I was struck just now by this reader comment in the “Cynic Mugged By Faith” thread:

I went through something like that around the same age – though from the opposite side of things, as recipient of social/volunteer assistances. It was an amazing, eye opening exposure to people who had normal lives, normal relationships with their parents, who had always known meals and roofs and beds, who had plans for their futures.

I burned through several before it somehow worked into my head that they were there because they cared. Even their saying in a sentence that they “cared” was like a bunch of foreign words impossible to understand. I had never heard anything like that in my life, or ever been treated much that way by anyone, period. The worlds we come from are truly so profoundly different.

This made me think about the “normal” in which I was raised. I grew up in a working-class home in which both parents were present, and loving, and nurturing. We had our faults and struggles, as every family does, but never did my sister and I fear that our family would be broken by divorce. We took it for granted that parents loved their children, and treated them with kindness, but also with discipline when the children transgressed the moral order of the household. If I was mean to my sister, there was always going to be punishment of some sort from our father. Nothing harsh, really, but enough to reinforce emotionally and psychologically within me that there was a moral order in our household, and it depended on treating each other decently.

I thought this was the way the world worked. It was how the world worked for most of my friends. Again, nobody came from a perfect family, but the model I present above was what everyone (“everyone” = the kids in my circle at elementary school) thought was normal. And you know, it was normal — at least for white kids growing up here in the 1970s. Schools were integrated, and we studied alongside black kids; in fact, the black-white population was 50/50. A big part of the vast gulf of understanding between white kids and black kids, as I recall, was the complete foreignness of the fact that most of our black classmates did not live with a mother and a father, and may not have known who their fathers were. That, and the fact (which we noticed when we all got older and moved to the high school building) that many black girls had babies when they were still in school.

Looking back on it, it is more than a little strange that this huge difference between local white culture and local black culture was never commented on by us white kids, or, as far as I know, our parents. There was no point in it. It was so deeply understood, as a matter of cultural psychology, that This Is What They Do, Not What We Do that it didn’t need elaboration. Interestingly, there was no need to “demonize” it, because it was thought that the taboo against that sort of thing in white culture was so strong that no white person would consider normalizing childbearing out of wedlock. No white man would consider abandoning the baby he helped conceive, and the baby’s mother. Sure, it happened, but it was so stigmatized as completely dishonorable that it didn’t happen all that often.

To put a fine point on it: to behave that way — that is, in any way that deviated seriously from the model of the two-parent family — was to place yourself outside the realm of the Normal. Yes, it could happen, through no fault of your own, or your parents. But to find yourself in such a situation was a real tragedy. The point is, almost all the white people in the culture that formed me had a strong idea of what was Normal, when it came to family formation, and the cultural habits that upheld that model.

Well, that day has passed, as we all know, and as Charles Murray documented so powerfully in his recent book Coming Apart:  The State of White America, 1960-2010. Note this remark on the book by Ross Douthat:

Finally, Murray makes a very convincing case — one that I don’t think his more deterministic critics, Frum included, have done enough to reckon with — for the power of so-called “traditional values” to foster human flourishing even in economic landscapes that aren’t as favorable to less-educated workers as was, say, the aftermath of the Treaty of Detroit. Even acknowledging all the challenges (globalization, the decline of manufacturing, mass low-skilled immigration) that have beset blue collar America over the last thirty years, it is still the case that if you marry the mother or father of your children, take work when you can find it and take pride in what you do, attend church and participate as much as possible in the life of your community, and strive to conduct yourself with honesty and integrity, you are very likely to not only escape material poverty, but more importantly to find happiness in life.

In other words, for all the very real problems with the model that I was raised to believe was Normal, it was and remains the best social, cultural, and psychological framework on which to build a stable life for oneself and one’s children. Yet it is, as we know, increasingly not Normal, except for middle and upper middle class people.

As regular readers will know, I get to meet a lot of city firefighters, given that my brother in law is a Baton Rouge firefighter. One of them told me that his fire station is in one of the poorest and most violent parts of Baton Rouge. It’s an all-black neighborhood. He said that it’s a “different universe” from the one people like us live in. He wasn’t talking about the poverty. He was talking about the chaos. He spoke of going on fire calls at 2 in the morning, and seeing little kids, some even in diapers, walking up and down the sidewalks while their mothers and their boyfriends were otherwise engaged inside. That sort of thing. As I recall that conversation, he was simply being descriptive, saying that his job gave him daily access to a moral world that was far removed from the world middle-class people, and many working-class (white?) people, inhabit, such that most people he knows away from the job find it hard to imagine what is Normal to kids raised in that world. The moral order that those kids are given to perceive is not the same thing as the moral order perceived by children raised in a culture in which the stable two-parent family is the norm. And this moral difference has material consequences.

Finally, I once interviewed a white man, a Christian missionary to the inner city, who had been raised in wealth and comfort, and who felt a calling to work with the children of the poor. In his city, that meant black kids and Hispanic kids. He told me the greatest poverty the kids he served faced was cultural, by which he meant the ideas they carried in their head. What they thought “normal” was, because of what their culture (e.g., the culture of their families and neighborhoods) taught them was normal. If memory serves, the missionary told me that so many of his kids believed that white people who lived in material comfort did so only because they had gotten it dishonestly, or had been blessed with good fortune. The point is, these kids saw no connection between study, hard work, delayed gratification, and other typically middle-class values, and material prosperity. They did not believe there was hope for them to live as middle class people did, because they did not understand that there was a logic to middle-class stability and prosperity. Their culture did not provide them with that understanding, and that model. And the lives of these kids, through no fault of their own, were so chaotic on a day to day basis that concluding that there was no real moral order in the universe was by no means unreasonable. In fact, it was empirically sound.

Here is a link to the story I did a few years aback about the inner-city missionary, Trey Hill, and his amazing Mercy Street ministry in Dallas. Read the whole thing. As the child of upper-middle-class white privilege in Dallas, he says the culture he grew up in offers material advantages, but also puts one at risk for spiritual poverty. On the importance of culture, he says:

“The culture you grow up in is stronger than a lot of people realize,” Trey says. “If I had been raised in this community in a single-parent home, with few examples of success around me, I probably would have dropped out of high school, like 65 percent of our [West Dallas] kids will do. Culture is captivating. It’s powerful. There’s a force behind it that seems to capture all of our kids.”

In the end, he emphasizes, it’s difficult for people north of the river [that is, the wealthier parts of Dallas — RD] or in the suburbs to understand the degree of dysfunction in inner-city lives. Eighty-five percent of the kids Mercy Street ministers to have no father in the home. How do you tell people to bootstrap their way out of the ghetto when they don’t even know what a bootstrap is?

“The only way [for these youths] to succeed is to say, ‘OK, there is injustice in the world, but now we have a chance, and the only way we can take advantage of that chance is by studying hard and working hard and making wise choices,’” he says. “But I don’t see a lot of people saying that.”

All of this is a profound lesson on the importance of cultural stewardship, especially within one’s own family. For all the things my mom and dad got wrong, they got the big things very, very right, and for that I am grateful. I can only hope and pray and live such that my children will be able to say the same thing one day.