associated with historically disenfranchised racial/ethnic groups (specifically, blacks and Latinos) have prevented them from assimilating and attaining social mobility within U.S. society. Examples of cultural deficiencies include limited outlooks and attitudes toward the future, a failure to internalize the work ethic, instant gratification behavior, a lack of parent involvement in schools, low intellectual abilities, an emphasis on masculinity and honor, and an aversion to honest work. Other so-called deficiencies, as identified by Stanley Eitzen and Maxine Baca Zinn (2006), may include early initiation to sex among children, female-headed households, a fatalistic attitude toward life, and a limited interest in education. The cultural deficiency argument also posits a causal linkage between certain cultural attributes and upward socioeconomic mobility. It identifies the attributes of economically and socially successful middle-class whites as the mechanisms that enable success (e.g., emphasis on achievement, education, and independence) vis-à-vis legal or institutional structures and social ideologies.
The manner in which cultural characteristics operate forms another significant component of cultural deficiency. Culturally deficient groups are viewed as developing certain cultural qualities so as to adapt to poverty, particularly over time. Such characteristics are passed on from one generation to another, making it difficult for individuals to escape poverty. Thus the identified deficiencies have a cyclical impact; moreover, even with the elimination of many legal barriers to social mobility, these qualities are seen as having created new impediments.
Cultural deficiency has been used since the mid-1900s in academic discourse and in various fields, at times referred to as the “culture of poverty” or “culture of deprivation.” Some sociologists have applied the discourse of cultural deficiency to analyses of limited social mobility. Education specialists have used cultural deficiency arguments to explain why differences in academic performance exist and persist among racial/ethnic minority groups. The following is an overview of the operation of cultural deficiency within the discourse of race and ethnicity and that of education.
The term emerged during the 1930s and gained currency over the next three decades among sociologists who proposed that pre-1930s arguments of race as a biological construct were theoretically limited. Instead, sociologists argued that ethnicity was the prevailing construct of groups, their development, and their persistence. Within this ethnicity discourse, cultural deficiency emerged as an explanation for the differences in the ways blacks and Latinos on the one hand and European immigrants on the other became incorporated into U.S. society.
Much of the research on race during the early 1900s argued that certain attributes, such as attitudes, intelligence, and sexual prowess, were racial characteristics—that is, a construct of biology. During the 1920s, sociologists from the Chicago school of economics challenged this assertion by presenting race as a social category of ethnicity: Ethnicity was a construct of culture, rather than biology, with culture understood to represent language, religion, nationality, and other customs of groups. The ethnicity discourse presented group features as involving varying attributes, with race a subset of ethnicity. However, this discourse developed different strands of research: Those following the effects of assimilation and cultural pluralism asked certain questions about what happens to culture over time. For example, do certain ethnic groups maintain their ethnicity, and if so, what are the factors supporting maintenance? If not, what are the factors preventing maintenance? Although the assimilation and cultural pluralism arguments offered differing explanations of what happens to ethnic groups over time, they both posited that an “Anglo-conformity” majority culture exists within U.S. society.
Assimilation theorists argued that European immigrants, blacks, and Latinos undergo a natural, evolutionary process in which, over time, they adopt the dominant cultural patterns of white Americans. In 1971 Nathan Glazer predicted that, although ethnic minorities, such as blacks, have endured centuries of legalized discrimination and oppression, their migration to the north and experience with wealth and employment opportunity would result, in due time, in their integration into and adoption of dominant cultural patterns. Milton Gordon in 1961 elaborated on this notion of assimilation by arguing that there are two forms of assimilation, behavioral and structural. Behavioral assimilation refers to “absorption of the cultural behavior patterns of the ‘host’ society” (Gordon 1961, p. 279). Later scholars called this process acculturation. Structural assimilation is defined as the “entrance of the immigrants and their descendants into the social cliques, organizations, institutional activities, and general civic life of the receiving society” (Gordon 1961, p. 279). Such assimilation, Gordon argues, prevents the continued salience of an ethnic identification to an immigrant group and the acceptance of an American identity and value system. The lack of incorporation of blacks and Latinos into American society, however, posed a challenge to the applicability of this model, which was based on the experiences of European immigrants. Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 study, which distilled the elements of American society that black Americans were not experiencing, argued that “pathological” elements of black culture were preventing blacks from following the linear path outlined in the assimilation model. These pathological elements, or cultural deficiencies, represent the values or norms of groups, specifically blacks and Latinos. The 1965 Moynihan Report, a famous study by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, argued that the main causes of poverty in the black community were female-headed households, low marriage and high divorce rates, and a lack of goal orientation and emphasis on education.
