The Culture of Poverty Thesis and It’s Presence in High School Films

Sometimes we cannot help the cards we are dealt in this life. Some people will have a great hand and will win the game, and some will have a mediocre hand, and can make use of what they have. Others are dealt with a hand that no matter what moves they make, what strategies they consider, it seems they cannot win. This analogy directly applies to the “Culture of Poverty Theory”. The “Culture of Poverty Theory” places blame on the families in poverty for their unfortunate situation. The theory implies that if these people adopted the suburban-protestant standard, all of their issues would disappear. However, what the theory does not consider is if the individual even knows how to play the game, or if they even know how to read the cards! In this case, an individual’s ambition and racism. Robert C. Bulman, author of Hollywood Goes to High School, presents several counter narratives to this theory.

From a sociological view, the “Culture of Poverty Theory” is a theory that applies to a specific part of the social structure we have in the United States. However, because of how dominant this theory is, it has incorporated itself into the media. The ideology of the suburban lifestyle is showcased in a high school film sub-genre. The thesis has displayed itself most prominently in the urban high school film genre. The movies within this genre highlight the reason individuals are not successful in society is becuase they do not want to be successful. Yet, this is not true. The reason these individuals have problems succeeding in society is more structural rather than individual. Although in films, members of the suburban class would rather cast this issue as an individual problem to lessen their responsibility. Because of this guilt, the middle class places blame on the flawed individual from the inner city, then to admit the flaw that is actually located in the suburban lifestyle. “Explaining poverty as the result of individual failure helps to relieve the suburban middle class (and upper class) of its share of responsibility for having politically and economically neglected the inner city” (pp. 50, Bulman). Some of the urban genre films could be argued as propaganda for the lifestyle the middle class wants, others (very few), counter this view. Production companies, like Worcester based N-CITE media, exist to counter this dominant narrative. Their vision is, “a world in which the media is no longer controlled by corporate elites and where a constellation of narratives can use accessible media outlets to replace the corporate produced ideology.” The suburban creators of these movies want to justify their lifestyle by playing a higher authority in the creation of the urban high school genre.

An excerpt in Bulman’s book that really stood out about what the poverty thesis does not consider, is the part when he was reviewing a character from the 1950’s movie Blackboard Jungle. Through Blackboard Jungle, Bulman explained how environmental factors could affect inner city residential lives. The character Miller had potential to exceed his life expectation as an African American mechanic, and as superiors encouraged him to pursue this challenging path, Miller had a realistic understanding of his situation. Miller dismissed the recommended lifestyle, “not due to an inferior culture of an irrational choice, but to knowledge about the bitter realities to the life chances for most low-income, urban African Americans in 1955” (pp. 57, Bulman). Hollywood implied from their movies, based on the suburban work ethic, that when one works hard, they will always succeed. The perspective that Miller presented disproved the accepted lifestyle that the suburban class gives. According to Bulman, poverty analysis does not include behavior of the inner city children as a result of the culture or their values, “but may be a reflection of the opportunities that await them in the labor market” (pp. 57, Bulman). The individuals act out not because they are flawed as an individual, but because they have a very strong and personal understanding of the society that surrounds them.
There are several reasons why minorities are not successful in society, that are not considered in the “Culture of Poverty Thesis”. One of them is because they have no control over it. Jay Smooth, an activist for racial issues, discussed the fact that society blames the victim for this lack of success in the inner city. In his video, On Don Lemmon, Race and ‘Respectability, he brought up the idea that while some advice is given to help someone; other advice is given to someone to help yourself feel better about not knowing how to solve the other’s problems. This inspired the idea that the whole Poverty Theory is just a huge projection of the insecurities that the middle class face. The “respectability” to give advice or to help these lower class individuals is not for the sake of helping them but to, “mollify the shame that we project onto those young black men when we walk by them on the street” (Smooth). Smooth continued by pointing out that this “comfort” is to help soothe shame of the internal racism that caused lack of success in the inner city situation in the first place. The Poverty Theory does not address the fact that internalized racism, in both upper and middle class directly affect the situation of minorities in society by preventing them from being successful.

A plot line in urban movies that enforce this suburban ideology is the “The Teacher as a Cowboy Vigilante” (pp. 66, Bulman). In general, most of the educational systems in urban settings (who are usually ran by suburban residents), are underfunded. In the movie Freedom Writers, they placed the blame on the interracial students attending. In the movie, the principal refused to pay for new books because of her prejudice (this act implying that that she will not fund them because they are not Caucasian, or from an trusted background). This part hints at the internalized racist perspective. Then, the movie threw in the teacher vigilante (who is middle class), who buys supplies with her own money. The whole plot is suburbia saying, “We won’t fund you because we’re racist, but don’t worry one person will buy you books so it looks like we did something”. Proving Jay Smooth’s point on advice.
Most urban high school film genre movies prove the point of the “Culture of Poverty Theory”. As Freedom Writers displayed hints of suburban internalized racism, other movies like Blackboard Jungle showed what the theory does not address. Structural or individual, enforced through media or not, the situation of the inner city lifestyle needs to be addressed, and it seems that everyone is at fault.

Works Cited

Bulman, Robert C. “Chaper 3: Fighting the Culture of Poverty.” Hollywood Goes to High School: Cinema, Schools, and American Culture. New York: Worth Pub., 2005. 50. Print.
Bulman, Robert C. “Chaper 3: Fighting the Culture of Poverty.” Hollywood Goes to High School: Cinema, Schools, and American Culture. New York: Worth Pub., 2005. 57. Print.
Bulman, Robert C. “Chaper 3: Fighting the Culture of Poverty.” Hollywood Goes to High School: Cinema, Schools, and American Culture. New York: Worth Pub., 2005. 66. Print.
On Don Lemmon, Race and ‘Respectability’. Dir. Jay Smooth. Perf. Jay Smooth. Ill Doctrine. N.p., 1 Aug. 2013. Web.
Freedom Writers. Dir. Richard LaGravenese. Perf. Hilary Swank, Patrick Dempsy. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2007. DVD.
Blackboard Jungle. Dir. Richard Brooks. By Richard Brooks. Perf. Glenn Ford, Anne Francis, and Sidney Poitier. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1955.
“Disrupting the Dominant Narrative.” New Counterstories 4 Ideological Transformation & Eduction (N-CITE): Disrupting the Dominant Narrative. N-CITE, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.


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