Saturday, March 19, 2011


Creation of Light, Gustave Doré
Yesterday in Texas, a 20-month old toddler was found drunk on 4 Loko, the notorious caffeinated alcoholic beverage.  Police found the mother outside the apartment complex with friends.  Apparently she had fallen asleep in bed while drinking, then woke and went outside.  After a roommate found the infant tangled in sheets, turning blue, she called 911.  When they arrived they found the toddler wandering drunkenly outside. The mother's mug shot was plastered front and center below the headline.

Lashawnda Allen, 32, lives in a poor section of North Houston, most likely in this apartment complex.  The nearest elementary school ranks 4/10 according to statewide exams.  I was able to find her My Space page, on which she has posted pictures of her toddler, her 5 month old, and random pictures of her mugging for the camera.  The backgrounds in the pictures are of grimy apartment walls, dirty carpet and a barren concrete walkway in front of a row of government-style housing.  There is no picture of a father figure to be found, aside form a somewhat steely-eyed young boy Lashawnda notes is her cousin.

This story plays out daily in poor (often minority) communities across the nation.  Broken homes, substance abuse, poverty and despair.  These are the worst possible conditions under which to raise a child.

A terribly tragic story.  Yet what struck me were the comments that followed the piece I read.  A brief glance at responses across the internet shows a similar reaction.

"Drunk while in the care of such small children and in the middle of the day???? I can't imagine even having the desire when my kids were babies to start pounding down booze. What an idiot."

"This kind of story frightens the hell out of me on a lot of levels. We hear of them more and more often too. Are we as a nation really dumbing down this much? I realize not everyone has the benefit of a good education but the sheer lack of common sense here boggles me."

"What a waste of space. I don't understand how these people are smart enough to figure out how to "breed"."
The patten being expressed in the majority of comments on this story shows a profound lack of understanding of the causal mechanisms at work in low-income, disadvantaged communities.  The idea that this woman is an "idiot" is absurd.  Of course, what she did was terrible and shows a profound level of ignorance and dysfunction.  Yet there are reasons she developed into the person she is.

Many of the students I work with come from just these types of environments.  Not only have they received almost zero positive role-modeling in their lives, but the culture in which they live has social norms that would be unrecognizable to those who have not grown up in the ghetto.  The students live in a world in which the future stretches no further than the coming weekend, and sex, drugs and fighting are respectable pleasures in a bleak reality of absent or imprisoned fathers, overworked or depressed and dysfunctional mothers, and extensive peer groups where delinquency is the rule, not the exception.

It is a natural human impulse to become angry over what we do not understand.  Why didn't this mother - "these people" - make better decisions?  Yet she is doing the best she knows how to do, in a world of shadows in which she cannot see the way out.  Let us be angry at this, the disenfranchisement and despair that plagues the ghetto.  Let us try and find ways to help, instead of passively sitting back, judging from a distance, assuming that we would have known to different had we been raised in such a world.  Let us be thankful that we have had the privileges we have had.  Let us be grateful that our world is filled with the light to do right both by ourselves and our fellow man.

Let us take that light and reflect it into the darkness as an act of love, not hatred.  Lashawnda and her children could use it.

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