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Infamous injustice: Depriving our kids of the tools to fight spiritual poverty

Infamous injustice: Depriving our kids of the tools to fight spiritual poverty

By Irene González-Hernández
(proud Mexican-American Latina)

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Take those doggone hoodies down, especially in the summer. Pull your pants up and buy a belt because no one wants to see your underwear.

Michael Nutter, ex-Mayor of Philadelphia

One of the scenes that breaks my heart every day that I ride the “L” (Chicago’s subway/metro/tube) is the many young men (and some women too) wasting their youth on things that do not edify them and struggling with spiritual poverty without them even realizing it.  Of course, this is in part due to racial inequality and injustice, but there are other causes that Americans have failed to address too. There is a reluctance to consider how certain cultural traits impact the outcomes of people of color. 

Orlando Patterson, Chair in Sociology at Harvard, believes structural factors like low incomes, joblessness, poor schools, and bad housing should not be ignored, but neither should cultural factors. And I agree with him that it is not a bad idea to try to explain social problems in cultural terms too. We should start researching and discussing the role that culture (and the lack of it) plays in the negative outcomes found in the inner city. From what I see during my daily rides on the Red Line, spiritual poverty makes it hard for people of color to take advantage of liberty.

Dr. Glenn Loury, professor of Economics at Brown University, says there are two narratives people can adopt about racial inequality: 1) to blame racism or 2) the development narrative.

Vandalized police car

“You have to look at the processes by which people come to acquire skills, traits, habits, and orientations that lend themselves to successful participation in American society … African American youngsters, too many of them certainly not all, are not having the experiences and being exposed to the influences and having the benefit of the resources that foster and facilitate human development.”

Dr. Glenn Loury

My hypothesis is that to the extent that these young men are not exposed to higher culture, they are not achieving their full human potential, and thus they lose their souls to drugs, gangs, and social media. This is basically part of the cause for the gaps that we are seeing in racial inequality. 

These two narratives, described by Dr. Loury, point in two different directions. Ending racism, of course, is fundamental; however, “the development narrative, puts more onus on the responsibilities of [the whole society] to be engaged in the processes that lead to the development of full human potential” and this could help solve actual problems.

As Taleeb Starkes suggests, fostering and exploiting the victim mentality, discouraging self-examination, and making excuses for thugs, do not alleviate the problems affecting certain communities—they aggravate those problems. 

It is true that racism has by no means disappeared from America, but the major barrier to the progress of people of color today might not be racial discrimination.

“[T]he black underclass needs the human capital –values, habits, attitudes, behaviors– that has facilitated the economic advancement of other racial and ethnic groups.” Additionally, there are some self-defeating cultural attitudes that pervade low-income communities, and even President Obama said in a speech that “children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets [and cellphones] and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.”

Dr., William A., “How Barack Obama Failed Black Americans”, The Atlantic, December 22, 2016, citing the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech.

So, what is a possible solution? My response is…  the Humanities: a school of freedom to fight spiritual poverty.

What is the teaching of humanities if not the teaching of freedom and critical reasoning? It is a matter of major importance if we wish to invest in quality education to ensure equal opportunity for everyone.

“It is not enough to fight against material poverty: we must also know how to engage with the great minds of the past. Everyone must understand that the value of the humanities lies not so much in their applications as in the emancipation of the human mind and in the creation of a vast spiritual community above all nations.”

UNESCO, Philosophy a school of freedom. Teaching philosophy.

We are losing our young, especially black youth, to the anti-culture of violence and drugs rather than encouraging students to engage with the great minds of the past.

The only true justification for the humanities is to provide knowledge leading to wisdom and a way of living a more humane life, and I believe this could be an important issue to tackle. Humanistic learning is above all an end in itself that ennobles the human spirit. In fact, the most brilliant political document of modernity, the U.S. Constitution, was composed of thinkers thoroughly steeped in history, philosophy, religion, and literature. As essayist Heather Mac Donald says, “to deny such glorious knowledge and wisdom to students is a tragedy on a Shakespearean scale.” Being oblivious to beauty and nobility is really bad, and it shows in the dysfunctional behavior that I notice while riding the train that crosses Chicago’s crime-ridden South Side.

“[I]n many areas of our public life –including schools, the workplace, and the criminal justice system– the policies most likely to be effective in closing the gaps should be focused in enhancing the development of human potential of black people and not on preventing us from being the victims of antiblack bias … To tell our people that all their woes stem from a failure of whites to treat us equally, all the while avoiding taking up the challenge of making ourselves more effective, productive, and virtuous members of society, is to take the easy path and to offer a false sense of power. It is a ‘false black power’ indeed. It is a tragic misleading of our people.”

Dr. Glenn Loury
Bryan Johnson, left, a coding workshop crew and Germain Tanoh, who talked to the boys about his path to becoming a mathematician. Photo: Bryan Johnson.

But who would need to lead the charge in this effort of bringing the humanities specifically to black and brown youth? I would say educated leaders of color. Those who have benefitted the most from knowing and being in contact with higher culture. This effort should also go hand in hand with communities, the Department of Education, and organizations that foster initiatives regarding the humanities such as art institutes and academies. If we provide cultural opportunities to underprivileged neighborhoods and increase the budget for these kinds of programs, then the violence rate especially among young African American males would go down. We need to invest in those activities that enhance the amount and quality of human and spiritual capital of Americans.

Today, people of color hear plenty about what they cannot achieve due to racism and very little about the huge potential they hold within themselves. People of color need to begin replenishing that human capital, which is true power. If there is a message to be conveyed, it would certainly be that of exhorting us to consider the teaching of philosophy and the humanities to be necessary and more than ever relevant to our times. In a violent and broken world, the humanities have their rightful place for the betterment of our society.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said that people ought to judge one another based on character, not their skin color, and I could not agree more. But we also have to take care of our kids and provide them with the tools that will help them ennoble their spirit and build that character.