City Journal

Kay S. Hymowitz
What’s Holding Black Kids Back?
Bill Cosby is right: the problem is the parents.
Spring 2005

In January, almost 2,000 people jammed the auditorium at Wayne County Community College in Detroit in order to hear Bill Cosby yell at them—there’s really no other way to put it—for being bad parents. That was after a crowd had already filled a hall in Newark. And another in Springfield, Massachusetts. And another in Milwaukee. And yet another in Atlanta.

Had Cosby not gone into quarantine as the result of sexual-abuse charges that prosecutors say they are no longer pursuing, there’s no question that thousands more poor black parents would have come to town-hall meetings, asking the comedian-activist to harangue them, too. They would have waited in line to hear Cosby say the same sort of thing he said in front of the NAACP on the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown decision last May when he started his crusade: “The lower economic people are not holding up their end of the deal. These people are not parenting!” Or the litany he presented in a Paula Zahn interview: “You got to straighten up your house! Straighten up your apartment! Straighten up your child!” Wearing a sweatshirt with the motto “Parent Power!” he doubtless would have blasted the “poverty pimps and victim pimps” who blame their children’s plight on racial injustice. “Proper education has to begin at home. . . . We don’t need another federal commission to study the problem. . . . What we need now is parents sitting down with children, overseeing homework, sending children off to school in the morning, well fed, rested, and ready to learn.”

Now Bill Cosby is a big star and all, but at 67, he’s not exactly Beyoncé. Why would people hang from the rafters in order to hear an aging sitcom dad accuse them of raising “knuckleheads”? The commentariat, black and white, sure didn’t have an answer. billionaire bashes poor blacks, the New York Times headlined columnist Barbara Ehrenreich’s attack on Cosby’s critique. Newsweek columnist Ellis Cose admitted that there was some truth to Cosby’s charges, but objected, “The basic question is whether criticizing such behavior is enough to change it.” Hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons harrumphed an answer to Cose’s question: “Judgment of the people in this situation is not helpful.” In his Paula Zahn interview, Cosby told how ex–poet laureate Maya Angelou had chided him in similar terms: “You know, Bill, you’re a very nice man, but you have a big mouth.”

Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? Cosby was filling auditoriums precisely because he has a big mouth, because he was being judgmental. His blunt talk seemed a refreshing tonic to the sense that the standard bromides about the inner city’s troubles weren’t getting blacks very far. Forty years after the War on Poverty began, about 30 percent of black children are still living in poverty. Those children face an even chance of dropping out of high school and, according to economist Thomas Hertz, a 42 percent chance of staying in the lowest income decile—far greater than the 17 percent of whites born at the bottom who stay there. After endless attempts at school reform and a gazillion dollars’ worth of what policymakers call “interventions,” just about everyone realizes—without minimizing the awfulness of ghetto schools—that the problem begins at home and begins early. Yet the assumption among black leaders and poverty experts has long been that you can’t expect uneducated, highly stressed parents, often themselves poorly reared, to do all that much about it. Cosby is saying that they can.

And about that, he is right.

Let’s start with a difficult truth behind Cosby’s rant: 40 years and trillions of government dollars have not given black and white children equal chances. Put aside the question of the public schools for now; the problem begins way before children first go through their shabby doors. Black kids enter school significantly below their white peers in everything from vocabulary to number awareness to self-control. According to a 1998 National Center for Education Statistics survey of kindergarten teachers, black children are much less likely to show persistence in school tasks, to pay close attention in class, or to seem eager to learn new things than are their white counterparts; Hispanic children fall midway in between. As a 2002 book from the liberal Economic Policy Institute, Inequality at the Starting Gate, puts it, “[D]isadvantaged [disproportionately black] children start kindergarten with significantly lower cognitive skills than their more advantaged counterparts.” Dismayingly, the sentence might have come straight from a government commission on poverty, circa 1964—before the War on Poverty had spent a dime.

And what about Head Start, perhaps the best-known War on Poverty campaign, which was supposed “to bring these kids to the starting line equal,” as President Johnson put it at the time? Head Start rested on the reasonable assumption that crucial to fighting poverty was to compensate for what was—or, more to the point, was not—happening at home. If poor kids arrived at school less prepared than their more well-to-do counterparts, well, then, give them more of what those other kids were getting: more stories, building blocks, and puzzles, more talk, more edifying adult attention—as well as good nutrition and health care. Although in retrospect, the first Head Start program in the heady summer of 1965—designed to last all of eight weeks—was wildly unrealistic, the approach still made sense. Poor kids would get a concentrated injection of middle-class child rearing in preschool, and they would start school ready to learn, to achieve at the same rate as their better-off peers, and eventually to live as well as they did.

