Lecturing the Poor Doesn’t Work.

First lady Michelle Obama reads to 5 and 6-year-olds at the Naval Air Station Oceana Child and Youth Programs summer camp

(This post originally appeared at CarolynEdgar.com. X-posted with permission.)

Growing up in Detroit in the 70s, back when Motown was more than just a show on Broadway, I was privileged to have a number of Motown stars visit my schools. They included Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, and The Spinners. After performing a hit song or two, they’d give a brief speech about staying in school and the importance of education. Sometimes they’d tell us, “I wasn’t a good student — in fact, I dropped out of school to go hang out at Motown — but don’t do what I did!”

We’d laugh, thinking, “dropping out worked for you — you’re famous!” But no one I knew walked out of those assemblies thinking, man, I’m going to drop out of school so I can become a singer, just like So-and-so. I remember those visits fondly, because they were entertaining, and we got to say we met somebody famous, even though sometimes we didn’t really know who they were.

Sometimes we had other visitors to our schools — City Council members, lawyers, the Chief of Police, an occasional judge. I hated when those people came to talk to us. Why? Because they weren’t entertaining or inspirational. They also talked about the importance of staying in school and receiving a good education, but there was a difference in the way they delivered their message.

The entertainers who came to speak at our schools often were alumni of those schools or other Detroit Public Schools. They had grown up in our neighborhoods, walked our halls, and they talked our talk. They spoke to us like they knew us. They spoke as if they assumed we were being taught values at home, which they were there to reinforce. “Listen to your parents!” was a common theme. Sure, some of the kids in my school didn’t have parents to listen to, but no one was made to feel as their lives were inferior.

Not so with the other kinds of visitors.

The City Council members, judges and lawyers — in particular, the black ones — stood on the stages of our rinky-dink auditoriums as if poverty were a thick fog swirling around their feet, and the only way to avoid being enveloped in it was to remain fixed in place behind the podium. They exuded no warmth towards us kids. Instead, they stood before us with a supercilious air, as if the mere act of making an appearance in our school was an  extreme personal sacrifice on their part for which we kids should be grateful.

In the wealthier Detroit of my childhood, my blue-collar family was below middle class — above the folks on welfare, but not good enough for the Jack & Jill set. Like parents of most of the families in our neighborhood, my parents were part of the “Great Migration” richly explored by Isabel Wilkerson in her seminal work, The Warmth of Other Suns. But unlike most of the families featured in Wilkerson’s book, my parents’  families had owned their land for several generations.

My parents were raised in a rural community, and they told me they never gave a damn about drinking from a white folks’ only water fountain.  They said they never heard of a single lynching in their part of the state. Their complaints about Mississippi were purely financial. My mother told us stories about how her father only got paid for his milk and eggs a fraction of what white farmers received, making it almost impossible for the family to make ends meet. My parents were driven out of Mississippi and lured North by economic, not social, inequality.

Although my father had only an 8th grade education and my mother didn’t finish high school, being raised on a farm taught them the importance of hard work. Having watched an unjust economic system at work, they were determined to make sure their kids had better opportunities than they had, and they instilled in us from birth that education was the pathway to those opportunities.

In sum, we were raised with values — values the lawyers and judges and City Council members who visited my schools would have approved — but they were too caught up in their own snobbish assumptions about people like us to imagine it. When they insisted we aspire to be more than the singers and famous athletes whose school visits we preferred, they seemed to imply we had no other aspirations. Their Reagan Era “say no to drugs” speeches felt perfunctory and flat, but I also heard in them an assumption that many of us had already said “yes.” Whether or not that was true, it was no less insulting to hear.

Whenever people like Bill Cosby or, most recently, President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama, talk to black audiences about the problems in black communities, there are those who laud their speeches for exposing painful truths in the black community. Others, like the brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates, refer to it as “targeted scorn.”

I agree with Coates.

Those finger-wagging messages do little, if anything, to inspire the targets of such scorn to do better.  If anything, the downtrodden should be the ones regarding their more well-heeled brethren with suspicion.

