Calling Out Black Juvenile Delinquency from a Place of Loving Concern

The most hostile work environments I ever experienced were public schools in Washington, D.C., and in Cleveland. I interned in DCPS (District of Columbia Public Schools) and crisscrossed CMSD (Cleveland Municipal School District) as a substitute teacher.

On several occasions, a teenager got in my face and “bucked” at me as if he were going to punch me. Many more kids, some as young as seven or eight, cussed me out. I knew better than to take these almost daily attacks personally. Still, no one should have to endure such a hostile work environment.

I find Black juvenile delinquency alarming. As a six-foot-two Black man from Anacostia in Southeast D.C., I don’t speak from fear.

I’m calling out Black juvenile delinquency from a place of loving concern. Kids should happily anticipate their grown-up future. They should exude play and possibility. No child should feel doomed by the “school-to-prison pipeline.” They shouldn’t hate the world and themselves most of all.

Miserable children are a painful thing to watch.

Conventional wisdom attributes Black youthful rage to the usual sociological suspects: poverty, crime, segregation, etc. It tends to scapegoat their single mothers and decry their “culture of poverty.” It tends to frame them as “super-predators.” Sometimes it claims that naturally lower IQs account for their achievement gap. In short, conventional wisdom blames the victim.

For a better explanation of Black juvenile delinquency, read Michael Brunner’s Retarding America: The Imprisonment of Potential (1993). The Department of Justice commissioned Brunner to study the problem of juvenile delinquency. Although he doesn’t focus on race as such, we can nevertheless apply his report on education and delinquency to inner-city Black youth.

After two years of research, Brunner concluded that juvenile delinquency mostly results from illiteracy. The key common denominator among incarcerated juveniles is the fact that they cannot read. Illiteracy causes academic failure. Failure causes frustration. Frustration, in turn, causes either aggressive, anti-social behavior or it causes depression and learned helplessness. Anti-social behavior translates into delinquency and crime.

Brunner works from the frustration-aggression hypothesis originally formulated by the sociologist John Dollard. Dollard based the theory on his field research of a Southern town in the 1930s. He described Blacks' perception of their segregated condition as a “chronic frustration situation.” He said: “In such a situation we should expect aggression from them.”

The frustration-aggression hypothesis maintains that when a person’s goals are frustrated, they act out in an aggressive manner. Or depression results, which is “anger turned inward” as Dr. Melfi told Tony Soprano on the TV show The Sopranos.

Public schools create a chronic frustration situation for inner-city Black youth. Their frustration has little to do with sociological factors such as poverty and single mothers. According to Brunner, the culprits are schools of education that fail to teach teachers how to teach children how to read. Brunner blames miseducated teachers for mass reading failure, the single most significant factor in delinquency.

Brunner doesn’t mince words:

“The anti-social aggression that Pavlov was able to create in the laboratory is also being created in tens of thousands of classrooms across our nation as a result of schools of education providing reading pedagogy based upon theories of teaching and learning that cannot be validated by experimental research.”

Brunner implores schools of education to teach teachers how to teach phonics. That is, teachers must learn how to teach phonemic awareness, the master key to learning our alphabetic code. They must learn how to intensively and systematically teach the 44 sounds of the English language that encode onto 26 letters. They must teach phonics in full focus. They must not take the bogus eclectic approach that mixes up phonics with look-and-say guessing games and the like.

He argues against the “thalidomide of reading instruction” that eases the burden on teachers so they can avoid the strenuous teaching that phonics entails. He says that so-called “whole-language” instruction produces “functional illiteracy” in the working classes and “dyslexia” in the middle classes. He defines “dyslexics” as people who failed to learn how to read through phonics. He frames “learning disabled” as a convenient catch-all for why so many students fail to learn.

Brunner makes it plain: “the student who is not taught to read is inevitably destined for programmed retardation.” [his italics] “Programmed retardation” may not be politically correct. But the term aptly raises the question: Who’s doing the programming? Who’s thus arresting the development of millions of schoolchildren?

With regard to academic failure and delinquency, “programmed retardation” turns the spotlight away from children and their single parents, to their teachers whose professional schools graduate them not having taught them how to teach the alphabetic code. Rather than blame the victim, “programmed retardation” denotes the culprit.

Brunner’s notion of programming also underscores the alphabet as technology. Schools of education teach teachers much psychology and sociology. But they fail to teach them this basic technology. Plato understood that letters were a technology. His dialogue on rhetoric, Phaedrus, has Socrates recount a debate about the written word between Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom, and a pharaoh named Thamus.

Thoth proposed that Thebes adopt his new technology, written letters, which would make Thebans wiser and give them better memories. Thamus declined. He replied that the Thebans, having adopted written letters, would no longer remember things of themselves. They would rely on “external written characters” as a sort of crutch. Thamus said this wasn’t “memory” but rather “reminiscence,” which gave Thoth’s own disciples “only the pretense of wisdom.”

Alphabetic codes now dominate the world. So it would seem that Thoth has won the debate.

American public-school teachers missed the memo. Their schools of education fail to teach them this time-worn technology. Teachers thus perpetrate “programmed retardation” on their students. Which renders public education a chronic frustration situation for millions of children regardless of race.

Thamus declined the then-new technology. Our teachers today must finally bring the single most important technology to the classroom—the alphabetic code with its 44 sounds and 26 letters. They must teach our children how to read.

Image: Picryl / public domain

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