I was part of a panel speaking to an audience of inner-city residents, overwhelmingly African-American.
I told my father's story--with embedded lessons about the worthiness of all work (He sewed shirts in a factory in Harlem for near minimum wage), the freedom to live life as you want by adopting a non-materialistic lifestyle, and a refusal to play victim, even though he was wrested from his home as a teenager by the Nazis, was in a concentration camp while all his family members were killed--he escaped with 11 men), came to the U.S. without a penny, without education, a word of English, nor family, only the scars of the Holocaust tortures. Yet he didn't take a penny of government assistance except that he attended night school to learn English. And when I asked him, when I was 13, why he rarely talked about the Holocaust, he said, "Martin, the Nazis took five years from my life. I'm not going to give them one minute more. Martin, never look back; always look forward."
The most interesting statement made by my co-panelists was by Wilson Riles, Jr. (pictured above,) former Oakland City Councilman and son of California Schools Superintendent Wilson Riles Sr. He said, "Young people are going to do drugs, destroy property, and such. They need unconditional love if they're going to have self-esteem."
I countered that that is precisely the opposite of what parent of successful, productive children provide. Love should not be unconditional. Self-esteem should not be the goal. Most successful people have fairly low self-esteem, not so low they're curled up in bed all day with a bottle of vodka, but low enough that they're always concerned, "Am I good enough? How can I get better?" They have parents who don't for a moment, tolerate that their kids are going to do drugs, destroy property, etc. When I had a gambling habit, my mother kicked my gambling crony out of my house: "You do not dare come here again. And Martin, if you gamble again, I am kicking you out of the house." I got the message. I didn't need unconditional love; I needed conditional love.
Riles responded by saying that I was being simplistic and that kids at Stanford exhibit the same sort of behavior--they do drugs, destroy their dorms, etc., and they turn out fine. We just need to give kids a safe place to do their teenage exploratory behavior."
I felt it was inappropriate to dominate the discussion (there were two other panelists) so I shut up rather than list the many fallacies of his counterargument. (e.g., severity, prevalence, and authority-response to the behavior at Stanford, plus the far-greater-than-average intellectual reserves that Stanford students have that will enable them to be productive members of society despite modest adolescent excesses.)
At the end, when the event's convener thanked the panelists, we got a standing ovation--but nearly all the smiling eyes were directed at him, not at me, nor the other panelists, who were noncontroversial.
During the luncheon that followed, attendees came up to me and said "I respect your right to say what you believe but..." whereupon they launched into statements about the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and institutional racism, and the need for yet more decades of government programs and nonprofit activism to radicalize "the community."
The only real supporter of my views was one of the few white attendees (the caterer of the luncheon). She said, "You opened my eyes to the wrongness of unconditional love both for the child and for the parent who often has to sacrifice their quality of life to deal with a miscreant child."
Maybe I'm just some white guy out of touch with the African-American experience (even though I grew up in the diverse Bronx and Flushing, Queens, taught in inner-city schools in New York City and Richmond, CA and visited many of my students' homes and took students home for the weekend), but I deeply believe that African-Americans' low achievement, as well as that of all people, would be far more improved by an end to the excuse-making and a start to a truly honest discussion of why, despite 60 years of mammoth spending on compensatory programs, media bombardment us with relentless messages about the greatness of African Americans and denigration of whites, the racial achievement and crime gaps remain as wide as ever. I attempted to start such a discussion on this blog. That, in my view, is what we should be talking about.
I walked out of there depressed.
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