Obama, Ryan, O’Reilly, and the Poverty of the Political Imagination

Obama, Ryan, O’Reilly, and the Poverty of the Political Imagination

President Obama, Paul Ryan, and Bill O’Reilly walk into a bar. Rather than engage in abstract conversations about America’s role in the world or the federal government’s role in the market, they decide to talk about an issue where they can forge some common ground. What issue could the three men come together around? It is probable they would likely converge around trying to explain and address the poverty of black men and women in the United States. This common ground is possible because national conversations about public policy never seem to escape the orbit of culture, meritocracy, colorblindness, and normative understandings of gender and family. More specifically, Ryan’s, Obama’s, and O’Reilly’s recent comments on the subject revolve around two political archetypes—the heteronormative family and the black male. When considered together, they take a special place in our nation’s “gendered imagination.”

As historian Alice Kessler-Harris demonstrates in her book, In Pursuit of Equity: Men, Women, and the Quest for Economic Freedom, debates about economic policy rarely extend beyond the discursive confines of what she calls the “gendered imagination.”[1] The gendered imagination consists of dominant beliefs about family, labor, masculinity, and femininity and how they shaped public policy. The term does not imply the insignificance of race, class, and sex. Instead, one should think of these categories of difference as bound together within any articulations of anti-poverty politics and rehabilitative black masculinity.

Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Gage Skidmore, Flickr

This racialized dimension of the gendered imagination was at work when Paul Ryan recently told conservative radio host William Bennett, “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and culture of work…” Ryan cited political scientist Charles Murray’s work (see, for example, The Bell Curve), which narrowly attributed life outcomes for people of color to IQ. While Ryan initially claimed his comments were “not about race,” many critics pointed to Ryan’s citation of Murray’s work as evidence of his subtle racism and class discrimination. Ryan eventually retracted his comments, but not before reigniting old debates about culture, racism, and social mobility.

Ryan articulated his position about culture and poverty within weeks of President Obama’s announcement of his vague “my brother’s keeper” initiative, which aims to help at-risk boys and men of color who often have to navigate poverty and violence in inner cities. While Obama has not released any details of the program, he plans on relying upon “leading foundations and businesses” to help steer young men of color into education and mentoring programs with the intent “to build ladders of opportunity and unlock the full potential of boys and young men of color.”

Fox News television host Bill O’Reilly’s predictable comments about race and culture arose out of President Obama’s announcement.  O’Reilly told Senior Advisor to President Obama, Valerie Jarrett:

“You have to attack the fundamental disease if you want to cure it. You’re going to have to get Jay Z, Kanye West, all these gangster rappers to knock it off, that’s number one…You gotta get where they live. They idolize these guys with the hats on backwards, and the terrible rap lyrics, and the drugs and all of that. You have to get these guys. And I think President Obama can do it.”

Of course, conversations about race, gender, and poverty have a long history. But they have often pivoted around Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 reportThe Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Even Paul Ryan cited it in his recent reportThe War on Poverty: 50 Years Later, to substantiate his argument that family structure represented the most decisive factor in poverty. In 1965, Moynihan argued that impoverished African Americans were ensnared in a “tangle of pathology.” Although Moynihan acknowledged slavery’s and racism’s negative impact on black life and opportunities, he argued that culture, matriarchy, and family breakdown constituted the fundamental issues plaguing urban African Americans. “In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole,” Moynihan contended. He continued, “Ours is a society which presumes male leadership in private and public affairs. The arrangements of society facilitate such leadership and reward it. A subculture, such as that of the Negro American, in which this is not the pattern, is placed at a distinct disadvantage.”  Ultimately, Moynihan concluded, the federal government needed to devise policies that would uplift black men to their “natural” position as breadwinners.[2]

The racial and gendered imagination of the mid-to-late 1960s manifested itself in the responses of local government and business responses to the Detroit rebellion in 1967. While debates about culture and poverty raged after the release of Moynihan’s report, Detroit businessmen like Joseph L. Hudson, Ford Motor Company chairman Henry Ford II, Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, and local black leaders, saw the causes of the “urban crisis” as a problem of alienation and jobs rather than one solely of culture. They established the public-private organization, the New Detroit Committee (later New Detroit, Inc.) to address discrimination. Principal business leaders in the organization established their own job programs aimed at hiring the “hard core unemployed”—mainly inner city black men. The NDC stated in their 1968 progress report:

“To many, jobs are the key to the solution of the urban crisis. A steadily employed individual…is able to obtain adequate housing; he is not likely to commit a crime; he can afford necessary medical care; and even the thorns of a racist society can be borne more easily when financial worries are eased.”[3]

The New Detroit Committee’s report distinguished itself from Moynihan’s by prioritizing unemployment over family structure. Yet, New Detroit’s conclusions about the urban crisis underscored Moynihan’s suggestion of rehabilitating young black men. 

