Professor Annette Lareau of Temple University, author of Unequal Childhoods, takes the view that black and white children with a middle-class background outperform working-class children in the adult world because they develop a greater capacity to interact verbally with adults as a result of their being greater talk and negotiating with parents in middle-class homes and because their parents put them in a variety of adult-supervised activities that are often unavailable to the children of working-class and poor homes for financial and other reasons. I read about this first in the Columbus Dispatch in an op-ed piece by David Brooks. The headline was instructive: "Working-class kids held back by lack of verbal skills." I love this. It suggests that working-class kids have no verbal skills at all.
Most of us linguists who care about the sort of issues that interest Lareau must feel like we are experiencing what Bill Murray's character did in Groundhog Day. From time to time educators and sociologists and others who know little or nothing about language and verbal development come up with some version of what Professor Bill Labov, a sociolinguist at the University of Pennsylvania, has called the "verbal deficit" theory. Interestingly, much of Bill's research, like that of Professor Lareau's. was done in Philadelphia, but he focused on Black English Vernacular.
Labov focused a good deal of his field work on inner-city black children. In 1972, he published the book, Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular. Unfortunately, others with little or no linguistic knowledge were also taking a look at Black English Vernacular with some alleging that there were nontrivial numbers of Black children who could barely form a complete sentence. I once heard or read a paper by someone who replicated the "experiments" of those who came to these conclusions, usually whites, of course, and got an entirely different result. He was himself Black and instead of being White and standing or otherwise positioning himself in a dominant position relative to children he studied, he sat on the floor with him. The children opened up with him with a flood of language. It seems that they had plenty of complete sentences to utter.
This "verbal deficit" theory got some purchase when a variety of well-known people like Nobel Laureate William Shockley, a physicist at Stanford University, decided that his status as a physicist entitled him to comment publicly on linguistic issues dealing with race. To give you an idea of his sociopolitics, he once openly suggested people with IQs lower than 100 should submit to voluntary sterilization. Naturally linguists like Labov tore into him and other nitwits like him, dispelling their linguistically incompetent views with actual research. An important element of the counterattack was a chapter in the Labov book mentioned above called, "The Logic of Nonstandard English."
Obviously, Professor Lareau is not as ignorant as the Columbus Dispatch's headline writer (or that of the New York Times if headlines travel with syndicated articles) nor of the nitwits who advanced the verbal deficit theory we dealt with back in the 70's and 80's.
Lareau based her study on the children of two schools. Count them. One. Two. How many schools are there in America? Lots. Maybe 50,000. Lareau obviously worked with a very tiny sample. Moreover, it does not take into account the effect of later higher education on those children from working class and poor families on their linguistic and intellectual development. Not all a child learns is learned at home or as a result of a parent's (soccer moms and pops) pushing them into all sorts of activities directed by adults. The problem, of course, is that there is a well-known built in bias against speakers of nonstandard English by K-12 teachers and a bias against children of the poor that is built into standardized tests, from the SAT to the Wonderlich test given to athletes who want to go pro. Recently we learned that the Heisman Trophy winning quarterback of the National Champion Texas Longhorns scored 16 out of a possible 40 and it was opined that he may drop in value to pro teams on draft day because of this score. Of course, a smart manager of a pro football team will simply get the tapes of his two consecutive performances in the Rose Bowl (against the University of Michigan and the University of Southern California) and replace the Wonderlich score with these tapes. Talented is as talented does, Forest Gump's mother probably told him.
The use I wish to make of Lareau's work (which should not be taken as an endorsement of it) is to further an argument I have often made to people, almost invariably White, who scorn poor people, including especially poor blacks, because they have failed to take advantage of the wonderful opportunities America provides, whereas they themselves have gotten what they have as a result of hard work.
Yeah, right. Their hard work. Such people are usually White and male and had middle-class parents who provided the environment Lareau speaks of and provided financial help during their college and immediate post-college days. Moreover, such people usually came from families with one or more members who have earned college degrees so college was not an alien notion for them as they grew up. Contrast that with a poor black inner city kid. I don't need to recite the limitations they are saddled with. They are well-known. Assume that they have the opposite background to that of middle-class White and Black kids and also have additional disadvantages heaped upon them, including growing up in crime-ridden areas where education is not valued. If I may be trite, success breeds success and failure breeds failure.