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Emancipation from Mental Slavery

David Brooks, in a column on social psychology and the persistence of poverty, points out that the government has spent lots of money to try to rehabilitate the neighborhood where Freddie Gray is from, to very little avail. More:

Saying we should just spend more doesn’t really cut it. What’s needed is a phase shift in how we think about poverty. Renewal efforts in Sandtown-Winchester prioritized bricks and mortar. But the real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.

In a fantastic interview that David Simon of “The Wire” gave to Bill Keller for The Marshall Project, he describes that, even in poorest Baltimore, there once were informal rules of behavior governing how cops interacted with citizens — when they’d drag them in and when they wouldn’t, what curse words you could say to a cop and what you couldn’t. But then the code dissolved. The informal guardrails of life were gone, and all was arbitrary harshness.

That’s happened across many social spheres — in schools, families and among neighbors. Individuals are left without the norms that middle-class people take for granted. It is phenomenally hard for young people in such circumstances to guide themselves.

Yes, jobs are necessary, but if you live in a neighborhood, as Gray did, where half the high school students don’t bother to show up for school on a given day, then the problems go deeper.

The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology. Until the invisible bonds of relationships are repaired, life for too many will be nasty, brutish, solitary and short.

A reader I spent time with on this trip, a white guy, grew up in a welfare family. He said it is impossible to overstate the power of fatalism among the poor — and he told stories of things he grew up with, things he saw. This fatalism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in many cases. It’s a form of self-imposed mental slavery.

From a profile I did a decade or so ago in the Dallas Morning News, of Trey Hill, a young white man from a prominent Dallas family who decided to move to the poorest part of Dallas and serve as a missionary in his own city. Excerpt:

The ministry’s Holystone Street headquarters is where neighborhood kids come for mentoring, educational counseling, Bible clubs and sports teams.

“Growing up, it was a place you didn’t go,” he says of the part of town he now calls home. “South of the Trinity [River], it was dangerous. You could go north, but you couldn’t go south.”

Trey leans back in his office chair, weighing his words carefully. We talk about what it means to be white and privileged in Dallas. Mr. Hill’s father is Bill Hill, a prominent Dallas lawyer who most recently served as Dallas County’s district attorney; today, the elder Mr. Hill works on staff at Mercy Street. His son, Trey, went to Highland Park High School and then Baylor University.

Unlike the Other Dallas, Trey Hill grew up in a Park Cities culture that expects its young people to go to college, succeed there and beyond.

“But there’s a negative side to that, too,” he says. “Pressure to conform. This whole success mentality, where success is gauged in financial terms.”

Trey says his parents taught him to have compassion for the poor and took him into impoverished parts of Dallas as part of charitable initiatives. But for the most part, southern Dallas was no-man’s land for white kids.

“The community I grew up in taught us to isolate, cloister and ignore,” he muses. “When you don’t know something, you feel somehow absolved from dealing with it. Besides, people looked different, had a different culture, and too often, we view different as bad and scary. I didn’t see any active racism growing up, but I didn’t see anybody actively engaging with other communities or races either.”

But running track at Highland Park High changed the trajectory of Trey’s life. At track meets, he spent a great deal of time with black kids from Wilmer-Hutchins, Lancaster and other southern Dallas communities.

“I just liked them,” he says. “I got to spend time with them in their communities, and I saw the disparity. I could see that I was given opportunity that some of these guys just didn’t have or see that they had.”

After graduating from Baylor in 1991 with a journalism degree, Trey spent 12 years in the business world. He married and started a family. In 2001, when he lost his job in the dot-com bust, he and his wife, Melissa, prayed for God to guide their next step.

A year earlier, Trey had heard a Baptist pastor preach about foreign missions. That day, Trey felt strongly that his calling was not to the business world, and he never forgot it. He came to believe that God was calling him to the mission field in his own hometown.

After much prayer with his wife, Trey joined the staff of Park Cities Presbyterian Church and worked on his seminary degree while heading up the congregation’s mission efforts in West Dallas. Within two years, he turned his labors into Mercy Street Ministries, which he started with a staff of two.

These West Dallas flatlands, once home to massive public housing projects and a lead smelter that poisoned the air, have historically been the grimmest part of the grimmest end of town. The smelter closed in 1984, with 90 percent of the neighborhood children suffering from dangerously high lead levels in their blood. Eight years later, conditions were still so bad that this newspaper wrote, “If Dallas has a netherworld, it is the bleak area west of the Trinity.”

This is where Mercy Street made its stand. Now employing 14 and overseeing a budget of close to $1 million, all privately raised, its director spends his days and nights living in a hardscrabble world that he used to believe existed only in the movies.

And this is what Trey Hill says he has learned: When black and brown kids in his part of town look across the Trinity, they see things they want. And they believe people north of the river got those things by keeping the people on the south side down and working to keep such things out of black and brown hands.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that over the years there’s been systemic injustice and racism,” Trey says. “I think we’re in a place now where those are far more subtle. I’m sure they still exist, but not to the extent that they would prevent access to those that pursue it with diligence.

“That’s the challenge now, to persuade these kids that they really do have access.”

I tell him about a guy I know, a white teacher in a predominantly minority Dallas area public school, who is about to give up on his school. He’s tired of trying to change a culture. The black and Latino kids he deals with despise authority and don’t want to do their schoolwork. When my teacher friend challenges them to stick to their studies, they tell him he can’t possibly understand their lives, because he’s a “rich white man.”

“This is why so many whites have so little patience with poor minorities,” I say to Trey. “There’s such a culture of excuse-making and victimization going on there. My teacher friend says that the values of hip-hop music have colonized his students’ minds.”

This, I tell him, is the heart of the matter: culture.

We all pretend that if only we spend more money or implement new programs or in some other way manipulate material conditions for the urban poor, their problems will be solved. It seems we never talk about culture, especially the broken-family culture, because we don’t want to come across as judgmental.

The despairing public school teacher contends that school authorities constantly lean on him and his colleagues to be culturally sensitive, but nobody has the courage to tell these kids that the hip-hop culture they’ve embraced — one that idealizes sex, drugs and gangsters and looks down on hard work, study and self-restraint — all but dooms them to failure.

“Yeah, I see that,” Trey says resignedly. He prefers the term “poverty culture” but agrees that hip-hop artists are evangelists for a toxic, self-defeating worldview and that their youthful converts are legion. We concede that the same hedonistic materialist values many north Dallas whites disdain in hip-hop music are embraced north of the Trinity too, in a more socially acceptable guise.

Still, Trey insists, public school teachers and other adults of all races who know right from wrong, and who have daily contact with urban minority kids, can’t abandon the fight. If they won’t tell these lost kids the truth in love, and let them know there’s more to life than what he calls “ghetto nihilism,” who will?

“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 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.”


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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