Romney, Obama, and the Darwinism That Substitutes Culture for Genes

Black Agenda Report, August 6, 2012This article previously appeared in Z-Net [5].

Romney’s racist “cultural” explanation of inequality is as American as apple pie.”

Many Democrats clucked disapprovingly after it was reported that Mitt Romney recently told 50 or so rich campaign donors at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem that Israelis had higher average incomes than Palestinians because of their cultural superiority. “Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said. “And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things. As you come here and you see the G.D.P. per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000, and compare that with the G.D.P. per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority [6], which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality.”i[1]

 This statement naturally brought no protest from the many wealthy Americans in attendance, including the super-billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.ii[2]

It was a misinformed and vicious comment. To begin, Romney badly understated the income differences in question. According to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency [7], in 2009 Israel’s per capita income was nearly $30,000 per year, while in 2008 (the last year for which the C.I.A. had Palestinian figures) the per capita G.D.P. of the West Bank and Gaza was $2,900. So the average income disparity is more like 10 to 1, not 2 to 1, according to the C.I.A., hardly known for trumpeting justice for the Palestinians.iii[3] No wonder that a quarter of the people living in the West Bank and more than half of those stuck in the open-air prison called Gaza are food insecure.iv[4]

Israel-Imposed Misery

Beyond his gross factual inaccuracy, Romney completely ignored the critical role of Israel’s military conquest, repression, and apartheid in creating destitution across the Palestinian territories. Besides the devastating historical impact of displacement and division, the strongly pro-Israel New York Timesv[5] reports that:

The Palestinians live under deep trade restrictions put in place by the Israeli government: After the militant group Hamas in 2007 took control of Gaza – home to about 1.7 million Palestinians – the Israelis imposed a near-total blockade on people and goods in Gaza. The blockade has been eased…But aid organizations say the restrictions still cripple Gaza’s economy. The West Bank, where 2.5 million Palestinians reside, is also subject to trade restrictions imposed by the Israelis.”vi[6]

We can also consult that leading Israel supporter the C.I.A. It reports that “Israeli-imposed border closures, which became more restrictive after Hamas seized control of the territory in June 2007, have resulted in high unemployment, elevated poverty rates, and the near collapse of the private sector that had relied on export markets.” In the West Bank, “Israeli closure policies continue to disrupt labor and trade flows, industrial capacity, and basic commerce, eroding the productive capacity” of the economy.vii[7]

Saeb Erekat [8], a senior aide to President Mahmoud Abbas [9] of the Palestinian Authority, understandably called Romney’s remarks “racist….This man, Erakat added, “doesn’t realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation.”viii[8] Cannot reach its potential seems like an understatement. The misery imposed on the Palestinian people by Israeli polices is deep and extensive. As Islamic Relief USA reports:

The vast majority of Palestinians, living inside the territories, and living as refugees in neighboring regions, depend on international aid for survival. Foreign investment in the region has dropped, further hindering the ability for Palestinians to move toward a more stable economy. In Palestine, where a majority of the population relies on foreign assistance for survival, insecurities in food, water and electricity, as well as crippled health care services and educational facilities, make living conditions some of the worst in the world. [emphasis added]” ix[9]

One of the Most Unequal Countries in the OECD

Permit me a not-so-tiny quibble on something that has not been mentioned in the official media discussion of the fallout from Romney’s comment. Beneath the deceptive and insufficient statistical category of average (mean) per capita income/G.D.P., moreover, there’s the problem of economic disparity within Israel. It is unthinkable that Romney or any other money-hungry U.S. politician speaking to wealthy campaign bankrollers there would dare to mention that Israel’s heavily militarized and U.S.-subsidized economic system creates one of the most savagely unequal societies in the “developed” world. According to no less of a capitalist authority than the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last April, “Israel has one of the highest levels of inequality in the OECD…This is reflected in very low market incomes of the lowest income decile which are 1/15th that of the highest income decile. While the size of redistribution from the tax transfer system (the difference between market and disposable incomes) is around average in Israel, the high starting point leaves Israel one of the most unequal countries in the OECD, after only the US, Mexico and Chile.” x[10]

In the summer of 2011 tens of thousands of Israelis joined nationwide protests against high costs of living and growing income inequality. More than two months before the Occupy Wall Street encampment was launched in lower Manhattan, Israeli protestors “set up more than 40 tent encampments scattered across Israel, with as many as 120,000 people turning out to demand lower taxes and increased access to education and housing.”xi[11]

