A lot of us have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get low-income children interested in middle-class values: education, hard work, an orientation toward the future.
We have touted the financial payoff of education; we have told them stories, or presented them with real-life "role models," of successful minorities; we have tried explaining to them that their limited circumstances are not their own fault.
And none of it seems to work. What are we doing wrong?
The real problem, I suspect, is the curse of low expectations. We doubt (no matter what we say) that most children who speak a certain way, or who come from certain kinds of homes, will ever perform well in any setting that requires above-average intelligence. We doubt that most children who grow up in certain parts of town, or in certain economic circumstances, will ever aspire to, let alone achieve, middle-class status.
We remind them in a thousand ways that we will be astonished if they ever amount to much, and we wonder why they keep succumbing to drugs and crime and premature sex. Why don't they try harder?
I suggest that they don't try harder at the things that middle-class youngster take for granted for the same reason I don't try harder to slam dunk a basketball. We don't work very hard at things that we assume are beyond our ability to master.
But there is one group of minority Americans who routinely work hard, and who are so successful at it that they have started to reap the animosity of middle-class whites. I refer to the recently arrived Asian Americans who are walking off with the highest SAT scores, academic prizes and admission to the most competitive colleges.
There are two intriguing things about this group. The first is that they have viewed America the way a youngster views a candy store -- with nose pressed to the glass and an attitude that says: if only I could get in there! In short, they see America, with its free education, free enterprise and manifest rewards for serious exertion, as a land of unsurpassed opportunity. They take advantage of the opportunity and succeed at a pace that eclipses that of privileged whites.
Our native-born minorities, on the other hand, tend to see America as the place that has treated them unfairly and shows no sign of changing. As a result, they tend to focus not on opportunity but on their disadvantage. Their conclusion, too often, is: What's the point of trying when the cards are stacked against you?
The second intriguing thing about the newly arrived minorities is their notion that the key to their success is not in their special intellectual gifts but in hard work. They seem to take as a given that anybody who works hard enough can achieve success.
How is it that this attitude has escaped our native-born minorities, particularly our low-income black and Hispanic groups? A major part of the answer, I think, is that we have, in the last quarter century, tended to view everything through the prism of civil rights. The civil rights assumption is that the absence of the good things of life is proof of discrimination.
Sometimes the assumption is correct. The 1960s denial of access to certain schools, jobs and places of public accommodation was blatant discrimination and approachable by means of civil rights laws and court decrees. Even today, the artificial ceilings that keep blacks, Hispanics and Asians out of the board rooms and executive offices can be fairly attributed to discrimination.
But the failure of talented blacks to become directors and CEOs is not the major problem confronting us today. The incipient disaster for today's black and brown Americans, particularly the group we call the underclass, is not that the ceiling is too low but that they can't seem to get off the floor. And for that problem, the civil rights approach doesn't work. School failure, joblessness, adolescent pregnancy, juvenile crime and drug abuse are due far less to discrimination than to inadequate exertion.
What we need to do is to find ways to make our youngsters understand the critical importance of individual exertion: by showing them the plentiful examples of people for whom exertion has paid off and also by making certain that their own exertion is acknowledged and rewarded, beginning in the very earliest years.
The way to inculcate middle-class attitudes in the underclass is to teach children of the underclass what the middle-class takes for granted: that their fate is mostly in their own hands.