Dysfunction's Function

picture of Rod Ferguson
Rod Ferguson
Photo: Richard Anderson

Policy makers and political pundits, even celebrities like Bill Cosby, often speak about disease in social and cultural as well as biological terms. In the 1950s, university professors were more often the source of public thinking about social disease.

In the aftermath of World War II, U.S. officials increasingly turned to professors of sociology to help solve social problems like poverty that plagued minority communities, including African Americans. But, as Rod Ferguson notes, their academic research often reinforced the inequality it sought to reduce.

Ferguson, an associate professor of American studies at the University, has studied the way that academic institutions have been complicit in stigmatizing populations that are different. In earlier decades, social scientists studying inequality often inadvertently blamed the victims. The problem, they said, wasn't the economic system or the historical denial of resources and opportunities to African Americans. It was, rather, the attitudes and habits of black people.

"Academics pointed to many examples of so-called black dysfunction," Ferguson explains. "The Chicago school of sociology looked at black homosexuals on the South Side of Chicago as evidence of corruption--corruption that could contaminate the nearby white neighborhoods. Some sociologists also pointed to single-head households, the unwed mothers and the families with no fathers in the households, as examples of dysfunction. To some of these academics the norm, a healthy household, was one that was patriarchal."

Other academics decried the close quartering of extended families and lodgers--often migrants moving from the South to stay with families in small apartments in cities like Chicago and New York. To many African Americans, opening their homes to newcomers showed hospitality and generosity; in the minds of some sociologists, though, that openness signaled harmful breakdowns of the nuclear family--a structure that, they argued, provided economic and moral security.

Had these academics' conclusions remained confined to textbooks and scholarly journals, they might not have made much of a difference in the lives of African Americans. But they found a new and robust life in government policies and laws. "They became general common sense, and you see them all over the place," Ferguson observes.

In his 1976 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan told the story of a Chicago woman who allegedly was making $150,000 a year from fraudulent welfare claims. When the woman he described, Linda Taylor (who happened to be black), was later convicted of defrauding the government of $8,000, a prosecutor quoted in the New York Times called her a "parasitic growth" on the system. Before long, the politically charged image of the welfare queen--described in the Times as "a heavy woman driving a big white Cadillac and paying for steaks with wads of food stamps"--became the prevailing image of a woman receiving assistance. Given the infamous Taylor and the general public's perception of the racial composition of welfare rolls, it seemed to go without saying that the "welfare queen" was black.

The rhetoric of welfare reform in the last few decades of the 20th century, then, was essentially a spinoff of what sociologists had been saying in the 1950s. "In welfare reform, from Reagan to Clinton, these sociologists' findings became a bedrock of social change," Ferguson says. "Public discourse about what went wrong in black communities began with the female head of household."

By Jack El-Hai and Danny LaChance

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This page contains a single entry by CLA Reach Magazine published on July 31, 2007 3:07 PM.

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