Does societal ‘bigotry of low expectations’ exist?

Growing up in regional NSW, and living in a small town that regularly necessitated driving through the infamous East Nowra public housing district, I was always peripherally aware of the poor and downtrodden in my local community. But whilst listening to the BCM310 lecture on ‘Suffering, empathy and poverty porn’ however, the notion that suffering can be ‘visible but not seen‘ jumped out at me as particularly poignant; it struck me that I’d never truly considered what it would be like to live in such a publicly scrutinized community, and what effect that would have on my own self-esteem and personal outlook.


Visible, but not seen — Via Tumblr

Indeed, the suggestion that suffering can be ‘visible but not seen’ is reflective of many contemporary issues that are acknowledged, but kept at arms length. We can plainly see the same apathetic behavior with the almost cyclical perceptions of climate change, and the seemingly indefinite detention of refugees on the Manu and Nauru islands. Despite strong public opinion as polled by Roy Morgan Research expressing ‘overwhelming concern and response to the human suffering’, there’s been no suggestion as to when their extended incarceration will finally end.


Afghan refugee on Nauru — Via SMH

Thinking back, then, to this local community of East Nowra, I was curious as to the kind of effects that a community suffers when they’re looked down upon be those around them. Specifically, I wondered if an investigation into evidence of a perpetuating, viscous cycle involving criminality and drug use ties with occupants of public housing estates might be an interesting topic for my final project. Is this assumption an unfair generalization held by those privileged enough to not need public housing? Is there evidence to suggest that ongoing explicit and implicit condemnation of ‘the other’ groups and communities reinforces these ideals and behaviors?

As you can explore above, East Nowra (which features a street called, and I still can’t believe this is real, ‘Vendetta St‘) is unsurprisingly easy to draw assumptions from. Moving past these impressions though, lets have a brief look at research into the relationship between those in the bottom socioeconomic bracket and their conformation to (or success despite) society’s lower expectations.

In 1961, Oscar Lewis coined a phrase to help gather his findings in poor communities; the ‘culture of poverty’ which surmised his ethnographic studies in small Mexican communities. Lewis speculated that poverty stricken people ‘share a consistent and observable “culture”‘ and believed he could extrapolate and universally apply this concept. Since then however, the existence of such a culture has been thoroughly debunked. ‘Differences in values and behaviors among poor people are just as great as those between poor and wealthy people’ writes Paul Gorski of Hamline University.

Despite this, many false truths have ‘crept into mainstream thinking’ such as the view that poor people are unmotivated, have poor work ethics, are un-involved in their children’s learning, and they ‘tend to abuse drugs and alcohol’, all of which Gorski rebukes. Over 83% of poor families have an employed adult, and Gorski argues that schools are, in fact, to blame with the perceived lack of involvement as they don’t take the working conditions of these families into account. Evidently, one could make the case that ‘schools … do not value the involvement of poor families as much as they value the involvement of other families’ due to this. Similarly, drug use is ‘equally distributed’ among all societal classes. In fact, consumption of alcohol among upper-middle class, white students is ‘significantly higher … than among poor black high school students.’ Additionally, the Australian Institute of Criminology found that public housing itself wasn’t an ‘important factor’ in whether an individual uses drugs.

Gorksi also expresses concern reminiscent of what Michael Gerson described as the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations‘ which has seen wide recognition even among Australians researchers in educational settings. The phrase originally referenced the education system setting low bars for minority students and that being a crucial failing to their education, with Noel Pearson of The Australian stating that ‘high-expectations schooling is ultimately about high-quality teaching.’ Gorksi blames the ‘deficit theory’ for ‘suggesting that poor people are poor because of their own moral and intellectual deficiencies’, resulting in a view of the ‘undeserving poor’ as Herbert Gans coined. In practicality, ‘poor students are more likely to attend schools that have less funding’ which means larger class sizes, ‘a less-rigorous curriculum’ and less experienced/qualified teachers among other factors.


Aboriginal classroom — Via Department of Education

Could it not, therefor, be suggested that this concept of ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ extends beyond just the educational realm and impacts many facets of impoverished life?



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