The “Culture” of White Supremacy as American as Apple Pie

 Disgusted as they might claim to be at Romney’s “insensitive” comment, Democratic Obama supporters might want to reflect on the unpleasant fact that Romney’s racist “cultural” explanation of inequality is as American as apple pie. Romney’s great sin for establishment white liberals and Democrats is to be so foolishly over-explicit in voicing what white Americans in both of the dominant U.S. political organizations have long felt on the reasons for such black-white inequality as Caucasians are willing to acknowledge in the U.S. As the estimable black left political commentator Glen Ford recently noted on Black Agenda Report:

 “White South Africa regarded its wealth as prima facie evidence of cultural superiority. The fact that the land, minerals and labor on which that wealth was built belonged to Black people simply proved that Blacks lacked a “culture” adequate to manage those resources….[In a similar vein] White U.S. southerners also insisted, during slavery and Jim Crow, that ‘their’ Negroes were the best off in the world because of their exposure to white folks’ religion and way of life. Left to their own devices, however, Black folks’ innate cultural inferiority – depravity! – would do them in. Blacks’ freedom of movement and expression must be contained, for their own good.”

White liberals also believed in the Culture Demon. In the 1950s and early 60s, it was considered politically correct to describe African Americans as “culturally deprived” – meaning, Blacks are disadvantaged by lack of exposure to white culture. Power has nothing to do with it.”

 “The 20 to 1 disparity between Israeli and Palestinian per capita income matches the wealth gap between American Blacks and whites (app. $5,000 vs. $100,000 for median Black and white households). The fact that such numbers do not provoke general shock and calls for reparations is proof enough that most whites view the disparity as more a natural phenomenon than evidence of cumulative injustice. [The “liberal” sociologist and future Democratic U.S. Senator] Daniel Patrick Moynihan spoke for white folks of the past, present and future when he posited, in 1965, that a Black “culture of poverty [10]” is what keeps Black people poor – not pervasive white racism. [emphasis added].”xii[12]

 The “New Darwinism”

With all due respect to antiquarian cranks like Charles Murray and Richard Herenstein (authors of the infamous sociobiological/Social Darwinian volume The Bell Curve), it’s been a long time since the dominant white-American explanation for the disproportionate poverty experienced by blacks and other non-Caucasians relied on notions of genetic inferiority. Still, white America did not so much transcend as reconfigure Social Darwinism in the middle of the last century. “All too often,” Stephen Steinberg noted more than thirty years ago:

notions of biological superiority and inferiority have been replaced with a new set of ideas that amount to claims of cultural superiority and inferiority. According to this perspective, differences in social class position among ethnic groups in America are a product of cultural attributes that are endemic to the groups themselves. In a sense, nineteenth century Social Darwinism has been replaced with a ‘New Darwinism’ that has simply substituted culture for genes.”xiii[13]

This “new” Darwinian explanation of disproportionate black poverty and black-white inequality in the U.S. today has nothing to do with endemic persistent practices and policies of institutional racism: savage housing and school segregation, rampant employment discrimination, ubiquitous racially biased arrest, conviction and incarceration, racially biased patterns of private and public investment, viciously under-funded black schools, racially biased media coverage and culture, and more.xiv[14] All this and the crippling legacy of 250 years of black North American chattel slavery goes out the window – like the Israeli occupation in Romney’s account of Palestinian poverty – in the dominant white (mis)understanding of blacks’ position in the U.S.

Booker T. Obama

Indeed, the ascendancy of Barack Obama was seen by many whites as proof positive that the only meaningful remaining barriers to black advancement and equality in the U.S. are internal to “black culture” and the black community itself. Along with other widely white-heralded “race neutral” black American elites like Oprah Winfrey and Colin Powell, Obama has been widely perceived as an epitome of the cultural-Darwinian thesis – as the “good” “guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner” black whose internalization of respectable white values and behavioral codes leads to success that demonstrates that a “color blind” America has answered the call for racial equality of opportunity and that impoverished “ghetto blacks” are victims of their own “bad choices” and “bad culture.”

