I was talking with a friend recently about immigration and assimilation and cultures of the poor when my friend opined that one of the reasons urban poverty was so persistent was that academic achievement wasn’t valued by the culture. When we hear this argument in the media, rap music and “thug worship” are usually singled out as the identifying marks of this trend. I have two observations to make. (Beware! The second one makes the first one unnecessary.)
First, every culture has defense mechanisms: methods of persuading members to stay in that culture and be proud of it. These mechanisms can include violence like punishing intermarriage by stoning or legal force or they can be less overt like French language policy. The amount of time Lou Dobbs’ spends worrying about Univision is difficult to understand if you believe he is motivated by a simple desire that America have a common language* but in the context of defending the integrity of his culture from outside influence it makes more sense.
One way a culture can defend its integrity is by discouraging members from pursuing activities where they are in the minority. This has the double effect of insulating members from outside influence and maintaining pride by devaluing things culture members don't have. It’s conceivable that a child from the inner-city might find it more rewarding to play basketball with their neighbors after school than to study for the spelling bee with a bunch of middle-class kids that won’t want to hang out afterwards anyways (because their parents don’t want their child picking up bad cultural habits from poor kids!). It's conceivable that poor urban youth might look at his low chances of getting a college education and think "Fine! I don't want your lousy diploma anyways!"
But even if you accept this line of reasoning it's clear that though "the culture devalues academic achievement" can explain why inner city culture is stuck where it is it can't explain how it got there in the first place. For that of course, you have to turn to the legacy of slavery.
Becuase you all understood that when I said "inner city children" and "poor urban youth" that I meant "poor black kids". Right?
The second point I want to make is that I don't think inner city culture actually devalues learning and academic achievement all that much.
No one on earth is more a product of their culture than a 7th grader. Lacking any self-identity they pretty much exist as a vessel for peer pressure to act on. My girlfriend teaches 7th grade at a public school in Oakland and she reports that just like students in middle-class schools her students enthusiastically want to go to college. And like middle-class students they also generally lack the long-term vision to study hard so they can get the grades they need to get there. The difference is that their parents generally don't give them the kind of incentives they need to achieve. For some, it's easier to accuse a teacher of racism than it is to take responsibility for a child's bad behavior. It's easier to say "It's in God's hands" than to force their child to study for the test. And all the while these kids have to deal with unstable home lives, bad nutrition and high-crime neighborhoods.
It's not that the culture doesn't value academic achievement. It's that the members don't understand what they need to do to achieve it and they face a whole bunch of additional obstacles besides that.
That leaves the question of how to fix it. On that score I don't really know. As far as I can tell conservative policy circles think it can be fixed by encouraging marriage (and discouraging teenage pregnancy as long as it doesn't involve sex ed), reducing dependency on government programs, reinging in teachers unions, and instituting school vouchers. The liberal plans basically break down into two camps: help individuals to move out of the ghetto, or try to fix the whole ghetto in the first place. In the upcoming primary these two views are represented by Edwards and Obama alternate plans to fight poverty.
*All the studies (PDF) I’ve seen show Hispanics are learning English just as fast as previous immigrants did though they tend to be bilingual longer.