For instance, at her commencement address at Bowie State, Michelle Obama advised graduates:

“If the school in your neighborhood isn’t any good, don’t just accept it. Get in there, fix it. Talk to the parents. Talk to the teachers. Get business and community leaders involved as well, because we all have a stake in building schools worthy of our children’s promise.”

A week later, the Board of Education in Obama’s hometown of Chicago voted to close 50 public schools, the overwhelming majority in black and Latino neighborhoods, despite protests from parents, children, and community leaders. One of the most passionate campaigners against the closings was a 9-year-old third-grader named Asean Johnson. In remarks directed at Chicago Mayor (and former Obama White House Chief of Staff) Rahm Emanuel, Johnson declared, “You should be investing in these schools, not closing them! You should be supporting these schools, not closing them!”

It’s worth noting that the CEO of Chicago Public Schools is Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a black woman. The measure was approved unanimously by the Chicago Board of Education, a seven-member board appointed by Mayor Emanuel. The CBOE includes two black women: Dr. Mahalia Hines, a former educator and mother of the rapper Common; and Andrea Zopp, attorney and president of the Chicago Urban League. Penny Pritzker, President Obama’s pick for Commerce Secretary, is also a member.

Stated plainly, black business and community leaders were among those who turned their backs on black Chicago schoolchildren. Any protestor who listened with hope to Michelle Obama’s Bowie State speech could hardly be faulted for now regarding her words as mere empty rhetoric.

As Mychal Smith wrote in The Nation, “Young black people were out in the streets fighting for their right to an education and they were ignored.”

I adore the President and First Lady as our nation’s First Family. But I think we’re directing our scorn at the wrong group of people. It’s time to start holding our leaders accountable for their actions — and inactions — that damage and destroy our communities.

Carolyn Edgar is a writer and lawyer who lives in New York City. She writes about social and political issues on her blog. Follow her on Twitter @carolynedgar.

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  • Lecturing in general doesn’t work- it’s also a terrible fault of environmental activists. People don’t react well to using guilt as a lever to change behavior.

    • Seriously. There’s a low, hard ceiling to the effectiveness of shame. But my hunch is that it might be even lower for kids for whom so many admonitions from authorities are shouted. It’s lecture-fatigue.

  • I’d read TNC’s earlier bars, but the first half of Carolyn’s piece helped me internally flesh out my preeminent beef here: that art is great and important, and sports are great and important, and insisting that black greatness requires ditching these things for the sake of J.D.’s and weedy calculus is a frustratingly illiberal attitude. Still further frustrating in that Pres. Obama–an ESPN partisan and avowed Jay stan–clearly doesn’t believe this argument in any true sense.

    It’s like the Obamas just suspect that this is the pitch that they’re supposed to want to make to black youth so as to assuage all prying white eyes–which are much beside the point, yeah?

    I dunno. Your dreams are illegitimate is just a glib and shitty message. Especially, as Carolyn and TNC both note, when the dreams of many black and brown kids in the U.S. are scrambled enough by policy and neglect, short of all this extraneous chiding.

    • Furious cosigns. Also, there’s actually a simpler reason for the hero worship of athletes/celebrities — if you were a kid who grew up in the hood, you might actually have a more meaningful, real-life connection to a rapper/baller than you would, say, someone with a bunch of advanced degrees. If you came up in Queensbridge houses in the 1990s, you knew (or knew of) Lamar Odom, Nas, Ron Artest, Mobb Deep, etc. And those people repped QB, loudly and proudly. I totally get why a nine-year-old would want to go that route. Does s/he know any doctors? Does s/he know any lawyers?

