Mary Pringle's is one of those ideas that will either make instant sense to you or else strike you as naive and maybe even borderline silly.
Her idea -- which finds support in a recently published study of Indochinese immigrants -- is that black Americans need a new "myth," a new way of explaining the world and their place in it.
Pringle, an educator who lives in Reston, says it struck her some months ago that Americans generally have lost the myths that give meaning to their lives, and that black Americans in particular suffer from the loss. The one surviving myth of black Americans, she says, is that of racism as the dominant influence in their lives.
Myths -- she doesn't want to be misunderstood on this point -- are not necessarily false. Indeed, whether positive or negative, they are almost always based on actual group experience.
But the nature of the operative group myth can make a profound difference in group outcomes, she believes. "Racism is a reality, but it has been overcome by many and given way to opportunity and success." Those who have overcome it, she argues, have been moved by different myths: myths that paint them as destined for success rather than doomed to failure, myths that lead them to see themselves as members of a special group capable of overcoming all odds. That is the kind of myth that blacks need to cultivate, she says.
"Racism, though it is a reality, has been a destructive myth, giving greater power to the odds against success than exist in reality, making it harder even to try. What we need is a stronger, more powerful myth that is constructive and evokes a sense of identity and energy to move ahead. If we give up trying, we will lose all."
I have a feeling that Nathan Caplan, a University of Michigan researcher, would understand exactly what Pringle is talking about. Caplan has just completed a three-year study of 1,400 Indochinese refugee households, and his findings are little short of astounding.
More than two-thirds of them have found jobs, at an average pay of twice the national poverty level, although they arrived in America during a serious recession; one-fourth of their children have achieved perfect 4.0 averages in U.S. schools, even though many of them came here with only limited English, and 44 percent of them achieved perfect scores in math. And, contrary to what we have come to expect, children from large families scored just as well as those from small families.
"These are boat people, survivors of a journey that 50 to 70 percent lost their lives making," Caplan said. "Their journey out was far more precarious than those in 1975, and they came to the United States during the deepest recession since the Depression."
Caplan does not discount the help some of the immigrants received after their arrival here, but of perhaps greater importance, he said, was "what they brought with them -- their traditional background values, their collective achievement orientation, their patience and diligence." In short, their operative myth.
"Many are of a Confucian bent, and feel they can influence the external events that control their lives, that they have control over their own lives."
This sense of control may not have changed the outward circumstances of their lives, including a strong anti- Oriental prejudice and active discrimination, but it tended to render them irrelevant. Says Caplan:
"This group has a set of values that says hard work and education will result in mobility. This is something that has to be agreed upon by the whole group."
Caplan speaks of importance of value systems. Pringle speaks of need for positive myths. I suspect they're talking about the same thing.