U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Race & Postwar Liberalism Interview Series, Part I: Mical Raz

Over the next three weeks, I will be posting a series of interviews with three scholars of postwar liberalism, highlighting their unique contributions to a growing body of scholarship that examines liberalism in light of, but not sharply in contrast to, the New Right. All three shed light on how in many respects, the liberalism of the Great Society era laid the groundwork for many of the rightward turns we usually attribute only to conservatives.

Our first interview features Mical Raz. Raz is an LDI Associate Fellow at the Perelman School of Medicine, and an Advanced Fellow, Corporal Michael J. Crescenz, at the VA Medical Center in Philadelphia, PA. She studies the intersections between psychiatry, poverty and politics. She received her MD and PhD from Tel Aviv University, and her second book, What’s Wrong with the Poor?, explored the notion of cultural deprivation central to Great Society antipoverty policy. Arguing that the ideas of deprivation intersected with racial assumptions in crucial ways, Raz contributes immensely to mapping out exactly how postwar social science informed and impacted liberal poverty policy.

Raz is currently working on her new book, under contract with UNC Press, tentatively titled Abusive Policies: Race, Poverty and the Making of American Child Abuse.

Q. In your book, What’s Wrong With The Poor?, you explore the connection between experts from a range of disciplines and politicians and policy. In our current political moment, it is often complained that the experts are not listened to, that politics overrides knowledgeable expertise. How would your work contribute to or complicate that concern?

I agree that one of the main challenges American policy makers face today is an overall disdain of expertise. This is not necessarily new. For instance, in her new book, Julilly Kohler Hausman follows how expert advice based on existent data was ignored in the shaping of drug policy and “getting tough” approaches.

I think the difference, and I want to say this cautiously, is that in this case, both researchers and policymakers were genuinely committed to their goals of ameliorating perceived deprivation. This commitment to make a difference in the lives of poor children and their family may have superseded the scientific rigor in which they undertook their work. But also, when evaluating scientific rigor, it’s important to avoid anachronism. Many studies in the social sciences in the 1970s would be lacking in rigor by contemporary standards, but were enthusiastically interpreted as evidence of success at the time.

Q. One of the most astounding findings of your research is that cultural deprivation was a widely accepted scientific theory based on no empirical evidence. Could you elaborate a bit on how the process worked that something that in fact had no evidence became broadly regarded as scientifically sound?

This acceptance stemmed from a willingness to uncritically accept data from one field, and apply it to a different field. So while there was robust evidence of the damages of different forms of sensory deprivation, there was a leap of faith in translating this into evidence for so-called cultural deprivation. But because lab data is privileged over social science, the fact that early intervention and child development experts were writing about blind monkeys in a dark cage, seemed to add extra credence to their work with kids, rather than raising questions as to its relevance. Even today, it’s important not to lose track of concepts as they travel from one field to the other, particularly in studies that purportedly localize emotions to certain areas of the brain (with fMRI), or use evidence from one field to argue for the validity of findings in another. We should also remember that what “counts” as evidence is time and context dependent, and for researchers at the time, it made sense to view empirical studies on sensory deprivation as evidence for the validity of their cultural deprivation hypothesis.

Q. In your book, you write that for liberal policy makers, “It was possible both to be aware of the structural inequalities and lack of opportunities that characterized the lives of low-income families and to believe in the value of sewing lessons as an intervention designed to address and alleviate ‘mental retardation.’” This is one of my favorite passages in the entire book, for it addresses the disconnect between the knowledge liberals had and the solutions they proposed, a disconnect I have found again and again in my own research. In your estimation, what accounts for this disconnect?

I think there are a few things at play here. The most obvious is that even well-intentioned liberals had an awful lot of judgment about the home lives of low income and minority families. People tend to be very judgmental about parenting and domestic abilities, and being liberal doesn’t inoculate you from bias. This bias, I think, helped encouraged people to believe that these interventions were effective, despite seeming today to be laughable.

But beyond that, many liberals were aware of structural inequalities and how racism hinders opportunities for young children to thrive. However, they believed that addressing poverty was beyond their purview, and unlikely to happen in the short run. They weren’t wrong. So they developed these interventions as a way to do something, and hopefully make a difference, in an area they cared deeply about

Q. What kind of reception (if any) has your book received from policy experts? How aware are they of the kind of critiques, coming from scholars such as yourself, Karen Ferguson, Alice O’Connor and many others, of their framing assumptions and methods?

