He recalls that Medgar Evers, martyred in the cause of civil rights in 1963, always wore a suit, a white shirt and a tie, but that positive image was wiped out in the public imagination by the "Blaxploitation" movies of the 1970s and the gangsta culture that followed. Like most things in life, the dressing down, dumbing down, degrading down culture falls hardest on poor blacks. Many "leaders" who know better, Rapheal Adams argues, make matters worse. "The battle that should really be going on is against the enemy that looks like you -- the father who abandons his children, or rapes women, or sells drugs."
It's difficult to say such things without being accused of making common cause with racists. But 40 years and billions of dollars of government money have rarely put poor black kids on an equal footing with poor white kids because the problem begins at home. "They are not simply middle-class parents manque," writes Kay Hymowitz in City Journal magazine. "They have their own culture of child rearing, and -- not to mince words -- that culture is a recipe for more poverty."
Low-income black parents in this scenario read less to their children, discipline more forcefully by spanking and hitting, and engage in more limited conversations with them. Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, along with a team of researchers, observed parents and children of three different economic classes in various activities, including eating dinner, watching television and merely hanging out, and found radical differences in vocabularies in the first years of the children's lives. Children of professors typically heard 2,150 different words in these years; working-class children heard 1,250 words, and children of welfare families only 620. In their book "Meaningful Differences," they write that welfare mothers are usually more distracted and "meaner" to their children.
The stress of economics obviously plays into these patterns, but philosophies of child rearing do, too. Having two married parents makes a big difference. Talking to babies is crucial. Emphasizing the importance of homework -- and checking on it -- is as significant for the teenager as toilet training for the toddler.
Bill Cosby caught a lot of grief for getting it right: "The lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal." They need a belief in the middle-class motto on his sweatshirt: "Parent Power!" Mom would agree.