by Chris Bodenner
A reader writes:
Like your reader, I was also a teacher of inner-city students who lived right next to the poor, urban neighborhood where I taught for six years. It's not just that these kids have so few educational opportunities; it's that they have so many other tempting opportunities once they are teenagers. Inner city neighborhoods have shadow economies which provide employment for the kids in the hood. Add the gang membership needed to protect oneself, and you can write off almost all of the boys right off the bat. As for the girls, for many Latinas, the ticket to adulthood - and widespread admiration from one's family and friends - is pregnancy.
In short, it's not just that mainstream white culture rejects minorities and provides few avenues out of ghetto poverty. Inner city life has its own things going on, mirrored in the popular culture (professional sports and hip hop, especially). It's a reflection of cultural norms on all sides.
Notably, the kids who proved most able to use my school as a way to rise into the middle class were usually from Southeast Asia. They were just as poor as the rest of the kids, but their cultural norms were different.
Asians are also perceived very differently in the US than blacks and Hispanics, which also helps. But in truth, the kids I taught who could be relied on to earn top grades were almost always Vietnamese immigrants. Not that others didn't do well, but as a group the Vietnamese stood out. And maybe part of the reason for this, the reason that so many Southeast Asians used the same rotten inner city school the others attended as a ticket out of poverty, was that they were not as likely to be pulled into the culture of gangs, early pregnancy, selling drugs, etc. And they had their own pop culture, too.
I don't think that it's "blaming the victim" to acknowledge these problems. Yes, urban schools suck, but they can work for you if you make them. And yes, society can be racist. But the culture of the inner city, along with all it doesn't offer (connections, power, etc.) does offer for many black and Hispanic kids the allure of easy money, glamour and quick tickets to fame and fortune, however illusory.
People who have actually looked closely at gangs - for example, sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh - have found that, yes, they do a lot of illegal things, but they are often (reluctantly, partially) supported by people in these neighborhoods. Not because the community people are indifferent to crime and gang activity, or just depraved by their lack of a strong culture, but because the gangs often provide small, inadequate portions of the infrastructure that is non existent in poor neighborhoods. In Venkatesh's words, the gangs "both sustain and imperil their lives."