Men arrested during the 1967 Detroit rebellion.
Men arrested during the 1967 Detroit rebellion. Wystan, Flickr

While progressive writer Jonathan Chait reminds us in an illuminating debate with Ta-Neshi Coates of the policy differences between liberals and conservatives, Obama’s expressions of  the politics of respectability reveal a convergence with O’Reilly’s and Ryan’s anxieties about “wayward” black men.  Many conservatives, like Ryan and O’Reilly, view inner city black culture (especially hip hop culture in O’Reilly’s case) and family breakdown  as the fundamental causes of poverty. President Obama has been known to criticize absentee black fathers and emphasize making “good choices,” too, but he acknowledges broader socio-economic developments in the announcement of his new initiative. Even so, these differences are fine. Talking about the problem of jobs did not stop Obama from urging African Americans not to let “barriers” serve as an “excuse” upon announcing his My Brother’s Keeper program.

Salon‘s Brittany Cooper rightfully contemplated the costs of centering black boys and men in anti-poverty discussions. The racialized gendered imagination helps explain this—the logic is that if one instills a sense of personal responsibility and respectability in young black men at an early age, they are more likely to gain employment. If black men gain employment, they will likely dodge a very premature death, find a job and suitable black wives. Thus, helping black men helps black women because foundations, corporations, and the government are intervening in young black men’s lives at an early age to ensure that black women have a larger pool of eligible and respectable black bachelors to choose from after they reach adulthood. While this logic appears fine superficially (it is difficult to argue against the President finally taking race explicitly into account when devising and articulating public policy), the assumptions undergirding such an effort expose its limitations. For one example, respectability did not protect Jonathan Ferrell from lethal racial violence last September.

The limits of the heteronormative gendered imagination beg for analyses and policies that decenter straight black men in debates about anti-poverty policy. Placing black LGBTQ persons, or straight black women, at the center complicates the straight black male archetype in programs like My Brother’s Keeper. My Brother’s Keeper does not directly address economic disparities that black women, queer, and/or black trans-people face in relation to white men and women, heterosexual or not. Policy analyst Preston Mitchum illustrates the implications of centering discussions of poverty and public policy around black LGBTQ persons in his work about workplace discrimination:

“Black LGBT people are more likely to be living in poverty than their peers, and black same-sex couples have poverty rates at least twice the rate of black different-sex married couples. Black men in same-sex relationships are more than six times as likely to be in poverty than white men in same-sex couples—18.8 to 3.1 percent, respectively—and black women in same-sex relationships are three times more likely to be poor than white women in same-sex relationships—17.9 to 5.1 percent, respectively.”

Acknowledging these figures would appear to frustrate debates about race and poverty that narrowly revolve around heterosexual nuclear families. Is it possible to construct a just anti-poverty policy for everyone if one governs from normative understandings of race, gender, sex, and family life?

Writers such as Jonathan Chait may scoff at the suggestion that the similarities in Obama’s, Ryan’s, and O’Reilly’s views about poverty may be more salient than their differences. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Republicans may be less willing to support increasing the minimum wage and devising policies such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. Such arguments, however, do not explain why Ryan appears willing to invoke President Clinton’s welfare reform as a model in his report on the war on poverty. Nor does it account for how dominant understandings of race and poverty spring from the same ideological well.

The history of what historian Alice O’Conner calls “poverty knowledge” tells us that straight black men are the proper targets of reform because they, and heteronormative black families, are the key to social mobility.[4] Recent political and economic transformations such as the erosion of industrial union labor and the male breadwinner wage, income stagnation, stubborn racial segregation, and the recent economic recession reveal the archaic nature of the twentieth century racialized gender imagination. Many Americans seek to hold onto heteronormative, class, and racial privileges. Nevertheless, positive, yet very incremental, political advances, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage, illustrate that grounding poverty discourse and policy within a narrow gendered and racialized framework is becoming outdated.

These sorts of debates still reinforce negative racialization and gendering of young black men and women. As Brittany Cooper points out, anti-poverty discourses often privilege black boys and young black men, thus rendering black women from various backgrounds mere afterthoughts. The racialized and gender stigmatization of poverty policy also negatively impacts non-black, even white, Americans as such discussions foreclose the expansion of social insurance. It remains imperative to support efforts to democratize institutions and social units such as marriage and family. It is also important to continue challenging fundamental assumptions of who is deserving and undeserving in debates about anti-poverty policy. We need more imaginative policies to create more just anti-poverty policies and to accommodate political, economic, and social transformations.


[1] Alice Kessler-Harris, In Pursuit of Equity:  Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2001), 14.

[2] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (Washington D.C.: Office of Policy Planning and Research, U.S. Department of Labor, 1965), 29.

[3] New Detroit Committee, Progress Report, April 1968 (Detroit:  Metropolitan Fund, 1968), 54.

[4] Alice O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge:  Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth Century U.S. History (Princeton, N.J.:  Princeton University Press, 2001).

Feature image caption: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images, 475347013

Additional image sources:

Paul Ryan: Gage Skidmore

Men arrested during 1967 Detroit rebellion:

Austin C. McCoy is a Phd Candidate in History at the University of Michigan. He is writing a dissertation on progressives' responses to plant closings and urban fiscal crises in the Midwest during the 1970s and 1980s.