I have great respect for Peter Bell and Mitch Pearlstein and their continual willingness to say what they think. And the message of “Change must be sought from within as well” (June 5) was worthwhile — that it can be self-defeating for African-Americans to identify themselves or their community as wholly the victim of external forces.
In 20 years as a Hennepin County judge, I saw many times that it was an attitude of determination and self-reliance that enabled people to overcome backgrounds of poverty, crime, injustice or drug abuse to become inspiring, solid citizens.
But I think Bell and Pearlstein missed the basic problem in writing that progress in reforming racial attitudes has been limited because political and social remedies have de-emphasized “what the black community — or any community — must do to improve its own fate.”
They say that reasons for racial disparities are that black young people watch too much television and play too many video games, while black adults commit too many crimes and have too many children outside of marriage.
But pulling yourself up by your bootstraps requires something to stand on, some kind of capital.
Centuries of slavery and Jim Crow oppression deprived black families of the opportunity to accumulate financial capital. The average net worth of white families is 10 times that of black families. Homeownership among whites exceeds blacks by 30 percentage points.
Then there is social capital — the network of people and resources you can call on for help. Both my grandfathers came from Sweden as penniless immigrants who couldn’t speak English. But unhindered by racial barriers, they worked incredibly hard and started small businesses. Thus, for five straight years, with a single phone call my father was able to line up for me the summer park maintenance and construction jobs that paid my way through college.
But the most important kind of capital may be what I call “character capital” — the stable, nurturing family environment that enables a young person to achieve the emotional and cognitive development to restrain impulses, overcome adversity and plan for the future. In other words, it’s what it takes to develop the self-confidence and hopefulness needed to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
But children who grow up amid toxic stress, brains awash in the cortisol that fuels fight or flight, incur actual structural brain changes that promote aggression, risky behavior, drug abuse, even early pregnancies. As our nation painfully processes the death of George Floyd, I have heard many accounts of the harsh and demeaning treatment African-Americans routinely encounter. I am worried most of all about the effect of this on black children.
In his lovely book, “The Nurture Society,” psychologist Anthony Biglan of the Oregon Research Institute shows how most of the problems in our society stem from our failure to provide a nurturing environment. Bell and Pearlstein contend that we have expended prodigious sums on reducing racial disparities with limited results. But perhaps we have not spent the money to promote nurturing. Systems that should be supportive, like public assistance, child support and child protection, can be harsh and coercive.
Biglan’s book is full of examples of how nurturing works. In one study of poor teenage mothers, about 35% of their children were arrested by age 15. But randomized control trials showed that regular visits by a warm, supportive nurse during the pregnancy and first two years of the baby’s life cut that delinquency rate in more than half. And the mothers? Years later they were better off emotionally and even financially.
In what may be the single most impressive prevention science result ever achieved, Baltimore first- and second-grade children were divided into teams to play the fun “Good Behavior Game” (an alternative to coercive methods of classroom discipline) during one year. The results were much calmer classrooms — and as adults the participants were still less likely to be suicidal or addicted to drugs and they committed fewer crimes.
When I first heard about the idea of defunding the Minneapolis Police Department, it would be an understatement to say I was skeptical. Sometimes we just need effective protection. But the more I think about it, the more intrigued I am about how law enforcement might evolve into a more nurturing influence for young black people.
A few years ago, I had a minor traffic accident downtown. Instead of a policeman with a gun and maybe better things to do responding to the scene, immediately coming over to offer help and information was one of the Downtown Improvement District ambassadors in his crisp jacket. What would it be like for black kids to see a few of those around the neighborhood instead of police patrol cars?
So, to my African-American friends and fellow citizens, I say by all means believe in yourselves and what you can do with your bootstraps. But we must all accept the responsibility to help replace the harsh and threatening environment in which many of your children live with a more nurturing community.
Bruce Peterson is a senior Hennepin County judge and teaches a course on lawyers as peacemakers at the University of Minnesota Law School.