Except it didn’t work out that way. As a lingering reminder of the hopes and idealism that surrounded the War on Poverty, Head Start, with its annual budget of $6.8 billion, remains a sentimental favorite of the public and of Congress. But the truth is, from the first time they parsed the data, Head Start researchers found that while children sometimes enjoyed immediate gains in IQ and social competence, these improvements tended to fade by the time kids hit third grade. The failed promise of Head Start might best be captured by a visit I made several years ago to a Head Start program in a housing project on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a cheerful and orderly place that would satisfy anyone’s definition of quality child care. As I was leaving, an administrator introduced me to a young woman of 21 or so just arriving with her four-year-old. “This is Sonia,” he said proudly. “She went here when she was a little girl.” Not only had Head Start failed to prevent a poor child from becoming a teen mother, but a Head Start administrator didn’t even seem to think that it was supposed to. For him—and, one suspects, for many teachers and parents—Head Start had come to be nothing more than a nice neighborhood preschool; it wasn’t meant to change lives, and it boasted with institutional pride of what elite private schools and colleges call legacies.

That doesn’t mean preschool has never helped impoverished black children—not by any means. One reason so many are convinced that “Head Start works” is that it is often blurred—sometimes with deliberate fudging by advocates—with several other programs that have had heartening results: the Abecedarian Project at the University of North Carolina and the Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Michigan. In 1972, in perhaps the most intensive intervention tried in the United States short of adoption, the Abecedarian Project put 57 very high-risk children into a five-year infant and preschool program, where highly trained teachers worked on what child developmentalists call “fine-motor, language, and social-emotional skills.” When the kids hit age 21, they still showed some gains over a control group: they had better jobs, three times as many of them went to college, and they were half as likely to be teen parents. The graduates of Perry Preschool, a more conventional two-year program, were less likely than the control group to have been placed in special education or to have been arrested, and were more likely to graduate high school, to have higher monthly earnings as adults, and to own homes.

Still, both of these programs were extremely small. Between them, we’re talking a grand total of 115 children, who enjoyed expertly constructed, exquisitely staffed arrangements, unlikely to be replicable on a large scale. Saying that “preschool works” based on these model programs makes as much sense as saying that because NASA successfully launched a mission to Mars, so can JetBlue.

These days, especially given the public’s sticker shock after four decades of government programs, the vast community of child developmentalists and antipoverty advocates—to its credit—has adopted a more sober tone than at any time since the 1960s. As recently as 1988, War on Poverty veteran Lisbeth Schorr trumpeted that success was near, in her book Within Our Reach: “We now know that the education, health, nutrition, and social services and parent support have prevented and ameliorated many of the educational handicaps associated with growing up in poverty,” giving us results that are “measurable and dramatic.” (Perry Preschool is one of the three early-childhood programs she cites.) You’re not going to hear that kind of talk today. “Do You Believe in Magic?” is the half-bitter title of a 2003 article on preschool intervention by Columbia University Teachers College professor Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, one of the titans of early-childhood research. Edward Zigler, a Head Start founder, has urged experts in the field to “become realistic and temper our hopes.” For the bitter truth is that even in the best programs that money can buy, what we’re looking at is not equality but damage control, not a middle-class future but “risk prevention.”

So why have we been able to make so little headway in improving the life chances of poor black children? One reason towers over all others, and it’s the one Cosby was alluding to, however crudely, in his town-hall meetings: poor black parents rear their children very differently from the way middle-class parents do, and even by the time the kids are four years old, the results are extremely hard to change. Academics and poverty mavens know this to be the case, though they try to soften the harshness of its implications. They point out—correctly—that poor parents say they want the same things for their kids that everyone does: a good job, a nice home, and a satisfying family life. They observe that poor parents don’t have the money or the time or the psychological well-being to do a lot of the quasi-educational things that middle-class parents do with their young children, such as going to the circus or buying Legos. They argue that educational deprivation means that the poor don’t know the best child-rearing methods; they have never taken Psych 101, nor have their friends presented them with copies of What to Expect: The Toddler Years at their baby showers.

