Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History

By Alice O'connor | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
From the Deep South to the Dark Ghetto:
Poverty Knowledge, Racial Liberalism,
and Cultural “Pathology”

IN The Philadelphia Negro (1899), W.E.B. DuBois had stretched the boundaries of the Progressive social survey to provide an answer to a question Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal was still asking nearly fifty years later: “Why is such an extraordinarily large proportion of the Negro people so poor?” Steeped though it was in the language of cultural deprivation, DuBois’s explanation was primarily about political economy: Philadelphia Negroes, he showed, were systematically denied opportunities in the urban industrial economy because of racial discrimination and restriction. Moreover, discriminatory practices were not isolated or occasional, they were systemic and built into the everyday operations of the economy. And yet, despite DuBois’s best efforts, not for another three decades—during black sociology’s “golden age” in the 1930s and 1940s—would the overwhelmingly poor economic condition of African Americans be recognized in poverty knowledge as a legitimate, indeed a necessary, subject for research. Even then it was not cast, as DuBois had outlined, as a problem of political economy; it was cast, by Gunnar Myrdal among others, as a more encompassing problem of cultural pathology—the Negro’s, and American society’s writ large.1

Several developments contributed to this racial “breakthrough” in poverty knowledge, and to the particular form it took. Important among them was the surge of interest in the “Negro problem” coming from organized white philanthropy in response to the Great Migration, which drew unprecedented numbers of African Americans away from the rural South between 1910 and 1930 and prompted a shift in emphasis from Negro uplift to race relations research as a means of understanding and preventing racial conflict.2 In the context of post–World War I immigration restriction, black migration also changed the “face” of urban poverty in social welfare agencies, as African Americans replaced European immigrants as the most visible, racially “other” urban newcomers. For social science, though, the “new” migration also represented the equivalent of a natural experiment, and nowhere more so than in the city that Chicago-school sociologists had turned into a laboratory for scientific research. Chicago experienced a nearly sixfold increase in its black population in two decades and, like many cities before and after it, had been the site of a

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