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Blinded by the Stereotype Spotlight

The blinding stereotype of poverty must be turned off in order to see clearly how we can address inequality today.

Why are drug sweeps routinely conducted by police in high-poverty minority neighborhoods and not dorms on college campuses?

Why was shooting victim Trayvon Martin drug tested, and his shooter, George Zimmerman, not tested?

Why are Teach for America recruits, with no formal training as teachers, allowed to teach high-poverty minority students, often in “no excuses” charter schools such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), but affluent and white students tend to have certified and experienced teachers?

Why are charter schools, which often segregate students by race and class, expanding, while public schools also grow increasingly segregated—and why are both conditions essentially ignored?

The answers lie somewhere in the blinding power of the stereotype spotlight focused on people and children living and learning in poverty.

Consider Esther J. Cepeda’s “Overcoming generational poverty”:

Teachers in low-income school districts often get specialized training about the culture of poverty in order to better understand their students’ lives and take those challenges into account in the classroom. As a high school teacher, I was trained in Ruby K. Payne’s “A Framework for Understanding Poverty.”

Payne has a 20-item list of the characteristics of generational poverty, which includes constant high levels of background noise, the overvaluation of entertainment as a respite from the exertions of survival, a strong belief in destiny or fate because choices are in low supply, and polarized thinking in which options are hardly ever examined (again, because so few tend to be available).

Also pervasive in the culture of poverty is the sense that time isn’t for measuring, that it occurs only in the present, and that the future exists only as a word.

Cepeda, first, carelessly* honors the Payne “framework,” despite a significant and growing body of scholarship that has rejected Payne’s worksheets and workshops as the worst possible examples of deficit perspectives built on stereotypes, and not credible and nuanced evidence about class or race.

Payne, having no formal expertise in poverty, class, or race has admitted she based her work initially on her husband having grown up poor. In its genesis, Payne’s work is at best anecdotal.

But the “framework” also perpetuates and speaks to corrosive stereotypes about class and race. For example, Payne presents her clients (generating a tremendous amount of revenue for her through the self-published workbooks and workshops offered across the US) with what she claims are foundational conditions about people in poverty that explain why children living in poverty struggle in schools: According to Payne, people in poverty know how to bail someone out of jail, how to acquire handguns, and how to gather resources from trash and recycling bins.

Let’s imagine for a moment a similar “framework” for affluence**. You may be from wealth if:

  • You know how to hire an escort without being arrested.
  • You know people who can have charges dropped if you are arrested.
  • You know how to hide your income to avoid, legally, paying taxes.

Framed within the cultural fetish in the US for wealth and the wealthy, that “framework” likely seems unfair, but are those conditions and the implications in them any more unfair that Payne’s claims about people in poverty?

The blinding power of the stereotype spotlight fails even among advocates seeking, in earnest, to help people and children living in poverty. The failures include the following:

  • Stereotyping is gross overgeneralizing. The worst stereotyping is recognized as racism, sexism, or homophobia. Any category of humans (such as class, race, gender, or sexuality) is likely far more nuanced than monolithic. Payne’s stereotyping is classism, tinted by racism.
  • Focusing on claimed flaws inherent in people in poverty (and poverty itself) keeps the focus on personal failure, personal responsibility, but it ignores systemic inequity. As long as we continue to act as if people in poverty are deficient, and all we need to do is “fix” them, we continue to absolve ourselves of any social responsibility for inequity and injustice.
  • Creating stereotypes as deficits against social norms entrenches those norms as “right” and thus above being confronted or changed. The idealized middle class of the US has historically and currently constitutes, however, beliefs and practices that need to be challenged. Consider that separate but equal was a norm of the US, as was slavery. Social norms remain that speak to groups about “knowing their place” (women), as well.

As long as the stereotype spotlight remains focused on children in poverty, highlighting them as academic failures who need a culture of “no excuses” to force them to conform to the idealized middle-class norm (Payne’s “hidden rules”), the historical and current race and class biases remaining in standardized testing, the inequity of opportunity existing in US consumerism and capitalism, the inequity of opportunity expanding in access to high-quality schools and high-quality courses in schools, and the inequity of access to high-quality teachers all remain unacknowledged and thus never addressed.

The blinding power of the stereotype spotlight needs to be switched off and replaced by a mirror for middle-class and affluent America.

* Payne often expresses her “common sense” claims about people in poverty to large auditoriums filled with, disproportionately, middle-class, white, and female teachers. Those teachers often sit shaking their heads in agreement. Payne’s claims are compelling because they seem accurate within a cultural stereotyping. The result is many good people with wonderful intentions also find themselves trapped within stereotypes.

** Paul Gorski uses this method to discredit Payne’s simplistic claims.

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