Hundreds Call Paper 'Unscholarly' and 'Racially Violent'

Retraction Watch Staff

July 28, 2020

Hundreds of academics, anti-poverty advocates and others have signed petitions demanding the journal Society retract a new commentary which argues, in essence, that poor Black and Hispanic people in the United States are poor because they haven't figured out how to be more white.

One petition, to the editor of the journal, Jonathan Imber, had garnered more than 550 signatories by the time of this writing. Another, to the author of the paper, the editorial board of the journal, and the CEO of Springer Nature, which publishes the journal, was at 400 and counting.

The essay, by Lawrence Mead, a public policy researcher at New York University, argues that racism and a lack of good jobs do not explain why America, the world's richest country, continues to have a problem with poverty. "More plausible," Mead states, are differences in "culture": 

The United States has an individualist culture, derived from Europe, where most people seek to achieve personal goals. Racial minorities, however, all come from non-Western cultures where most people seek to adjust to outside conditions rather than seeking change. Another difference is that Westerners are moralistic about social order, demanding that behavior respect universal principles, while in the non-West norms are less rigid and depend mostly on the expectations of others. These differences best explain why minorities— especially blacks and Hispanics—typically respond only weakly to chances to get ahead through education and work, and also why crime and other social problems run high in low-income areas. The black middle class has converted to an individualist style and thus advanced, but most blacks have not. Government has recently reduced crime and welfare in poor areas, but the ultimate solution to poverty is for the poor themselves to adopt the more inner-driven individualist style. 

According to one petition:

The ideologies espoused by Professor Mead are reflective of the racist, anti-Black, patriarchal, hegemonic doctrines perpetuated in society, PreK-12, and in higher education, alike. As a community, granted the power to educate and inform, who have worked diligently to become experts in our own respective ways, we have the responsibility to do so in a manner that progresses equity for those communities historically and consistently oppressed. We have a social and professional responsibility to help mend the wounds of racial violence and oppression. We have a responsibility to dismantle structural barriers while creating new systems of resistance and acceptance that celebrate and promote justice. As teachers, it is our responsibility to curate a message of justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, and access so that the bigotry so normalized in our society may no longer influence public policy.

It adds that the commentary is one of dozens of "racially violent" works by Mead, articles and books that:

are almost entirely devoid of the necessary data and empiricism customary of our field.

The petition calls on the journal to pull the paper:

Given the commentary's explicit racism, we respectfully ask that "Society" immediately retract the commentary, and that the journal issue an apology to the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color]  community, and the communities negatively impacted by these narratives. We also ask for the opportunity to publish a commentary that contextualizes the covertly racist practices, and structures, that permit the publication of work centered in the culture of poverty ideology.

The signatories also have asked Society and Springer Nature to answer the following questions:

How many BIPOC serve on the journal's editorial board? How many BIPOC scholars were asked to peer review the commentary? Were BIPOC scholars offered an opportunity to present a counter to the commentary? The answers to these questions will help elucidate the ways that academia in general and academic journals specifically serve to strengthen white supremacy.

The petition to Imber states:

The piece is unscholarly, overtly racist and has no place in a publication that purports to be a serious academic journal. …

That this paper was accepted raises serious questions about the editorial process and the credibility of your journal. 

In the context of wider questions about institutional racism in academia, we demand that the paper be immediately retracted and an external inquiry be held into how the editors and reviewers either failed to spot or willfully overlooked its numerous flaws.

Neither Mead nor Imber immediately responded to our requests for comment.

"Not some marginal academic"

Mohamad Bazzi, a professor at NYU's Arthur Carter Journalism Institute, notes that Mead has been influential:

Not surprisingly, Mead's essay has drawn outrage on Twitter. Christian Suri, a pediatric neurologist who is Hispanic, posted an exchange he had with Mead in which the NYU professor praised Andrew's familial success but stuck to his thesis:

Mead told another researcher who questioned him:

Update, 1615 UTC, 7/27/20: Susie Winter, director of communications and engagement, research, at Springer Nature, tells Retraction Watch:

We are deeply concerned by this and have contacted the editor in chief to investigate this as a matter of urgency.

Update, 1915 UTC, 7/27/20: NYU's academic leadership has issued a statement about Mead's paper:

A recent article, "Poverty and Culture," written by Professor Lawrence Mead has caused great distress within our community. We share this sentiment. We recognize that Professor Mead has the same rights to freedom of expression as we all do and are firm in our commitment to the principle of academic freedom. At the same time, we reject what we believe to be the article's false, prejudicial, and stigmatizing assertions about the culture of communities of color in the United States.
Now more than ever, it is imperative that we amplify our fundamental values of diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging, and that we consistently strive to create a culture of care and respect. Our success as an institution depends on fostering an inclusive and welcoming environment for all members of our community, and we must hold one another accountable in the education and support of our students and of each other. Racism, bigotry, hatred, intolerance, and discrimination have no place in our classrooms or in our academic community.

This article originally appeared on Retraction Watch.


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