Alumnus Draws Student Backlash Over Racist Journal Article

A recent article by Lawrence Mead ’66, published in and later retracted by the Society journal last month, made waves on social media as academics across the U.S. denounced the article as racist. The article, which attributed poverty in Black and Hispanic communities to cultural differences, drew nearly 4,000 people from across the nation to sign a petition calling for the article’s retraction. 

In the wake of such discontent in academic circles, Amherst students quickly condemned Mead — taking to social media to voice their discontent, circulate petitions and call on the college’s Mead Art Museum to change its name. 

Mead is currently a professor of politics and public policy at New York University (NYU) and a self-described theorist of “paternalism — the idea that the best way to help the poor is to combine benefits with requirements that the adult poor work or otherwise function as a condition of support,” according to his bio in the college’s alumni directory. Prior to his tenure at NYU, he served as deputy director of research for the Republican National Committee and a speechwriter for former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, among other policy roles.

The Mead Art Museum is named for Mead’s great-great-uncle William Rutherford Mead, who graduated from the college in 1867 and served as a partner at the architectural firm that designed buildings including the Boston Public Library and the original New York Penn Station, the museum told The Student. Provost and Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein added that the museum has “no relationship” with Lawrence Mead, noting that Lawrence is a “distant relative” to Rutherford.

The article, titled “Poverty and Culture,” argued that the Black and Hispanic communities do not adhere to the United States’ individualist culture, preventing them from taking opportunities to “get ahead.” The culture of Black and Hispanic communities, Mead continues, is the root cause of their poverty.  

“There’s a whole universe of academics and other researchers who’ve tried to explain poverty and they really haven’t come up with anything. They haven’t come up with a good reason why these problems persist. And the reason is that their analysis is entirely structural … There’s nothing that’s more personal, nothing about the attitudes or beliefs of poor people themselves, or people in third world countries,” Mead explained about his argument in an interview with The Student.

Mead’s argument takes after the “culture of poverty” theory coined by anthropologist Oscar Lewis in 1961 and later popularized by assistant secretary of labor Daniel Moynihan. Moynihan’s 1965 “The Negro Family,” colloquially known as the Moynihan Report, alleged that the structure of Black families — including female-headed households, births out of wedlock and high divorce rates — were responsible for poverty in Black communities. 

But since the Moynihan Report, scholars have pushed back against culture of poverty arguments. One study from California State University-Fresno notes that pathologizing cultural values serves as a racial microaggression. Another describes the determinants of poverty as “multi­dimensional, and need to be understood beyond simplistic and reductionist arguments that point to individual failure.” And more recently, The New York Times reported that Black families’ homes are appraised for lower values than their white counterparts.

Amid public outcry around Mead’s article, Camila Villagra-Riquelme ’21 took to Twitter to relay her dismay with Mead’s affiliation with the college. “@AmherstCollege alumni Lawrence Mead ‘66 (yes, *that* Mead) just published a virulently racist article attributing poverty in communities of color to culture. Here is the abstract (and the article itself is even worse),” read one of Villagra-Riquelme’s tweets, which included a screenshot of the article’s abstract. “Lawrence Mead is currently a professor at @nyuniversity and has also worked at @Harvard and @Princeton. He worked as a speechwriter for Henry KISSINGER and has been involved in policy making for decades. People who think like him have been crafting US policy!,” a second tweet from Villagra-Riquelme said. 

“It’s a little upsetting to think that someone who has likely made a career of writing problematic things and contributing in really negative ways to academia,” Villagra-Riquelme told The Student. She first heard about Mead’s ties to the college from Alejandro Niño ’18, who wrote a Facebook post condemning the article and describing a time when Mead told Niño, who is Hispanic, at a dinner at the Inn on Boltwood that he “was an exception to a culture of lazy Hispanic people,” as Niño wrote in his post. Niño declined to comment for this article. 

Villagra-Riquelme’s initial tweet garnered 83 retweets and over 100 likes, with some echoing Villagra-Riquelme’s frustration in the replies. Screenshots of Villagra-Riquelme’s tweet also appeared on Instagram, where it was reshared widely by Amherst students and alumni. In the meantime, others have taken to Facebook to denounce Mead, sharing a post from a non-Amherst affiliated user claiming that “this is one of the most violently racist things I’ve seen published in an academic journal.”

Despite Mead’s distant ties with the campus museum’s namesake, some students and alumni have conveyed in the replies a desire for the college to rename the museum so that it has no association with the Mead family. According to the museum, it has not received any such requests directly. Nonetheless, Villagra-Riquelme hopes that the community could have an open discussion about deplatforming Mead.

“If the school is moving in the direction of diversity and inclusion, we shouldn’t have a building named after someone who clearly disdains diversity and inclusion,” she said. “But, of course, my opinion is not the only one that matters. If the school feels that they should at least have a discussion about it, then I think that there should be a space in which people can sort of air their thoughts.”

