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Can a White L.A. Psychologist Teach Low-Income Blacks How to Be Better Parents? Yes, Say Some Prominent Black Educators Who Take Seriously His Views on Discipline and the Heritage of Slavery : The Education of Kerby Alvy

February 11, 1988|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

It was a marathon grilling.

For three days a group of black colleagues chastised, berated, debated, questioned and verbally pummeled white clinical child psychologist Kerby T. Alvy.

When it was over, recalled Charles W. Thomas, one of the group's members and a professor of urban studies at UC San Diego, they decided Alvy really was OK--despite the color of his skin.

By surviving that emotionally grueling test on his understanding of black experience, Alvy got some unofficial but crucial credentials, keys to his continuing work in a sensitive area--the way many black parents raise their children.

Since that encounter about eight years ago, and with the advice and support of those experts--as well as the support of public figures such as U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.)--Alvy has researched and developed a comprehensive parent-training program directed toward the black community.

Solutions Begin at Home

For Alvy, the Effective Black Parenting Program is the culmination of a long commitment to equal rights and the battle against racism. But the program is also an admission that solutions to some problems in the black community begin at home.

To Alvy and his supporters, making positive changes in child-rearing practices among low-income blacks may be the single most important factor in dealing with a host of problems, including juvenile delinquency and drug abuse.

Moreover, the ideas and parent training programs "orchestrated" by Alvy under federal research grants are finding official acceptance and support--within the Los Angeles School District and with Detroit city officials, who see parenting programs as a possible way of addressing the intimately connected problems of crime and drug abuse.

But while Alvy--who dates his concern with black social issues to his days working at a mental health center in Watts in the early 1970s--paints a positive overall view of black family life, he also offers in a recently published book a potentially controversial analysis of one aspect of child-rearing: Children from poorer black families are somewhat more likely to be disciplined by spanking and beating than are children from other racial groups of similar economic circumstance because of what is a cultural characteristic embedded in centuries of precedent.

One of Alvy's consultants, Donald K. Cheek, who was born in New York City's Harlem and is now a social psychologist at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, calls this emphasis on discipline "the Jim Crow halo effect," meaning that such discipline is a holdover from the time when blacks were injured or murdered for violations of the segregated social order.

Then, black children had to be "very careful about how they spoke, how they acted, how they behaved with white folks," Cheek said. Misbehavior might "end up in a lynching," he explained. "Therefore there had to be immediate obedience on the part of the black child. (Parents told a child) 'You don't argue with me about why you can't go in that bathroom. . . .' It's not as important for a white child to behave immediately."

Thomas agreed. "One of the things we must never forget is that the system in the United States has never worked for black people--and that includes parenting," he said.

Alvy, Cheek, Thomas and other experts on the black family also believe, however, that this aspect of child-rearing must be "reassessed," partly because the historical reasons for its use no longer exist--at least to the degree they once did.

Alvy, a graduate of UCLA who holds a doctorate in psychology from the State University of New York at Albany, is a bearded, low-key, relaxed man who seems perfectly at ease with his chosen role as a bridger of cultural and racial chasms. He also seems not to worry that publicity--until now rare--about his program and his research may expose him to critics. His backers seem resigned to the fact that publicity may prove a mixed blessing.

"All of us blacks are going to be condemned (for supporting Alvy)," Thomas said, referring to himself and others who have advised Alvy. Thomas, Cheek and others serve on an advisory council to Alvy and their names are used prominently in a brochure on the black-parenting program.

Alvy--who works on family issues through the private nonprofit Center for the Improvement of Child Caring that he founded in 1974--is well aware that his race is not an asset in his chosen field. In the black-parenting programs he has developed through the center, he stays in the background because "it creates a lot of dissonance" when parents learn that he is white, Alvy said. They frequently ask, " '. . .are you blaming us again for our state in society?' That comes up all the time," he added.

Candi Milton, a single mother of three who lives in the Crenshaw area, had that kind of reaction when she learned the identity of the creator of the black-instructed classes she took for 15 weeks.

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