Over the last year, bystanders have recorded numerous instances of confrontation between police and black students, from one officer pointing his gun at an unarmed black youth during a pool party in Texas to another officer flipping over a black girl still seated in her desk in a South Carolina high school. Media reports often blame black girls for defying authority figures while excusing the behaviors of school officials and law enforcement officers. Recent reports including Kimberlé Crenshaw’s, “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected,” contextualizes the serious effects of harsh punishment as black girls disproportionately enter the school-to-prison pipeline.
Monique Morris sheds additional light on the topic in her new book, “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.” Morris interviewed several young black girls in group homes, foster care, and juvenile detention centers in cities including Chicago, San Francisco, New York, and Boston. She discovered that several girls experienced various forms of physical and sexual violence. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, praised the book, calling it “A powerful indictment of the cultural beliefs, policies, and practices that criminalize and dehumanize Black girls in America,” while activist Gloria Steinhem wrote that Morris “tells us exactly how schools are crushing the spirit and talent that this country needs.”
During election season, we are treated to story after story about how candidates have made themselves out of nothing. Wisconsin Governer Scott Walker, locked in a tight reelection battle with Mary Burke, his Democratic opponent, has made a career of turning talk about his lack of a college degree into a story about upward mobility rather than academic insufficiency. Much of Joe Biden’s appeal as both a Senator and a Vice President comes from his salt of the earth appeal as the son of father who faced financial ruin, lived with his grandparents, and, through hard work and dedication, made something of his life. Candidates on both sides of the aisle tap into the discourse of upward mobility to demonstrate that they understand the struggles of the people they hope will elect them.
When candidates talk about how they have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps on the campaign trail, they’re doing more than lauding their own humble pasts to gain voters’ trust. They’re also tapping into a social narrative that’s been used throughout American history to determine what counts as economic success and who it’s available to. At the same time as it aligns candidates with desired swaths of the electorate, especially middle-class whites who turn out in numbers, it also implies a subtle distance between candidates and social problems. All of us can do this, if only we try hard enough, goes the implied reasoning, and if you can’t do it, that’s on you. Who can’t do it? As usual in American society, that would be the out-groups: non-whites, immigrants, LGBT people, and the disabled. Advocates of the bootstraps school of social mobility like to counter this critique by linking economic success to cultural values. They point out that immigrant Jews have largely succeeded economically, while African Americans still struggle, and attribute this to a set of American cultural values that Jews share, but blacks don’t.
In an excellent longform Slate article on this topic, John Swansburg cites sociologist Stephen Steinberg’s 1981 book The Ethnic Myth, a critique of what Steinberg calls the “Horatio Alger Theory of Ethnic Success,” or the belief that all social outgroups start with the same set of disadvantages. Most early 20th century Jewish immigrants, Steinberg argues, came from urbanized, industrial European cities, where they gathered “years of industrial experience and concrete occupational skills that would serve them well in America’s expanding industrial economy.” Most American blacks, on the other hand, learned farming and field work—skills that benefited them little as they moved to the industrial North after Reconstruction.
When Scott Walker, Joe Biden, or any other candidate for office talks about his or her humble past, he or she is making a subtle implication that the problems of disadvantaged groups in America are mostly cultural, rather than economic or structural. I know how to work hard and I know you do too, so elect me and I’ll make sure that our kind of work is rewarded. And those others, whose work is never rewarded? Well, they’re just not working hard enough.
For more on how candidates construct narratives to court voters, read (or listen to!) Jeffrey Alexander’s “Heroes, Presidents, and Politics,” now in podcast form.
Forbes Magazine recently highlighted some shocking numbers. According to the USDA,
A child born in 2012 will cost his parents $241,080 in 2012 dollars, on average [in the first 17 years of life]… And children of higher-earning families drain the bank account more: Families earning more than $105,000 annually can expect to spend $399,780 per child.
That works out to about $14,000 a year on the low end. Now that, as author Laura Shin points out, is a big investment—especially when kids used to be contributors to the household economy, not drains on it. Today, NYU professor Dalton Conley calls on research from colleague Viviana Zelizer who says “kids are emotionally priceless and economically worthless.” And yet, “We think of them as our most important life project.”
In a hard economy in a country with high inequality, parental investment in children is truly important, Conley goes on. “We know… that investments at home in time, energy and from birth and before are what actually develop kids that are successful in terms of this knowledge economy.” And those successful kids will get into better schools, have better jobs, and maybe even be able to support their parents into old age. But how do can parents get the best return on this investment?
