“I worry a lot about the kids. … Many of them just don’t have a culture of expectation at home, and it’s hard work to lift yourself out of an underprivileged situation.” On April 11, the Humans of New York blog interviewed a white fourth grade teacher in the Harlem section of New York City. During the interview, the teacher noted that his underprivileged students struggle (at least partly) because their parents do not foster a “culture” of expectation at home. Logically, one would wonder then, what culture do they foster?
Like many well-intentioned, privileged educators entering the ghettoes of America’s major cities, the unnamed Harlem teacher views his students’ behavior, patterns of dress and speech, and their lack of motivation as products of the “culture of poverty.” First proposed by Oscar Lewis in 1959, the “culture of poverty” theory argues that poor parents actually socialize their children to be lazy, uninterested in education and responsible for the conditions that beset them.
This theory is still popular among conservative politicians like Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who referred to it as the “culture of not working.” Along with his 2012 comments that the “urban vote” lost former Gov. Mitt Romney, R-Mass., the presidency, Rep. Ryan has been a vocal proponent of blaming inner-city adults for every social ill he can pin on them. Overspending on social assistance programs? High rates of gun violence? High abortion rates? Blame those irresponsible, lazy, ungrateful inner city residents.
There’s something deeply troubling about a political ideology that argues that people in the heart of American cities are the problem with America. Before I came to college, I would consciously avoid calling parts of Philadelphia “the ghetto.” As a Jew of European descent, I felt that “the ghetto” was a specific term, referring to the squalid, walled-in areas in which my ancestors were forced to live. Having lived and worked in the Philadelphia ghettoes, I have come to realize that my neighbors are not the problem with America; they are scapegoats of the American problem. They are the people that Ryan targets in his budgets and his rhetoric, because they cannot possibly fight back. How does he know? He was able to block impoverished Americans from testifying in congressional hearings on poverty this month, that’s how.
This “culture of expectation” idea has been a recurring theme in my life lately, peddled as if it is fact. Volunteering as a public middle school science tutor in West Philadelphia, I interact with a lot of impoverished students, as well as some very intelligent college student tutors. Despite their impressive knowledge of the natural sciences, I find it altogether disturbing how quickly my fellow tutors will write off the students we are tasked to teach, because “they aren’t behaving properly.”
“When I was in seventh grade, my teacher never would have allowed this kind of behavior,” one may say. Even a student in my own major — who researched public school — slipped into the language of poverty socialization. “It’s so difficult to get their parents to talk to us. They only care when their kids are in trouble.”
There is a separate culture that exists in these ghettoized public schools (in fact, there are several). There’s an urban black culture, with a speaking style and cultural norms. There’s a Latino culture, speaking varieties of both English and Spanish. Because we’re in Philadelphia, there are also South and East Asian cultures represented in the classroom. And, much to the ignorance of teachers and tutors, each of these cultures has different rules about speaking and behavior.
It is easy to blame the parents whom you never see for not instilling a good work ethic into their children, until you ask yourself what they might be doing. Are they sitting at home drunk and immobile? Or are they fighting to earn enough money for food, rent and wearable clothes on two different minimum-wage jobs? Do they really not care about the child that they manage to dress and send to school every day? Or do they just hold the increasingly unrealistic expectation that their tax dollars are funding a public education system capable of teaching, motivating and supporting their children’s academic and social needs?
When white, middle-class teachers blame their students’ academic struggles on their misbehavior and home lives, they are negating the very real cultural divides in the classroom. These teachers themselves have been socialized into a culture of entitlement, where anything that looks or sounds different must be inferior. Whether it is their regard for Ebonics as a substandard variety of English, or their interpretation of students’ aggressive physical behavior as actively resistant to learning (rather than a defense mechanism against the frequent violence in their communities), outside educators who lack respect for their students’ life experiences all too quickly blame the students and ignore the real problem: institutionalized poverty.
It is time to stop blaming the poor, the weak and the underserved for the terrible conditions of their lives. With more than 70 percent of African-American children born from 1970-1990 experiencing poverty during their childhood (compared to 28 percent of white children), this issue is another example of the persistent, structurally-enforced racism that plagues our democracy. It is time to stop expecting impoverished children to just “lift themselves out of an underprivileged situation.” It is time to stop talking about impoverished parents as inferior to middle-class adults. It is time to start treating impoverished children like human beings, fully deserving of dignity, respect and above all, potential.
Richard Furstein is a senior anthropology major at Drexel University, He can be contacted at [email protected].