      • DK

        Should we not tout the advantages and rewards of becoming a doctor/lawyer, though? I get that the Cosby-esque finger wagging is uncomfortable for all and can have the opposite effect than intended. Maybe O and Mrs. O should take the approach of introducing “mainstream” concepts to those that would not otherwise be privy to them. Or they could take the approach of breaking down how and why grassroots political action is necessary and effective (because that’s really all Mrs. O is saying). All kids cannot, pardon me, WILL NOT be rappers or ballers. I was All-6A my junior and senior year of high school, but I’m only 5’10”; the NBA was not in my future and it took my finger-wagging father to tell me that. So I figured out that I liked regulatory compliance as it pertained to financial institutions and got one of those maligned J.D.’s to make myself marketable. The message here is not the problem. The delivery, maybe. But not the message.

        • The message here is not the problem. The delivery, maybe. But not the message.

          But it is the message. As Carolyn said, folks are being lectured to about stuff they already know or the premises of the lectures are faulty.

          • DK

            I don’t know how the redundancy of the message makes it harmful. Because people already know about the stuff does not alter the premise of the message. I may appear as such, but my intent is not to be a contrarian here. I just think that there are other messages that are being spread to these very same kids that are way more destructive.

            • I may appear as such, but my intent is not to be a contrarian here.

              I’ll acknowledge that you might think yourself a contrarian. But that just means you’re rather aggressively missing all the points.

              What you’re arguing is essentially that less-well-off black kids, like Carolyn once was or like I was, need some kind of remediation by way of browbeating. This both overestimates the usefulness of finger-wagging and underestimates the intelligence of these kids.

              That’s your prerogative. But we should at least disabuse ourselves of the notion that this has anything to do with helping the putatively corrected and everything to do with the egos of the putative correctors.

  • I’m with this piece until she gets into the Chicago school closings. it’s an interesting tie in (an example of black/brown/poor folks standing up for their rights) but ultimately it undermines an extremely strong point about the uselessness in lectures and their misplaced role in black dialogue. In short, school buildings in Chicago are physically underutilized. in the face of serious budget deficits, it would be foolish to not consider consolidating schools. but whatever. Moving along.

    I hate that everyone feels that they have a bestowed right to get their tough talk rocks off at the expense of young and/or poor black people. forgetting the fact that most of the time, institutional actions controlled by the very lecturers are what got us to this point in the first place. White folks complain about our communities, ignoring obvious historical racial discrimination and terrorism on their part. Older black folks are happy to lecture young black folks to combat poor values of younger generations as if children responsible to birth and raise themselves. Well-off black folks happily lecture down to poor black folks with consternation, talking about how the adversity that chiseled their own success can be easily replicated, ignoring the logical conclusion that adversity is difficult by definition and that failure is an unavoidable byproduct. I’m not tryna hear all that.

    Shit, speaking of sports, the talking point that the NBA and NFL NEEEEEED age limits so that their athletes can at least feign some education is a crock of shit, considering that almost every other sport in North America (the World, actually) starts kids on professional tracks as adolescents. but young black athletes from the hood/trap need their wealthy white employers and fans to stress in to their negro peabrains that education is invaluable. in the meanwhile, another 14 year old white tennis player turned pro to fanfare. Seriously. Lecture deez.

  • T.

    I know people weren’t really feeling Barack and Michelle’s graduation speeches at Bowie & Morehouse, but based on my experience at Hampton it echoes the greater Booker T. Washington/pull yourself up by your bootstraps spiel that some HBCUs like to give students. These schools are a lot more conservative than people realize, and extremely old school, so I bet the Obamas thought talking in this manner would help them ‘fit in’ with the culture that’s already been established in those spaces, especially since they don’t have HBCU experiences.

    • DK

      I didn’t think about it this way, but I attended an HBCU and I totally get what you’re saying here. Bama State was all about, “The world really kinda hates you. You need to figure it out. Quickly.”

    • Except Booker T. Washington did not just give lectures. He actually did something for black folks: build and preside over an institution devoted to black education. If the first family and other members of the black bourgeoisie want black folks in urban communities to take their criticisms seriously, they’ll have to do more than talk that black pathology jive for the cameras. People will only listen if they feel that those doing the talking are actually committed to their communities. In other words, show and prove.