Cultural pluralists, on the other hand, argued that assimilation is not an inevitable or necessarily desirable process; groups can maintain remnants of their racial/ethnic identity while supporting a white or American identity. Cultural pluralism emphasized the significance of groups’ maintaining their cultural heritage or identity—whether European immigrant groups, blacks, Mexicans, or Puerto Ricans—while simultaneously assimilating into U.S. society. However, this discourse of identity continued to link cultural deficiencies with the minimizing of mobility. Andrew Greeley (1974) cited third- and fourth-generation European immigrants who had intermarried but maintained an ethnic identification with their original immigrant group. Stanley Lieberson (1963) observed that the persistence of cultural heritage was mainly observed in European immigrants from the second migration wave (post–1865 to 1924), who experienced economic and social conditions different from those experienced by the first wave of European immigrants (the initial immigrants from Europe). Lieberson concluded that the behaviors of later generations of the second wave (e.g., maintenance of a hyphenated American identity, barter systems, civic community) were attributable to the economic and social conditions they faced early in their adaptation process. Their maintenance of cultural identity did not limit their social mobility, whereas the opposite was true of blacks and Latinos. Thus for these minority groups identity as a remnant of ethnicity became a culturally deficient attribute: The persistent use of a non-American identity was not in keeping with American social norms, which include uniformity in cultural affiliation.
In the field of education, cultural deficiency was used to explain the differences among racial or ethnic groups in academic achievement. Before the 1960s, it was also used as a justification for separate schools. For example, as Carlos Blanton notes in a 2003 article, from the 1920s to 1940s Mexican-American students were tested for intellectual abilities as a basis for separate classrooms. Many theorists employing the cultural deficiency argument maintained that the low academic performance of Latinos was a consequence of their deficient cultural practices. In this view, familial and community practices suppress the development of low-income, minority children in terms of the linguistic, cognitive, and affective skills necessary for successful school functioning. For example, in 1966 Celia Heller asserted that Mexican-American upbringing “creates stumbling blocks to future advancement by stressing values that hinder mobility— family ties, honor, masculinity, and living in the present—and by neglecting the values that are conducive to it—achievement, independence, and deferred gratification” (pp. 34–35).
Other theorists of cultural deficiency pointed to the perpetuation of patterns of cultural socialization from one generation to the next. Oscar Lewis (1961) argued that low-income Mexicans and Puerto Ricans self-perpetuated a culture of poverty that included violence, an inability to defer gratification, and political apathy. These cultural practices, according to Lewis, became embedded in the behavior of low-income Mexicans and Puerto Ricans by the age of six or seven and continued even if the economic status of the community improved.
Cultural deficiency arguments within academia have had significant staying power. Policy makers have taken up the arguments and applied them to many policy agendas, one of the most significant being the War on Poverty campaign of President Lyndon B. Johnson during the 1960s. The campaign was institutionalized with the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which led to the creation of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). Programs such as VISTA, Job CORPS, and Head Start emerged from this campaign. The premise of many such programs was to end the cyclical nature of poverty by altering the attributes of low-income minority groups. The emergence of such a policy initiative testifies to the far-reaching significance of cultural deficiency as a theoretical explanation.
The term maintains some academic and policy significance. Although much of the research on cultural deficiency emerged during the mid-1900s, there continue to be significant discussions as to whether identifiable cultural attributes among low-income black and Latino groups explain their persistent underperformance in schools and minimal social mobility. In addition, welfare policy continues to rely on elements of the cultural deficiency argument to explain why some low-income, ethnic minority groups are unable to move out of the cycle of poverty.
Blanton, Carlos K. 2003. “From Intellectual Deficiency to Cultural Deficiency: Mexican Americans, Testing, and Public School Policy in the American Southwest, 1920–1940.” Pacific Historical Review 72 (1): 39–62.
Blauner, Robert. 1969. “Internal Colonialism and Ghetto Revolt.” Social Problems 16 (4): 393–408.
Eitzen, D. Stanley, and Maxine Baca Zinn. 2006. Social Problems, 10th ed. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.
Gordon, Milton. 1961. “Assimilation in America: Theory and Reality.” Daedalus 90 (2): 263–285.
Heller, Celia. 1966. Mexican American Youth: Forgotten Youth at the Crossroads. New York: Random House.
Isaacs, Harold. 1975. “Basic Group Identity: Idols of the Tribe.” In Ethnicity: Theory and Experience, edited by Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Jensen, A. R. 1969. “How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?” Harvard Educational Review 39: 1–23.
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Lieberson, Stanley. 1980. A Piece of the Pie: Blacks and White Immigrants Since 1880. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. 1965. The Case for National Action: The Negro Family. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Planning and Research.
Park, Robert E. 1914. “Racial Assimilation in Secondary Groups with Particular Reference to the Negro.” American Journal of Sociology 19 (5): 606–623.