Beyond ‘I ain’t no punk’

Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates has a thoughtful post on the culture of poverty, which the New York Times’ reports can be discussed once again.

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.

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  1. Stacy in NJ says:

    Yes, our culture has been lying to the underclass for some time. We use banal catch phrases about believing in yourself and living your dreams, but we don’t tell them the single most important factor in success in the US is self discipline. To the middle class and affluent this is incredibly obvious and hardly worth mentioning. Show up everyday on time, do what your teacher or boss asks you to do without argument, do the tedious, unexciting studying/work. Success is incremental.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    I don’t know that “we” have been lying to the underclass.
    See Magnet’s “The Dream and The Nightmare.” And Dalrymple’s “View from The Bottom”.
    “We” haven’t been lying, but somebody has.
    Did you see the kerfuffle over the Seattle school board’s definitions of racism and white bias. Future time orientation is middle class and white and thus racist.
    I am not the Seattle school board. Perish the thought.
    Some of us have been lying and others of us have preferred to let it go on in order not to seem culturally chauvinist or something.
    Bill Cosby, for example, is telling the stark truth. What or who are the origins of the bulk of the criticism?

  3. Stacy in NJ says:

    Richard, While I do take your point that not everyone agrees with what causes poverty or failure, I didn’t use “we” at any point in my comment. I said “our culture” which is largely true.

    I’m not familar with Magnet but have ready almost every thing by Theodore Dalrymple including Life at the Bottom. I think Dalrymple might agree with me that “our culture” has been lying to the underclass.