But these explanations shy away from the one reason that renders others moot: poor parents raise their kids differently, because they see being parents differently. They are not simply middle-class parents manqué; they have their own culture of child rearing, and—not to mince words—that culture is a recipe for more poverty. Without addressing that fact head-on, not much will ever change.

Social scientists have long been aware of an immense gap in the way poor parents and middle-class parents, whatever their color, treat their children, including during the earliest years of life. On the most obvious level, middle-class parents read more to their kids, and they use a larger vocabulary, than poor parents do. They have more books and educational materials in the house; according to Inequality at the Starting Gate, the average white child entering kindergarten in 1998 had 93 books, while the average black child had fewer than half that number. All of that seems like what you would expect given that the poor have less money and lower levels of education.

But poor parents differ in ways that are less predictably the consequences of poverty or the lack of high school diplomas. Researchers find that low-income parents are more likely to spank or hit their children. They talk less to their kids and are more likely to give commands or prohibitions when they do talk: “Put that fork down!” rather than the more soccer-mommish, “Why don’t you give me that fork so that you don’t get hurt?” In general, middle-class parents speak in ways designed to elicit responses from their children, pointing out objects they should notice and asking lots of questions: “That’s a horse. What does a horsie say?” (or that middle-class mantra, “What’s the magic word?”). Middle-class mothers also give more positive feedback: “That’s right! Neigh! What a smart girl!” Poor parents do little of this.

The difference between middle-class and low-income child rearing has been captured at its starkest—and most unsettling—by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley in their 1995 book Meaningful Differences. As War on Poverty foot soldiers with a special interest in language development, Hart and Risley were troubled by the mediocre results of the curriculum they had helped design at the Turner House Preschool in a poor black Kansas City neighborhood. Comparing their subjects with those at a lab school for the children of University of Kansas professors, Hart and Risley found to their dismay that not only did the university kids know more words than the Turner kids, but they learned faster. The gap between upper- and lower-income kids, they concluded, “seemed unalterable by intervention by the time the children were 4 years old.”

Trying to understand why, their team set out to observe parents and children in their homes doing the things they ordinarily did—hanging out, talking, eating dinner, watching television. The results were mind-boggling: in the first years of life, the average number of words heard per hour was 2,150 for professors’ kids, 1,250 for working-class children, and 620 for children in welfare families.

But the problem went further. Welfare parents in the study didn’t just talk less; their talk was meaner and more distracted. Consider this description of two-year-old Inge and her mother:

Inge’s mother is sitting in the living room watching television. Inge . . . gets her mother’s keys from the couch. Her mother initiates, “Bring them keys back here. You ain’t going nowhere.”

Inge drops [a] spoon on the coffee table. Her mother initiates, “O.K., now leave it alone, O.K., Inge?” . . . When she picks the spoon up again, her mother initiates, “Come here. Let me bite you if you gonna keep on meddling.” Inge goes on playing; when she bangs the spoon on the coffee table, her mother initiates, “Inge, stop.”

. . . Inge sits on the couch beside her to watch TV and says something incomprehensible. Mother responds, “Quit copying off of me. You a copy cat.” . . . Inge gets a ball and says, “Ball.” Her mother says, “It’s a ball.” Inge says “Ball,” and her mother repeats “Ball.” When Inge throws the ball over by the TV as she repeats words from a commercial, her mother responds, “You know better. Why you do that? . . . Don’t throw it no more.”

It’s easy to spot what’s wrong here. Inge’s mother does not try to interest her daughter in anything—though observers noted that there were toys, including a plastic stethoscope, in the house. A different mother might pick up the stethoscope, call it by its name, pretend to use it, and invite the child to do the same. Instead, Inge’s mother’s communication can largely be summed up by the word “no.” You can’t chalk this up to a lack of feeling. Hart and Risley observe that the mother is “concerned, nurturing and affectionate”; at other points in the transcript, she kisses and hugs her child, dresses her, and makes sure she gets to the bathroom when she needs to. Nor can you argue that she simply doesn’t know how to engage or teach her child. Notice that she repeats the word “ball” to reinforce her daughter’s learning; at other times, she points out that a character on television is sleeping. But she does all this as if it were an afterthought rather than, as a middle-class mother might, one of the first rules of parenting.

