Coates grew up in a Baltimore neighborhood where the best defense was a good offense. The way to avoid being a victim was to be willing to fight for yourself, your friends and the neighborhood. It worked in the ‘hood. It could have cost him his job at The Atlantic if he’d punched a critic who refused to let him alone.
“I ain’t no punk” may shield you from neighborhood violence. But it can not shield you from algebra, when your teacher tries to correct you. It can not shield you from losing hours, when your supervisor corrects your work. And it would not have shielded me from unemployment, after I cold-cocked a guy over a blog post.
I suspect that a large part of the problem, when we talk about culture, is an inability to code-switch, to understand that the language of Rohan is not the language of Mordor. I don’t say this to minimize culture, to the contrary, I say it to point how difficult it is to get people to discard practices which were essential to them in one world, but hinder their advancement into another. And then there’s the fear of that other world, that sense that if you discard those practices, you have discarded some of yourself, and done it in pursuit of a world that you may not master.
In tough neighborhoods, schools need to teach a cooperative, peaceful culture, such as KIPP’s “Work hard. Be nice.”
I also like the idea of drama classes in all grades to teach students they have choices in how they act. Act tough, when necessary. Act nice, when possible.