The shanty is black within and without … A black woman sits on a log, with half-a-dozen small specimens of humanity about her, and of all shades of black, brown, and yellow… ‘Where is your husband?’ … ‘Dunno, missis, don’t care, he may go to de debbil for I know and cares.’” (E. B. Emery Letters from the South, on the Social Intellectual and Moral Condition of the Colored People (Boston, 1880: 9-10) – as quoted by E. F. Frazier 1966 : 256)
Thus opens Chapter XVII of one of the most powerful book of the 20th century—as far as family and poverty policy is concerned at least.. Frazier uses here a classic anthropological rhetorical trick many anthropologists continue to use (and which I try to discourage among my students): He quotes a long extract from some text to introduce (illustrate? prove? enlighten?) some analytic statement. At the end of the paragraph following the quote, Frazier tells us “of course, such cases … are not typical” (1966 : 257). So why start in this manner a chapter discussing uncertain statistics about “illegitimacy among Negroes”? And why should it appear directly after the statement possibly most quoted by people like Moynihan who, twenty years later, expanded on Frazier to make a “Case for National Action’ “to strengthen the Negro family so as to enable it ro raise and support is members as do other families” (Moynihan 1967 : 93)? Frazier had written: “Family desertion among Negroes in cities appears, then, to be one of the inevitable consequences of the impact of urban life on the simple family organization and folk culture which the Negro has evolved in the rural South” (1966 : 255)I went back to Frazier and then Moynihan as Ray McDermott and I have been discussing the roots of the “culture of poverty” argument and the failure of the anthropological critique of this argument to have the long term impact we were sure, when we were in graduate school in the early 70s, it would have. In the late 70s and 80s, it was almost too easy to teach the critique. To students, it was simple, Frazier and Moynihan were “racist” and that settled that. Students were often surprised to learn that Frazier was one of the first PhD’s granted by the University of Chicago to Blacks. But learning this did not change much.
What strikes me now is how much the culture of poverty made sense for the most liberal of concerned sociologists and anthropologists, as it had made sense to ladies from Boston such as the “Miss E. B. Emery” (as her name is listed on the title page of her Letters from the South) whose book must have moved Frazier. Like her, they sought and brought out the most pathetic of experiences to justify any analysis of the “roots of the problem” (as Moynihan calls them). It made sense because, as I imagine their political contexts, Emery’s letters, like Frazier’s book (and the dissertation on which it was based), like Moynihan’s Report, are attempts to convince policy makers (from activist women in Boston, to the Congress in Washington) that “we must do something.”
This missionary urge still moves students, like it moves policy makers, and blinds them to the dangers of unanalyzed pathos—particularly when it becomes the opening statement in a long chain of “if/then” argumentation: if the women had seven husbands (“small speciments … of all shades”) then there is something wrong with her; if there is something wrong with her it is because of her social conditions (cue here any version of socialization theory you prefer); given that there is something wrong with her, simply changing social conditions will not be enough to prevent her children from being wrong in the same way as she is wrong; thus, “we” must create programs to help her; but first we must diagnose what exactly is wrong with her… [TO MY READERS: if someone would try their hand at transforming this progression into the kind of cartoon Latour drew for the double helix, I would be most thankful!)
This argumentation can produce volumes of “research,” both fundamental and applied, and policies upon reformed policies along with endless “empirical research” providing “evidence based” suggestions about what “really works.” But what if there is nothing wrong with the woman Emery met? What if her very survival through many men, pregnancies, labors and deliveries, childhood diseases and death, etc., suggest complex strategies involving many people and many modes of acting? I am thinking here of Scheper-Hughes’s portrayal of Brazilian women (1992) and of her acknowledgment of the process that led them her pathos (leading to the urge to help) to understanding. The women were suffering but there is nothing wrong with them and we should not burden them with our pathos. We do not need to develop complex diagnostic tools, and the accompanying enormous bureaucracy, to help the women. As far as the kind of diseases that afflicted many of the children of the Brazilian women, clean water was all that was needed.
The best anthropological response to the culture of poverty argumentation was the accumulation of stories of survival, including the production of local patterns. I am thinking here of Carol Stack’s justly famous All our kin. But, as we found out, these stories are not enough. They get dismissed as “anecdotes,” “just so stories,” and altogether irrelevant to “the problem.” At worst, anthropologists can be accused to undermine policies. One of our student, Karen Velasquez, told me of her dismay when she was accuse of insensitivity to the plight of Mexican migrants in New York City, when she told the wonderful story of a mono-lingual Mexican man learning how to read bar codes in order to stock shelves in a Korean grocery.
In other words, it is not enough to publish alternate “letters from the South” (like Gundaker has done, 1998). We must also justify again why tales of “suitable” adaptation to difficult ecological conditions (to expand on Boas as Michael Scroggins and I have done recently) are necessary for interventions that are sensitive to local conditions unimaginable in their detail. The point of careful ethnography is not only to tell “what other shepherds have said” (Geertz 1973) but, more importantly, when the work is conducted in our own valleys, to help those who would help so that they do not make things even more difficult.