Meanwhile, other students have been displeased at the ways the college has amplified Mead’s work. Prior to the “Poverty and Culture” article, Luis de Pablo ’22 had heard about Mead from a friend who attended NYU and shared his previous work with him. de Pablo soon learned that Mead was an Amherst alum, and a quick Google search led him to find that the college’s alumni magazine had recommended his most recent book in its spring 2020 issue. Displeased with the college’s apparent endorsement of Mead’s work, de Pablo sent an email to President Biddy Martin conveying his disappointment. 

“I am Hispanic, and I appreciate and value my culture. It is personally insulting that Mead believes that my culture encourages laziness and crime,” de Pablo wrote in his email to Martin. “I believe that Amherst needs to publicly retract this recommendation. I also find it appropriate that Amherst College should release a statement assuring they do not endorse Mead’s views.”

According to Mead, he was not aware that the magazine had featured his book.

“His brand of racism is especially upsetting because it’s masked as legitimate academic discourse,” de Pablo said in an email interview. “When I shared Mead’s article with people I know, not everyone agreed with my belief that he is a racist. I was told that his beliefs might be ignorant, but that they are not outright racist. I believe that this highlights the particular harm of this type of racism. Mead uses careful word choices and dog whistles to promote racist ideologies while still being able to pretend that he is a real academic.”

Emily Gold Boutilier, the magazine’s editorial director, later responded to de Pablo’s email, noting that while the magazine does not vet books for content prior to their recommendation in order to create an “all-inclusive listing,” it would consider starting to do so to avoid similar situations in the future.

“Your email has shown me the problems in this current practice. We are now weighing a variety of new procedures that will result in a more selective Short Takes section, one that will allow us to exercise more editorial judgment,” she wrote. She added that new procedures would go into effect before the next issue is published.

Epstein added that the magazine will retract their recommendation of Mead’s book in the following issue.

In her Twitter thread, Villagra-Riquelme shared a link to an open letter addressed to Mead and the editorial board of the Society journal inviting those upset by the article’s publication to sign on as a signatory. 

“‘Society,’ and Professor Mead, demonstrate that outdated and odious suppositions about BIPOC still hold sway in the very academic circles that should be challenging, not strengthening, racism,” the letter read. “As a group of community-focused advocates, we are committed to confronting racism and anti-Blackness, and would be culpable if we did not condemn this publication and hold the editorial board of “Society” responsible for publishing such irresponsible commentary in its journal.” 

At the time of publication, 49 of the 3,510 signatories to the letter identified themselves as either Amherst College students or alumni.

Since the article’s release in late July and its subsequent outrage, Society has retracted its publication, posting an apology on its website.

“Following publication, serious concerns were raised,” the apology said. “Subsequent review of the publication process and the article by the Editor-in-Chief concluded that the article was published without proper editorial oversight. The Editor-in-Chief deeply regrets publishing the article and offers his apologies. The author does not agree to this retraction.” 

Mead said that the article was not retracted for being racist, but instead that it had not been vetted properly by the journal’s editorial staff, noting that five other articles he had written for Society conveying similar arguments have not been taken down. But despite the outcry prompted by “Poverty and Culture”, Mead believes that his argument has been misunderstood. 

“It isn’t racist. Racism means the belief that one race is superior to another. It also implies that the characteristics of races are physical and they can’t be changed by conditioning. I don’t believe that; I don’t see evidence for that,” he said. “But culture is not endemic. It is not something that is inherent in a race. It’s based on socialization … it’s not a racial argument; it’s a cultural argument.”  

According to The Atlantic, Merriam Webster dictionary recently expanded its definition of racism after activist pushback to include “societal and institutional power” — a direct brush-up against Mead’s argument that racial economic disparities are not systemic. 

“People don’t want to talk about it at all. They want it to go away. And that’s what I’m resisting. It’s not going away. I’m going to make every effort to make sure it doesn’t go away,” Mead added.

For Villagra-Riquelme and de Pablo, they hope that the college publicly denounces Mead and his work and disinvites him from future alumni events.

“NYU [Mead’s employer] has already released a statement condemning his work, and Amherst needs to do the right thing and follow suit,” de Pablo said. 

Mead said that he has not had a close relationship to the college in years because of his controversial views. “I’ve been a public figure about welfare poverty. For about 30 years, and indeed I was by many accounts, the leading voice behind the welfare reform of 1996, the most radical change in domestic policy since the Civil Rights Act … I’m a public speaker, but to Amherst I’m invisible,” he said. He had only been invited to campus once, in 2016 to celebrate his 50th class reunion. 

In bringing Mead’s controversy to attention, she hopes to encourage the college to grapple with the promises it claims to uphold to students. 

“It’s known that there has been tension between older alumni and current students because the demographics [of the college] changed so rapidly. So when I say that it feels like sometimes [the college] is playing to both sides, what I mean by that is that it feels like Amherst promotes values of diversity and inclusion, right, but also tries to appease to alumni that don’t necessarily agree with the current school,” she said.

Correction: A previous version of the article misspelled the name of Emily Gold Boutilier. The article is updated to reflect this change. The Student regrets this error.