It is a narrative that Obama has been unwilling to remotely question and more than happy to exploit to his advantage with the majority white racism-denying electorate. As Ford notes:

a clear white consensus favors ‘race neutral’ government policies – which, in practice, reject Black grievances based on past discrimination and disadvantage, and set an extremely high bar for complaints of current bias. Such dismissal of essential – and irrefutable – contemporary and historical data can only be rooted in a general white belief that African American culture is what holds Blacks back. Barack Obama either shares this white attitude, or pretends he does for political gain. His singling out of ‘irresponsible’ Black fathers and hectoring of Black parents for feeding their kids Popeye’s chicken for breakfast was a shout-out to white folks that he shared their assessment of Black ‘culture.’ ”xv[15]

It goes back a long way in Obama’s career. Before and since his election to the presidency, Obama has repeatedly played Booker T. Washingtonian haranguer of impoverished blacks for failing to think and act right and thereby to take advantage of the great opportunities supposedly afforded them by the “magical place called the United States.” He has distanced himself from the supposedly “dysfunctional” and obsolete notion that white supremacy and societal racism continue to oppress black Americans. Claiming that “a rising tide will lift all boats” and explicitly denying the need to address the specific needs of blacks, he has refused to advance any policies that might specially address harsh racial disparities resulting from racist realitiesxvi[16] – this even as already terrible black poverty, joblessness, foreclosure, homelessness, and abuse-by-police numbers have significantly worsened during his administration. A cheerleader for Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton’s neoliberal-racist elimination of truly disadvantaged families’ entitlement to public family cash assistance, Obama chides blacks for supposed personal and cultural failure but has nothing to say about the Caucasian culture of white supremacy that creates a living (if dangerously cloaked) reality of anti-black racial oppression in the contemporary U.S.

His liberal supporters are just as muted on the question of racial justice in the supposed new Age of Colorblindness. Quick to call any of the president’s critics “racist” and still patting themselves on the back for being ready to support a (certain bourgeois and “post-racial” kind of) black president, his liberal supporters have nothing to say about his, not-so “race-neutral” silence on harsh persistent realities of color, class, and power.

Democrats can cackle all they want about the gaffe-prone Romney’s elitist cultural insensitivity in Jerusalem. Their hero Obama is no more willing to acknowledge and question the racial Darwinism that substitutes culture for genes than he is to recognize and criticize Israel’s racist oppression of the Palestinians. He at once embodies, epitomizes, and embraces that cultural white supremacism in a way that does no small damage to non-white prospects at home and abroad.

Paul Street ( [11]) is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefield, 2007), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at [12]

Selected Endnotes

i[1] Ashley Parker, “Romney Comments on Palestinians Draw Criticism,” New York Times “Caucus Blog” (July 30, 2012) at [13] 

ii[2] Michael Shear, “Advisor Draws Attention to Romney Mideast Policy,” New York Times, August 1, 2012. 

iii[3] CIA data is quoted and linked in Parker, “Romney Comments.”  

iv[4] Islamic Relief USA, “Palestine: About the Situation,” at [14]

v [5] Richard Falk and Howard Friel, Israel-Palestine on Record: How the New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East (New York Verso, 2007); Anthony Allessandrini, “Palestine in Scare Quotes: From the NYT Grammar Book,” Jadaliyya (July 12, 2011) at [15]

vi [6] Parker, “Romney Comments.”

vii [7] Parker, “Romney Comments.”

viii[8] Quoted in Parker, “Romney Comments”

ix [9] Islamic Relief USA, “Palestine.”

x[10] Adi Ben-Israel, “IMF Slams Growing Inequality in Israel,” GLOBES: Israel’s Business Arena, April 2, 2012, read online at

xi[11] “Thousands Protest Widening Inequality in Israel, But Calls Ignore Occupation and Palestinian Rights,” Democracy Now! August 3, 2011 at 

xii[12] Glen Ford, “Romey and the ‘Culture’ of White Supremacy,” Black Agenda Report (August 1, 2012) at

xiii[13] Stephen Steinberg, The Ethnic Myth: Race, Ethnicity, and Class in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1981), 79.

xiv [14] I describe the many forms of societal and institutional racism that lived on beneath such “post-racial” developments as the rise of Obama in and around Chicago in Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman&Littlefield, 2007), 159-283. For useful accounts of persistent societal and institutional racism in supposedly race-neutral post-Civil Rights America, see Joel Feagin, Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000); Michael Brown et al., Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society (Berkeley, CA: University of California-Berkeley Press, 2003); Paul Street, Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005)l Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010). 

xv[15] Ford, “Romney and the ‘Culture’ of White Supremacy.”

xvi 16] For more details and sources, see Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008), “Chapter 3: How ‘Black’ is Obama? Color, Class, Generation and the Perverse Racial Politics of Post-Civil Rights America “(73-122); Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010), “Chapter 4: Barack Obama, The Myth of the Postracial Presidency, and the Politics of Identity” (129-152).

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By | 2012-08-08T13:13:22+00:00 August 8th, 2012|Articles|