In other words, Inge’s mother seems to lack not so much a set of skills as the motivation to bring them to bear in a consistent, mindful way. In middle-class families, the child’s development—emotional, social, and (these days, above all) cognitive—takes center stage. It is the family’s raison d’être, its state religion. It’s the reason for that Mozart or Rafi tape in the morning and that bedtime story at night, for finding out all you can about a teacher in the fall and for Little League in the spring, for all the books, crib mobiles, trips to the museum, and limits on TV. It’s the reason, even, for careful family planning; fewer children, properly spaced, allow parents to focus ample attention on each one. Just about everything that defines middle-class parenting—talking to a child, asking questions, reasoning rather than spanking—consciously aims at education or child development. In The Family in the Modern Age, sociologist Brigitte Berger traces how the nuclear family arose in large measure to provide the environment for the “family’s great educational mission.”

The Mission, as we’ll call it, was not a plot against women. It was the answer to a problem newly introduced by modern life: how do you shape children into citizens in a democratic polity and self-disciplined, self-reliant, skilled workers in a complex economy? It didn’t take all that much solicitude to prepare kids to survive in traditional, agricultural societies. That’s not the case when it comes to training them to prosper in an individualistic, commercial, self-governing republic. “[I]n no other family system do children play a more central role than in that of the conventional nuclear family,” Berger writes. For good reason.

Periodically, social critics warn of the nuclear family’s impending implosion—most recently in the New York Times style section warnings about “hyperparenting” and in Judith Warner’s new book, only semi-hyperbolically entitled Perfect Madness and featured in a recent Newsweek cover story. But though future books and articles will doubtless lament the excesses of the nuclear family, though future housewives will become desperate, and though the Mission will creep into ever-new crevices of domestic life, the stubborn truth will remain that child-centeredness is the only way parents can raise successful children in our society. According to Berger, when working properly, the bourgeois, nuclear family is by its very definition a factory for producing competent, self-reliant, and (at its most successful) upwardly mobile children. Close the factory, as in the disappearance of the inner-city two-parent family, and you risk shutting down the product line.

Missionary skeptics also miss another truth. The Mission aims at far more than promoting children’s self-reliance or ensuring that they make the soccer team or get into an impressive college. The Mission’s deepest ideal is the pursuit of happiness. In their minivan runs to swim meets and choir practices, middle-class parents are giving their children a chance to discover their talents, as well as to learn the self-discipline that makes those talents shine. In the best scenario, the project leads not only to satisfying work lives, but to full self-development and self-cultivation.

The Mission aims to pass on to the next generation the rich vision of human possibility inherent in the American project, and to enlist them into passing down that vision to yet another generation, in what sociologists used to call “the reproduction of society.” What goes around, comes around.

You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to know that many poor parents have not signed up for the Mission, but some academics have added to our understanding of this fact. Annette Lareau, author of Unequal Childhoods—perhaps the most extensive comparative ethnography of poor and middle-class parents of school-age children—describes the child-rearing philosophy among the poor and much of the working class as “natural growth.” Natural-growth believers are fatalists; they do not see their role as shaping the environment so that Little Princes or Princesses will develop their minds and talents, because they assume that these will unfold as they will. As long as a parent provides love, food, and safety, she is doing her job.

Inner-city parents are often intensely critical of their neighbors who “do nothin’ for their kids,” as one of Lareau’s subjects puts it, but that criticism is pretty much limited to those who don’t provide clean clothes or a regular dinner or who let their kids hang out too late at night. Talking or reading to a young child or taking him to the zoo are simply not cultural requirements. Christina Wray, a Michigan nurse working with the Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP), one of the most successful programs for poor, young first-time mothers, says that when she encourages these mothers to talk to their babies, they often reply, “Why would I talk to him? He can’t answer me.” Mothers describe playing with or cuddling a baby or toddler, obligatory in suburban homes, as “spoiling.”

Natural-growth theory also helps explain why inner-city parents don’t monitor their teenagers as closely as middle-class parents do. For middle-class Missionaries, the teenager is still developing his brain and talents; if anything, his parents’ obligations intensify to incorporate 6 am swim practices and late-evening play rehearsals. But according to natural-growth theory, a teenager is fully grown. Dawn Purdom, one of Christina Wray’s colleagues in Michigan, says that the mothers of teenage daughters she sees are more likely to look like their high school friends than their parents. “They watch TV programs together, they listen to the same music, they talk about their sexual relationships. . . . It’s not like one is a leader or a role model and the other is a follower. There are no boundaries like that.”