That question, Shin writes, is at least partially answered with Conley’s new book Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Raising Children But Were Too Exhausted to Ask. Along with Conley, she goes on to boil down the how-to for investing in your child to ten easy (well, depending on means, time, and commitment) steps. Be sure to click on over for all the good stuff on number, timing, names, parental work decisions, public v. private school, bribes, ADD, and whether to “stay together for the kids.” In the meantime, Shin concludes, “The most important guideline is to make your actions speak louder than you words.” Parenting the Warren Buffett way!
*Edited to better contextualize the USDA’s numbers and why parents’ investment might have an ROI at all (someone’s got to foot the bill for all those Golden Years we’ve heard so much about… particularly if we blew all our cash on soccer lessons). Another reader points out that it’s worth looking at all the sociology on how to maximize returns by minimizing investment (that is, not having children at all).
The “achievement gap” typically refers to the disparities in high school completion between white and non-white students. In the Los Angeles Times, though, Columbia’s Thomas A. DiPrete and Ohio State’s Claudia Buchmann write about another educational achievement gap—the growing gulf between women and men in post-secondary education.
DiPrete and Buchmann’s research shows that women earn 58% of bachelor’s degrees and 62% of postsecondary occupational certificates. Men are less likely to enroll in colleges and universities, and those who do enroll are less likely than their female counterparts to obtain degrees or certificates.
The authors identify a number of reasons for men lagging behind, including a view of educational achievement as “unmasculine,” poorer grades in middle and high school, and prioritizing work in the short-term over education in the long-term.
More broadly, young men seem to have trouble navigating educational institutions. DiPrete and Buchmann write:
[Boys and young men] want better jobs than their fathers have, but their attitudes toward school and work are misaligned with the opportunities and requirements in today’s labor market. Many boys seem to think they will be successful—career-wise and financially—without having any idea about how they’ll achieve that success.
The authors mention the German model—tight linkages between companies and schools that lead to 350 specific occupational certificates—as a system that better aligns hopes, expectations, and realities, concluding:
Clearer pathways from courses to credentials and from credentials to careers would further enhance the rates of success for men as well as women and make for a more competitive America.
Our lives are often defined by the impossibilities we face, and that can lead to some strange decisions. Take, for example, the hit TV show Breaking Bad: a middle aged chemistry teacher with inoperable lung cancer decides it’s easier cook and deal meth than to ask others for help with his treatment. That’s the whole premise, and a new article in The Sunday Times suggests Mr. White’s decision may be the result of a heavy dose of the “masculine mystique.”
First published by W.W. Norton & Co. in 1963, Betty Friedan’sThe Feminine Mystique argued that the dissatisfaction women felt with their lives wasn’t due to a “modern lifestyle” driving them away from an ideal feminine identity, but rather their inability to even imagine living full, independent lives. Friedan called upon women to recognize this possibility: a life free of gendered expectations.
Today, Stephanie Coontz suggests the media blitz over the “crisis of boys” (lower grades, reduced college graduation rates, and slipping economic prospects for men) stems from a similar problem with gender roles:
In fact, most of the problems men are experiencing today stem from the flip side of the 20th-century feminine mystique—a pervasive masculine mystique that pressures boys and men to conform to a gender stereotype and prevents them from exploring the full range of their individual capabilities.
The masculine mystique promises men success, power and admiration from others if they embrace their supposedly natural competitive drives and reject all forms of dependence. Just as the feminine mystique made women ashamed when they harboured feelings or desires that were supposedly “masculine”, the masculine mystique makes men ashamed to admit to any feelings or desires that are thought to be “feminine”.
Coontz also uses research on men’s shame around femininity and its impact on boys’ ability to imagine excelling in the classroom. Sound familiar?
In a book to be published next month, the sociologists Thomas DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann demonstrate that most of the academic disadvantages of boys in education flow not from a “feminised” learning environment, as is often claimed, but from a masculinised peer culture that encourages disruptive behaviour and disengagement from school. As Debbie Epstein, the British researcher, puts it, “real boys” are not supposed to study. “The work you do here is girls’ work,” one boy told an educational ethnographer. “It’s not real work.”
Gender roles create impossibilities for men and woman. And, while Breaking Bad takes the masculine drive for independence to a fictional extreme, the new lag in boys’ educational and economic achievement can be a new century’s call to get everyone to, in Coontz’s words, “act like a person, not a gender stereotype.”
After more than half a century, the U.S.’s efforts to end segregation are winding down. In the years after Brown v. Board of Education, 755 school districts were under desegregation orders. But, according to a new study conducted by Stanford’s Sean Reardon and his colleagues, that number had dropped to 268 by 2009.