Cover Image

Illustration by Oscar Bray

NYU Professor Lawrence M. Mead is Arguing For White Supremacy

The tenured professor’s article “Poverty and Culture” tries and fails to give academic legitimacy to the intellectual, cultural and existential inferiority of all non-white groups.

Aug 30, 2020

NYU Professor of politics Lawrence M. Mead’s article “Poverty and Culture” sparked outrage when it was published by the academic journal Society on July 21. In the days following the publication, hundreds of academics, economists, social-scientists and poverty experts called it “racially violent” and “unscholarly.” They also assert it seeks to rationalize or even encourage slavery and Jim Crow laws.
A read of his article and the larger body of work from which it originated, Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Difference and American Power, indicate such fears hit the mark. According to Mead: “Most blacks came from a highly collective society in Africa, then lived under slavery and Jim Crow in the South. These structures kept disorder at a low level… But [when this ended] blacks lost that structure.”
Mead also notes that non-white Americans: “Remain destitute in the midst of the world’s richest country, even when jobs are available [because] a more cautious and collective mindset usually prevails.” Mead continues by saying “[Some experts] thought that social barriers of some impersonal kind prevented economic growth — such as racial bias… But no such clear impediment has been found. Rather, the West has simply chosen a more ambitious way of life than the non-West, where minorities originate.”
The crux of Mead’s arguments comes down to two main points: (1) that racism plays no role in the Black economic experience and (2) that because racism plays no role in the Black economic experience, unequal economic outcome is the result of biologically-determined “collectivist culture.”
The only source used to back up the first part of his central claim is Mead’s own past political commentary. Specifically, a book he wrote called The New Politics of Poverty: The Nonworking Poor in America. A book with largely the same premise as the article. Upon reading his works, it becomes clear that while Mead occasionally cites full-length texts that may include academic studies, he has a pattern of relying mostly on his own conjecture or that of like-minded commentators.
The first portion of Mead’s argument gives insight into his technique. His rhetorical style is to state something that is true and then use that notion to conclude something only weakly related. For example, in his writing, Mead states correctly that Black and white people go to college at different rates. Ignorantly, this is then used to conclude that “no clear impediment has been found,” regarding racism’s role in unequal economic outcomes. In reality, a 2003 article — based on experimentation rather than opinion — found that when employers are given identical resumes, they are 50% less likely to hire an applicant that is African American. The article also found that inequality widens with more education. Meaning, as non-whites pursue a master’s degree or a Ph.D., they are increasingly less and less likely to make even half of what their similarly educated white counterparts make. Not only does Mead’s claim ignore hiring discrimination, but also the barriers of entry to higher education. Among these include purchasing power and affordability stemming from racist pre-civil rights practices that stifled Black economic growth.
But it is his argument supporting biological determinism that makes Mead on-par with ultranationalists.
According to Mead, the only reason such economic discrepancy exists is because of “collectivist culture” inherent in non-white biology and “individualistic culture” inherent in white biology. While there is a description of “collectivist culture,” in Mead’s article as a lack of divergence from group norms, how that translates to lower economic status is not outlined. Neither is how such a mindset is determined by origin in Africa. And nevertheless — referring to academic studies rather than conjecture — Mead is again, completely wrong in this point.
According to a study by the University of Kentucky, “There were no significant differences between ethnic groups in collectivism toward friends, family, strangers or colleagues." The article goes on to state, "African Americans were also significantly higher on overall individualism when compared to European Americans and this relation was not mediated by ethnic identity.” The study also explained that the results are not strong enough to have everyday impacts. In summary, the study finds the opposite results of Mead’s conjecture, while simultaneously explaining that such results have no effect on the context he denotes.
But whether or not any group is or is not “collectivist” is a moot point. The sole purpose of Mead using such terms is a clever way of cloaking his ultimate desire: to rationalize how non-white biology predetermines sub adequacy. Such words are used before each of the following sentences with no elaboration.
I have a suspicion that the message of Mead’s conclusion was what he spent his energy on. Meanwhile, the methodology, research, and any code for optics took a back seat. In this article, I’ve reviewed Mead’s works as if they were honestly conducted hypotheses but Mead’s poor reasoning skills make this tedious. Mead is incorrect in his analysis of racism playing no role in poverty. This false notion is then used to explain that biologically-determined “collectivist culture” causes such an experience. Why that sequence of events would follow is not outlined.
Just as notably, his broader argument is self-contradictory. Mead begins by saying no negative outcomes can be attributed to the Black economic experience despite their origins as slaves in America. While simultaneously, he argues that the Black populace is inferior based on their origins in Africa. Mead can’t even keep his racism straight as he pivots between whether or not ancestry affects present-day experience to match whichever point he leverages.
Upon reading his works, it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the similarities between Mead’s writing, and those of modern-day white nationalists. While he has never called for ethnic cleansing or had a public blunder of recorded racial slurs, the burden of Black identity is still pronounced in his mainstream bigotry. And while that might make some breathe a sigh of relief, I would warn against that. It is Mead’s more cryptic style of racism that allowed him to rise in the ranks of NYU to become a tenured professor. It is what sustains him an army of establishment conservative support to this day. In this manner, Mead’s more tepid bigotry - masked or not - is his greatest strength.
While NYU has used freedom of expression to rationalize Lawrence Mead teaching his white supremacist perspectives to a new generation of students this upcoming year, I would caution them to adhere to the historical record. While reopening a modernized version of the eugenics debate may seem like an interesting intellectual exercise for some, many marginalized groups will only watch in horror – praying the ideas this man so devoutly preaches won't catch on once again.
Ari Hawkins is Editor-in-Chief. Email him at
gazelle logo