Obviously, race has nothing to do with whether people become natural-growth-theory parents or Missionaries. In Unequal Childhoods, Lareau describes the daily ministrations of a black couple, a lawyer and a corporate manager, to their only child, Alexander, that would make Judith Warner blanch. The boy takes piano and guitar lessons, plays basketball and baseball, is in the school play and the church choir. “Daily life in the Williams house owes much of its pace and rhythm to Alexander’s schedule,” Lareau writes. The whole household is geared toward “developing Alexander.” The first words out of both parents’ mouths at the end of every day, no matter how long and stressful, are: “Have you started your homework?” or “What do you have to finish for tomorrow?” The fact that he has two married parents is an immense advantage for Alexander: together, mother and father form a kind of conspiracy to develop him, a labor-intensive and emotionally demanding project difficult enough for two parents. Lareau’s sample is extremely small, but surely it is no statistical accident that all of her middle-class children are growing up with their own two parents, while her poor children are growing up in homes without their fathers.

You could argue, of course, that the Mission simply costs too much for poor parents to enlist; Little League uniforms and piano lessons cost money, after all. But observers of the inner city have found numerous poor parents who seek out—and find—ways to do a lot of what middle-class parents do. They locate community centers or church groups with after-school activities. More important, they organize the household around school activities and homework. Unlike one of Lareau’s poor subjects, who hardly responds when she hears that her son is not doing his homework—because “in her view it is up to the teachers to manage her son’s education. That is their job, not hers”—plenty of poor parents not only say that education is important but actively “manage” their children’s educations. DePaul University professor William A. Sampson sent trained observers into the homes of a number of poor black families in Evanston, Illinois—some with high-achieving children, some with low-achieving. Though the field workers didn’t go in knowing which children were which, they quickly found that the high achievers had parents who intuitively understood the Mission.

These parents, usually married couples, imposed routines that reinforced the message that school came first, before distractions like television, friends, or video games. In the homes of low achievers, mothers came home from work and either didn’t mention homework or quickly became distracted from the subject. Sampson’s book only describes school-age children, so we don’t know how these families differed when their children were infants or toddlers, but it’s a good bet that the parents of high achievers did not start showing an interest in learning only the day their kids started kindergarten. In the ways that matter for children, these are “middle-class, lower-class families,” Sampson explains in Black Student Achievement. “The neighborhood is not responsible for the difference. Neither is race. Neither is income.” No, only the parents.

Knowing that middle-class parents better prepare kids for school, social scientists have designed an array of programs to encourage poor mothers to act more like middle-class mothers. And sometimes the programs have some modest impact. In a recent survey of the literature, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn enumerates studies showing various programs that have increased maternal sensitivity, reduced spanking, “improv[ed] parents’ ability to assist in problem-solving activities,” and taught mothers to ask questions and to initiate conversations about the books they read to their children.

Trouble is, such programs treat the parent not as a human being with a mind, a worldview, and values, but as a subject who performs a set of behaviors. They teach procedural parenting. David Burkam, a co-author of Inequality at the Starting Gate, explains, “The way that we [social scientists] try to make sense of the world is to break the world into small little bits and pieces and try to say which little piece is important.” So they come up with a little piece that seems important, and that, not coincidentally, is directly observable and measurable—like, say, discipline—and they try to find a way to teach a poor mother to reason or give a time-out, rather than spank her child. They design an intervention, and they do the research to see if they have changed a mother’s behavior and improved the child’s situation. If the answer is yes, if there are “positive effects,” the intervention is deemed a success and becomes part of the catalog of programs for improving children’s chances.

But it should be clear by now that being a middle-class—or an upwardly mobile immigrant—mother or father does not mean simply performing a checklist of proper behaviors. It does not mean merely following procedures. It means believing on some intuitive level in the Mission and its larger framework of personal growth and fulfillment. In the case of poor parents, that means having an imagination of a better life, if not for you, then for your kids. That’s what makes the difference.

It is this inner parent, the human being endowed with aspiration, capable of self-betterment and of reaching toward a better future, that Bill Cosby was trying to awaken in his notorious town-hall meetings. Cosby struck many as insufficiently sensitive to the challenges that the inner-city poor face. Perhaps. But the people pouring into his lectures were not looking for sympathy. They were looking for inspiration, a vision of a better self implicit in Cosby’s chastisements. This is a self that procedural parenting ignores.

No one could reasonably expect Cosby’s crusade to change much on its own. But as part of a broader cultural argument from the bully pulpits of government, churches, foundations, and academia, it is essential. It is at that point that interventions—and schooling—can have “positive effects” worth crowing about.

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