Friday, April 30, 2010

The Patient Needs a Damn Doctor!

John McWhorter and Glen Loury did a diavlog recently where both expressed the view that the black community needs to take responsibility for its own failure.  Mc Whorter even went so far as nearly advocating an entire federal pullout of all programmatic help.  The metaphor they both used was one in which a vehicle strikes a pedestrian.  No matter how much the vehicle was in the wrong, at the end of the day the pedestrian needs to want to walk if he is ever actually going to.  The driver can't "make them do it".  Apparently this originated from a book by Amy Waxman that McWhorter praised.
I'm not sure how to express how angry this sentiment makes me.

The metaphor is flawed for this reason: social determinism is a fact, and it is very driven by government policy.  Sure, it is of course true that black families are failing and perpetuating poverty.  But it is not as if there is some switch that Cosby, McWhorter or anyone else can throw that can change culture either.  Black families would succeed if they knew how.  The problem is that they lack the human capital.   Wax's argument amounts to "leaving them alone and letting them sort it out for themselves".  

I'm sorry, but as a former teacher of low-income children, that attitude just makes me want to scream.  Sure the pedestrian needs to want to walk, but who doesn't.  It is human nature to want to walk.  Blacks aren't failing because they don't want to succeed.  They are failing because they don't have the ability.  And what is keeping them from gaining that ability stems from the original accident.

If we want to really flesh out the metaphor, in a way that is line with our current understanding of how human development and learning works, we need to start by addressing the reasons for black failure.  We can do this in a general way by looking at statistical correlations between features that align with success.  So, the first is parent education.  The higher the education level of the parent the better they tend to do.  There are reasons for this, but we'll leave it at that for now.  Second is income.  A big part of this is going to be peer grouping in education - poor kids have poor classmates.  Third is intact families.  McWhorter and Loury began with this in the first place!  The reasons for why this matters are also well known.  Fourth is drugs.  Pretty obvious.  From here we can go in any number of directions, from parent incarceration to abuse to environmental toxicity to parenting skills. 

The effects of all of all this do not magical begin when the child turns 18, and becomes an "adult" with so-called free will.  No, they begin at birth - actually in the case of some of them they begin to have an effect in utero.  In the first five years of the child's life, they are completely surrounded in a cocoon of all these risk factors.  Only when they reach Kindergarten do they hopefully have a chance at larger social remelioration.  Of course, by this time they are far behind their non-at-risk peers academically, emotionally and cognitively.  And the process just compounds itself as they labor through the years, suffering a life of routine humiliation that they may not understand but intuit clearly.  And once they reach sexual maturity, they begin having babies, and the cycle repeats. 

That is the accident.  The pedestrian is lying bleeding on the pavement at age... pick one - 6 months, 2 years, 5 years, 16 years, 25 years, 45 years.  They are where they are in life because of who their parents were, what community they came from, what brain they were born with, and beyond that what kind of luck they found.  If "choice" had anything to do with it, you would see a random distribution of success across demographics.  There would be no minority achievement gap or uneven incarceration rate.  To the degree that it persists, it is because we allow it to.  I have had students who were mothers at 16 and let me tell you, if you think their baby has any say in whether they "want" to succeed you are fooling yourself.

Now, maybe there is nothing we can do.  Maybe trying to "help" will only make things worse.  For social determinism to be true it doesn't require that we have the answers.  But fortunately for us, we actually do have the answers.  There are evidence-based programs that work.  It is possible for money to spent on targeted services that provide any child with the human capital needed to succeed.  For some, it may be relatively inexpensive - a few after schools classes here, a summer camp there.  For others it may be very expensive, with nurse home visits and occupational therapy, behavior-modification counseling for the whole family, small class sizes and mentorships.  The problem isn't that the black community isn't choosing to help themselves.  That's at best a meaningless red-herring, and at worst a convenient cop-out.  The problem is that we aren't choosing to help them.

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