Who is “ruining America”?

This David Brooks column called “How We Are Ruining America” has received lots of attention on the internet, but I don’t think we have commented on it. According to Brooks, members of the college-educated upper middle class — the top 20 percent or so — are ruining America by making sure their kids have good opportunities and, supposedly, making sure that kids from lower classes don’t get them.

Brooks says they have conferred good opportunities on their kids by “embrac[ing] behavior codes that put cultivating successful children at the center of life.” He concedes “there’s nothing wrong in devoting yourself to your own progeny.” I would go further. There’s everything right with it.

Brooks’ beef is that the college-educated upper middle class is excluding other people’s kids from access to the opportunities their kids have. But Brooks has just told us that the way we confer these opportunities is to embrace behavior codes that put cultivating successful children at the center of life.

This tactic is available to members of all classes. Anyone can embrace behavior codes that put their kids at the center, and generations of immigrants and poor people have done. If, today, too many members of lower classes don’t embrace these codes, then they, not members of the upper middle class, are excluding their offspring from access to opportunities.

The easy objection to my argument is that members of the college educated upper middle class find it easier to place their kids at the center of their lives. I’m not sure that’s true. A couple consisting of two hard working lawyers won’t find it easy to focus on their children. It’s the “codes” (to use Brooks’ term), not the income or status, that makes most of the difference, in my view.

But what about educational opportunity? Brooks complains that zoning restrictions “keep the poor and less educated away from places with good schools.”

Why, though, aren’t the schools in poorer neighborhoods good? It’s not for lack of resources, at least not in cities like the District of Columbia. Rather, it’s mainly because of the poor behavior and lack of studiousness displayed by many students who attend these schools. And the poor behavior and lack of studiousness stem mainly from the “behavior codes” of parents who have kids when they are too young, saddle them with poor family structures, succumb too often to drug use, and too often run afoul of the law.

In effect, Brooks and the experts he cites in his column are blaming people with winning behavior codes for the woes of the children of people with losing codes. That’s an absurd and potentially corrosive stance.

The solution, implied by Brooks and embraced by the left, is government action to bring poor people into affluent neighborhoods — AFFH, and all that. But is this really a solution?

Students who aren’t serious about school, who chronically misbehave and/or use drugs aren’t likely to benefit from attending the same school as students who don’t share these characteristics. They are likely to detract from the quality of the educational experience of serious, well-behaved students, unless the school responds by becoming, in effect, two separate schools.

If anything, blacks understand the behavioral root of the problem better than whites do. Recently, I heard William Julius Wilson, the Harvard sociologist (and an African-American), deliver a lecture covered by C-SPAN. He was making the same argument as Brooks and his experts. However, Wilson noted the rising level of income inequality among blacks and how this is translating into what he called “income segregation” among African-Americans.

In other words, blacks with winning behavior codes are fleeing areas populated by blacks with losing behavior codes. They aren’t necessarily moving to white neighborhoods. Often, they move to black middle class ones. The key is to escape the behavioral blight and the social pathology that produces it.

Brooks has his own take on why economically integrated neighborhoods aren’t a panacea. He argues that lower class folk won’t “feel at home in opportunity-rich areas” because “the educated class establishes class barriers not through material consumption and wealth display but by establishing practices that can be accessed only by those who possess rarefied information.”

In other words:

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

Brooks illustrates his point with this anecdote:

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette [Ed. I have no idea what any of these things are]. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

Brooks has often written with insight about this sort of stuff. Here, however, he approaches self-parody.

If “cultural signifiers” are a meaningful barrier to opportunities for those outside the top 20 percent, how does Brooks explain the success of various immigrant populations? These populations don’t understand “the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace [who’s he], child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality,” to list the signifiers cited by Brooks. Yet, they flourish.

Brooks has it right at the beginning of his article. It’s all about behavior codes. If you get them right, it doesn’t make that much difference what neighborhood you start out in, and you don’t even need to know what a latte is.

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