There hasn’t really been any attention from policy experts, and I don’t believe there is much awareness of the work I do. I can’t speak to the work of other, better-known senior scholars, such as Alice O’Conner, but the way things look in policy making these days, I’d be quite surprised.

Q. In your book, you discuss how “underprivileged” became a euphemism for black. Could you comment on the challenges of understanding the racial content of poverty policy and politics when race and racism is so often elided or papered over by policy experts and social scientists?

I think there is in general an attempt to circumvent uncomfortable discussions of the importance of race and racism in addressing contemporary social issues. If we talk about race and racism, we have to confront the intentionality of our discriminatory social structures. In contrast, when we describe in phenomenological terms, we can view racial and socioeconomic disparities as essential and inevitable. So as scholars it is incumbent on us to unpack the origins of certain terms and how they’ve been used as proxies for discussions of race. “Urban areas,” “inner city schools,” “single parent families,” have all been used as markers for seemingly colorblind discussions of highly racialized issues.

However, in discussing race and its role in the perpetuating poverty, it’s also important to avoid further stigmatizing already marginalized populations, and that is one reason discussions of race are often avoided. No one wants to be unintentionally understood to be arguing as if there is something inherent about race that leads to social disadvantage, whereas racism is a complex topic to parse. Currently I am working on a book on child abuse and neglect, and while rates of child abuse and neglect are higher in African American populations, and in my mind, cannot be attributed solely to over-reporting, it’s an incredibly difficult conversation to have, differentiating between the role of racism versus the role of race.

Q. Your past and current research looks at the dynamic of individualizing broad social problems. As social inequality increases, have you seen any signs that this framing is being challenged in policy and social science circles?

Not really. In fact, there seems to be a push in the opposite direction. “Medicalizing” has always been a safe way to discuss poverty. For instance, multiple studies cite high rates of undiagnosed depression in low-income populations, particularly poor women. Accordingly, interventions are designed to better screen for this and provide treatment. I certainly hope poor women get the care they need, and don’t diminish the importance of treating depression. But treating factors such as unstable housing, food insecurity, joblessness, are also of particular importance to address the mental health of low-income individuals. In some ways, talking about individual health problems is more palatable than talking about justice.

For instance, a number of recent publications in leading medical journals have focused on how food insecurity worsens diabetes management. This is of course important medical knowledge. But do we really need to say that food security is bad because it is bad for diabetes? Or is it enough to say that food security is bad and needs to be addressed because it is unjust?

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I wish I had something pithy to say that would ignite a spirited discussion, but I’ll settle for a simple compliment. A solid interview, and thanks for educating me and giving me a good book to read.

  2. I want to echo Brian Graham’s comment above, but underline one cluster of questions, which was touched on by Mical Raz. That question/issue involves relating the nature of the cause to the nature of the effect. If that cause is removed, should we expect the effect to disappear? For example, does economic deprivation automatically lead to intellectual underachievement and if that deprivation is remedied, will the intellectual underachievement disappear over time(however defined)? Does belonging to an oppressed group(socially, religiously, etc) always lead to failure? If not, why not? In postwar America, at least, the difficultly for white liberals and radicals was how do we explain underachievement in the schools, once we have rule out racial explanations? What about Oscar Lewis’s “culture of poverty” idea or the idea that the damage done by oppression may persist after the oppressive conditions are alleviated? (A major point of contention in the study of slavery and its impact on individual and group identity This is one of the issues Ibram Kendi is so concerned about in his indictment of assimilationism. My minimal conclusion is that all these issues are really, really hard and we still don’t know what we are doing but at the same time cannot and should not stop trying.

    • Well the culture of poverty idea was one of the worst ideas of the 20th century, Lewis’ intentions aside. I’ll send you a link to my book when it comes out in the fall because that’s half of what it is about :).

      I would also push against the inclination to conclude that “these things are hard.” Yes, poverty is extremely difficult to escape, and its consequences legion. But mystifying its causes involves a looking-away-from the obvious, even if that is clearly not intended. Poverty is first and foremost a lack of money and resources, and everywhere it exists that lack is rooted in power relations and the structures that support them. Many black people are poor because we live in a racial capitalist society that keeps them poor. We can talk all day about the various ways in which it does that — again, that is indeed legion — but at the end of the day, that is what is up.

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