A reader writes:
I have to disagree strongly with the John McWhorter. His insistence that the failure of so many blacks to avoid the perils that come with not finishing high school and getting pregnant before marriage cannot be explained by structure or bigotry is too outrageous to let pass with no reply. In fact they can be easily explained by structure (overt bigotry is probably not as much of a factor.)
The school systems in black neighborhoods are underfunded and undeniably worse on average than those in white neighborhoods. The quality of the school, its teachers and leadership has a direct influence on graduation rates. Sex ed and access to contraceptives are also far worse in black communities. The public health failures come well before this for many black youth. The failure to provide adequate health care and nutrition to black adolescents has been linked to the behavioral and learning disabilities so prevalent in black schools. The diagnosis of a learning disability is one of the biggest predictors of eventually dropping out of school, particularly in poor urban schools.
But the biggest omission of all, particularly for someone who seems so emphatic that internal culture and family structure rule the day, is the impact that social structures have on families in black communities.
McWhorter doesn't debate the well-established fact that employers "are less interested in people with names like Tomika," but insists that it can't account for the problem poverty in black communities. Of course a child who grows up in poverty faces vastly increased chances of being poor as an adult, whether black or white. If that child's parents faced difficulties finding work because, just as an example, their names sounded "too black," then that’s a structural reason why that child is more likely to grow up to be more than a white counterpart.
Furthermore, the unequal application of the criminal justice system in black communities increases the likelihood that a black child will grow up without one parent. This means that there's one less parent to earn an income, one less parent to instill the sort of discipline all children need to graduate school and avoid unplanned pregnancies. Even if the incarceration only lasts briefly, it still means that once the parent is out of jail he or she will find it much harder find employment.
In contrast, middle-class kids in places like Scarsdale know that their education is a track to a job - maybe not to their dream job, but a reasonably good-paying, high-status job. (As your chart suggests). They see it all around them; they have the social connections to people in law firms and hospitals and businesses that are waiting to help them into reproducing middle class life; they are motivated to complete their educations, because they know that whole network of support and good jobs are waiting for them. School is not entirely disjointed from the work it's supposed to lead to, for them, and their world has a complex and massive social infrastructure, educational infrastructure, and economic structure in place to support their path.
For most young people in the tough, underfunded schools left to them in poor neighborhoods, school feels like a joke - unrelated to the world they have no choice but to try to survive in, with or without a poorly paying job. The job is not the only way to survive, and it may not even look like the most promising path. With little or no reliable infrastructure to support a middle class life, it would collapse.
If the only jobs that are available in your neighborhood, with a high school diploma, are minimum wage jobs that don't actually pay enough to meet minimal bills, and you also don't have the network to the other jobs, the world would look very different. Having a baby will, at least, give you a clear role to play in your world, and can look like a reasonable response to the situation. This does create a radically different subculture from the middle-class culture, but cultural change is not so easy to instigate, because, especially for the poor, these cultural patterns have been necessary for bare survival; because they are doing the work of a socioeconomic infrastructure that simply is not there.
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