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O'Reilly and Ryan and 'Inner-City' Exceptionalism

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Paul Ryan on Bill O'Reilly was a classic version of the good cop/bad cop routine. Bill, playing bad cop, spewed nonsense to and for his rabid viewers with a level of vitriol guaranteed to allow good cop Paul to sound positively reasonable in contrast. Bill said "black," Paul said "inner city," and with his puppy-dog eyes and steady voice, oozed his earnest concern for finding "solutions" to poverty while "facing facts" about its causes. Take that, you liberal race-hustlers! We tell the truth here on Fox, and the truth is that being poor is a choice that black people keep making. Someone had to say it.

Let's just put aside that O'Reilly is a bloviating idiot and Paul Ryan is just an idiot with abs. How this duo talks about America's poor is important, because millions of Americans are taking their analysis as gospel. After all, these very same viewers have driven down the streets of a dicey neighborhood once or twice, and they've seen with their own eyes the black men shooting dice in front of the liquor store. They've seen the neck tattoos. (Okay, on MSNBC's Locked Up, but they saw them. Or maybe that was Ink Master but those guys are white and they're not in a gang or anything. What? Biker gangs? That's different! It just is!)

This is what Bill O'Reilly said:

"And it's all your fault, and it's my fault, it's the rich people's fault, and it's the Republicans' fault -- it's everybody's fault except what's going on... And what's going on, as you know, is the dissolution of the family, and you don't have proper supervision of children, and they grow up with no skills, and they can't read and speak, and they have tattoos on their neck, and they can't compete in the marketplace, and that's what's going on!"

Well, Bill, you're not entirely wrong in describing the toxic effects of poverty -- whether in Detroit or Rio de Janeiro, inner-city India or outer-holler Appalachia. There is enormous pressure on the family, and few remain intact. It's generally true that the poor don't read and speak as well as the non-poor. According to a groundbreaking study, children in poor families are thought to hear about 30 million fewer words by age five that children in upper-income families. This has terrifically serious long-term consequences. A poor child is already likely to go to a mediocre school, and he or she does not go home to dinner table conversation about the latest episode of Downton Abbey. When the SATs roll along, they have no money for tutoring, and most of the vocabulary words might as well be in a foreign language. For them, writing a book report can be torture, much less composing a coherent college essay.

Given these problems, you'd think Paul Ryan would be a crusader for the expansion of Head Start -- which make a tremendous difference in the future chances of these kids. One might imagine he'd want to increase funding for school lunch programs, rather than cut it. Raise the minimum wage? You're for that, right Paul? Not so much.

According to O'Reilly and Ryan, the solution for these families is to just stop acting so poor. They point to the exceptions -- the seven-year-old addicted to Sesame Street instead of video games, the high-school valedictorian who finishes up at Princeton. Someone along the lines of young Michelle Obama. Strike that. Condi Rice is better. Yeah, Condolezza defied the odds. Why can't the rest of them?

It's like asking every piano player to become a concert pianist, or every basketball whiz in high school to make it into the NBA. Bill O'Reilly and Paul Ryan are so ensconced in their subjective experience they include themselves in the narrative of remarkableness; as if they chose to hear 30 million extra words by the time they were five, as if growing up with an encyclopedia in the house and a mom who would pack your lunch every day was a personal choice.

There's plenty of "inner-city" exceptionalism out there, you just have to pierce the veil of white cultural bias to see it. Take hip-hop. The kids who started it recognized that they didn't speak like Bill Cosby or Oprah Winfrey. They could see their low scores on middle school vocabulary tests. They created rap because it allowed them to re-appropriate the language, to express the full breadth of their experience in a dizzying array of rhyme combinations as skillful as anything Rodgers and Hammerstein ever wrote. But O'Reilly can only hear the pissed-off in the music, the intensity of the streets. (Funny, I never see him condemn heavy metal, which is just as disaffected, and probably well-represented on Paul Ryan's iPod.)

Here's what else exceptional young men in the inner-city do. Some of them sell drugs. They make a rational economic choice between working at a dead-end job for a minimum wage or responding to market forces that will allow them to rake in a huge income at an early age. It involves a lot of risk, to be sure, and they're not really doing much of value for society. It's actually a lot like working on Wall Street, except the urban kids are far more likely to end up in prison than all the thieves and speculators who tanked our economy.

Most poor and working-class black kids are just quietly exceptional. They're not rappers or drug dealers or trying to make it in to the NFL. You can find them populating community college classrooms to overflowing. I know because I teach them English literature there. Most of them have terrible deficits in language, it's true, and it's an uphill battle to get them to think critically and analytically. But they mostly pay rapt attention in class, and dutifully write up reams of vocabulary lists. They even tackle such heavy-duty writers as Virginia Woolf and Vladmir Nabokov -- no kidding. (You should try these authors, Mr. Ryan. A bit more edifying than the verbal vomit of Atlas Shrugged.)

They are trying to do exactly what Bill and Paul ask them to do. Get an education. Land a better job. Speak millions more words to their children. Some stop coming because they feel discouraged or can't afford it, but most simply refuse to fail. And even though they've never even heard of Ryan or O'Reilly, they're surprisingly conservative when asked about their politics. (No kidding. More law and order tax-haters than a Tea Party convention.)

O'Reilly and Ryan don't see these strivers, these law-abiders who don't wear their pants beneath their ass, and have never been to tattoo parlor. That segment of the population doesn't scare white people, and scared white people are good for ratings at Fox and vote their fears at the ballot box. Ryan and Reilly can cry crocodile tears as they pretend to be having an "adult conversation" about "what's really going on," but the truth is nothing pleases them more than the continuation of the status quo. For the right, poverty is and always has been, very big business.