Mom reckoned that the decline of middle-class morality began with declining public fashion, with allowing children to wear flip-flops and cut-off jeans to school. She didn’t advocate uniforms or strict dress codes, but she thought that how you dressed inevitably told a lot about your character. Like everyone else in her generation, she believed in appropriate dress for specific occasions.
If she were still alive today she would be turning over in her grave, as Yogi Berra would put it, at the sight of the newspaper photographs of the Northwestern University women’s lacrosse players showing up in flip-flops to meet the president at the White House, even if the flip-flops were decorated with sequins or rhinestones, as the expensive ones are.
She would have been pleased a few days later when Mr. and Mrs. John Roberts were introduced at the White House with their children dressed “prim and proper.” Their son Jack looked like a little man in a summer seersucker suit with saddle shoes. His older sister Josie was decked out in a pretty yellow dress with lace-trimmed ankle socks and black patent-leather Mary Janes. The Washington Post fashion writer mocked the children as “costumed,” but Mom — and a lot of other grown-up women — would have questioned the upbringing of a critic who never learned that clothes can sometimes speak louder than words.
Pop culture appeals to the lowest common denominator, and the “bourgeois values” of the middle class are always “dissed.” This poses a problem for young people, black or white. That’s one reason why the Clinton years offended so many of us, including Democrats, and why we cheered the news that George W. Bush, like other presidents before him, always wore his jacket in the Oval Office. (It’s easier for a man to keep his pants on when he’s wearing a jacket.) Respect, after all, is contagious.
The appeal to the lowest common denominator is particularly damaging to kids in a black ghetto, where everything bourgeois is part of the “acting white syndrome.” Rapheal Adams, an outspoken black radio talk-show host in Cincinnati, notes how such attitudes encourage dysfunctional behavior. “Anything of value, that’s ‘white,’” he tells City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute, in an issue focused on black culture. “Standing with your pregnant girlfriend, that’s ‘white.’ Staying away from gangs, ‘white.’ Wearing pants where they’re supposed to be — on your waist — ‘white.’ ‘We wear our pants below our butt line.’ It is so sick.”
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, he argues, make matters worse: “The battle that should be going on 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. “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.