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The Stress of Talking About Race Is Nothing in Comparison to the Stress Imposed on Poor Kids

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About 30 years ago, my dissertation advisor demanded that I delete three words I had used to describe white sharecroppers. He warned that using the phrase, "culture of poverty" could destroy your career.

After 18 years in the inner city classroom, I have reluctantly concluded that education reform requires uncomfortable conversations about issues that our mothers taught us to avoid -- race, class and family. In other words, we need an educational equivalent of William Julius Wilson's More Than Just Race. Wilson closed his masterpiece with "a strong call for similar hopeful and positive, candid and critical national framings for our discussions about race and poverty in America."

Talking about race should be made easier by acknowledging the obvious fact that structural inequities are far more damaging than culture in perpetuating generational poverty. That should be doubly true at a time when the rich are getting richer, and everyone else is anxious about their economic future. But Deborah Meier describes the absurdity of today's political correctness, which censors honest conversations. Meier writes: "It has been reported that 56% of black Chicagoans (over the age of 16) are not employed...But it's considered 'soft racism' to mention these factors as relevant to the test-score gap, the graduation-rate gaps, etc. We are expected to believe that young people growing up in such intensely poor communities will not be damaged by it unless we have 'low school expectations' -- plus lazy, overpaid, unionized teachers!"

I am hoping that Paul Tough will be the education writer who frees us to engage in frank discussions of the effects of intense concentrations of generational poverty on schools. In his Whatever It Takes, Tough told the story of Geoffrey Canada who "believed that he could find the ideal intervention for each age of a child's life, and then connect those interventions into an unbroken chain of support." Canada created a "conveyor belt" starting with expectant parents who learn about pre-natal health. Prekindergartners were enrolled for ten hours a day, with an intensive focus on language. By the time children reach Canada's charter elementary schools, a foundation for success has been laid. Canada has been less successful with secondary school students, but his concept of "Promise Neighborhoods" has changed much of the conversation about schooling, and modest versions of Canada's vision have been funded by President Obama.

Tough has done it again in "The Poverty Clinic," articulating a theory of everything that starts with the neurochemical imbalances created by childhood trauma. Tough profiles Nadine Burke, a doctor (who, like Canada, is black), and her thoughts on the way that the legacies of trauma move from the molecular level, to the household and community levels, to changing cultural norms.

Burke's ideas were prompted by the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study of patients enrolled in the Kaiser Permanente H.M.O. It discovered a surprising prevalence of adverse experiences among all races and economic classes. More than a quarter of patients had grown up in homes with alcoholism or drub abuse, and a similar percentage had suffered beatings. All types of persons who reported the highest levels of childhood trauma were seven times more likely to be alcoholics, six times as likely to have sex before the age of fifteen, twice as likely to have heart attacks or cancer, four times as likely to have emphysema, and twelve times as likely to attempt suicide.

Burke and Tough suggest an explanation of why this widely shared trauma has become so damaging in neighborhoods with intense concentrations of poverty. Adversity in early life can disrupt the brain circuits that are needed for literacy. Young students who have been traumatized often find it harder to sit still and follow directions. When a poor child who has endured trauma enters a neighborhood school class of thirty, he or she might join another nine who suffer from the same damage due to stress. Those survivors help "create in a classroom a culture of hitting, of fighting -- not just for the ten kids but for all thirty." In schools with so many suffering children, the "flight or fight" syndrome becomes a "cultural norm." At-risk teens may over-react to confrontation. Or they might do the opposite and fail to recognize the risks that go along with being caught up in the school's "drama."

Too many suffering kids then beat their own children and, again, it becomes a cultural norm where "it's like, oh, black people beat our kids. That's what we do." Finally, the physiological effects of stress undermine immune systems, increase cardio-vascular disease, and cancer, as well as depression, further undermining the health of families further creating a downward cycle. Then, when our lack of an adequate health insurance system is thrown into the mix...

It has been nearly five decades since liberals condemned Daniel Patrick Moynihan for "blaming the victim," by articulating an admittedly crude theory of culture and poverty. The blame game remains as destructive as ever; the big difference is that today it is teachers who are demonized.

Sometimes, I wonder whether it would better to take an attitude of "if you can't beat them, join them." For instance, what if this post was written without mentioning race, class, family, alcohol, drugs, or depression? Even then, a cost benefit analysis of the damage done by stress would still be astounding. Even if we ignore all issues that could be remotely considered to be "blaming the victim," we could still make a powerful case that turning up the stress on educators is not a good way of addressing the legacies of trauma.