A Thought on Black American Culture and the Racial Wealth Gap

I listened to this conversation between Dr. Glenn Loury and Coleman Hughes with great interest.  I found it to be at times thoughtful, challenging, frustrating, and maddeningly incomplete.  One example of the incompleteness, if not flawed nature of the conversation was the discussion of correlation between blood lead levels and levels of crime.  Hughes cited a book titled Lucifer Curves on this subject, but there is additional scholarship that seems to support lead-crime hypothesis (with lead as a contributing, but not the only factor in crime increasing and decreasing).  The incompleteness and the frustration I had with the argument was how quickly Hughes tossed off the assertion that “we’ve already removed lead from fuel”.  Absent from this throwaway line are factors like:

  • Sources of lead well beyond just fuel, including pipes, paint, dust, toys, pottery, imported canned goods, industrial waste, and batteries.
  • In addition to being highly-toxic, there isn’t really a “safe” level of lead exposure.  Damage from lead exposure is cumulative.

There are thousands of communities (not just Flint, Michigan) with lead in older housing stock (in paint dust or other sources).  Fairly often, these homes are where poor people live.  Fairly often, these poor people are black and brown.  And despite Dr. Loury’s stated desire for social remedies to be implemented on individual terms instead of racial ones, arguments about culture have been (and still are) used to stigmatize black and brown people who are poor as lazy and morally inferior in terms rarely applied to white people who are poor.  This “deserving poor” framing makes it that much easier to deny social remedies (and the government funds that enable them) to such communities–including remedies like lead abatement.  It also makes it easier to police such communities disproportionately compared to others, as seen in the case of Freddie Gray (who came from a community in Baltimore with a much higher prevalence of lead poisoning than elsewhere in my home state).  It’s also worth noting that in a previous episode of The Glenn Show, his guest  (Thomas Chatterton Williams) made a point about the history of arguments for class-based social remedies being undermined by racism.