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Book Forum: Cultural Psychiatry   |    
Children of Color: Psychological Interventions With Culturally Diverse Youth, 2nd ed.
PAUL C. HORTON, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2005;162:1040-a-1041. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.5.1040-a
View Author and Article Information
Meriden, Conn.

By Jewelle Taylor Gibbs, Larke Nahme Huang, and associates. New York, Jossey-Bass (John Wiley & Sons), 2003, 501 pp., $35.00 (paper).

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The authors of this revised edition of a 1989 publication are psychologists. The book consists of an introduction and overview and chapters on American Indians, African Americans and racially mixed population groups, Asian Americans, Filipinos, Central Americans, Southeast Asians, and Hispanic-Latino populations. The book is intended to meet the needs of those who are working with the "burgeoning population of racially and culturally diverse youth."

As a longtime consultant to child guidance clinics and public school systems who serves a large percentage of minority groups, especially African Americans and Hispanics, I read this book with much interest. There are, indeed, major problems facing many children of color and those who serve them, educators and mental health professionals alike. The authors opine that culture is "at the heart" of the economic and educational problems that different minority groups encounter. They rail against a system which demands that children learn English and conform their behavior to community standards. They deplore what they term a "conservative backlash" that holds parents responsible for their children’s failures. They feel that "Anglo-Saxons" are responsible for the existence of "castelike minorities," specifically, African Americans, American Indians, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Ricans. This book is written with much emotion, conviction, and intensity.

The authors claim a developmental perspective but omit discussion of hereditary, gestational, neonatal, psychodynamic, and other early childhood influences and factors in the formation of adaptive capacities. Recognition of individual differences in talents and abilities is deemed irrelevant because of what the authors regard as invalid or unproven tests and measurements. However, when evaluating children and adolescents of any color, I often find it very helpful to consider the results of tests such as the WISC, Behavior Assessment System for Children, and MMPI-A in arriving at diagnoses and recommendations.

The authors do not examine how it is that many children and adolescents of every color succeed, nor do they attempt to account for why members of some ethnic groups do better on average than members of other groups. I am reminded, for example, of "Louie," a Mexican boy from Saginaw, Mich., whose family lived in the city’s poorest area. Louie’s father was a postal clerk, and he had five brothers and sisters, all of whom were outstanding students. Louie was an excellent musician, athlete, and student. He finished at the top of his large public high school class and eventually graduated from one of the nation’s best medical schools. He was smart, hardworking, and made no excuses.

Unfortunately, these authors blame what they regard as the ruling majority for the disappointments too many children of color experience in their pursuit of their interpretation of the American dream. Accordingly, they argue for allocation of more money from the government to level the cultural playing field. The authors are four-square against English-only programs and "antiimmigrant legislation" and opine that the southwestern part of the United States really belongs to Mexico. They describe the United States as "an often hostile and alien environment."

The authors blame the public school system for the academic shortcomings of children of color. They recommend creation of watchdog committees to make sure, for example, that public schools hire teachers who speak Spanish and who are immersed in Spanish cultures; they demand accountability. My experience with troubled children of all colors is that their school problems are typically far more basic than "culture." A child whose mother drank, smoked, and abused drugs during gestation, who was beaten up by the father or involved in screaming and physical violence during the pregnancy and neonatal period, who neglected the child’s needs for proper nutrition and comfort, or who failed to create an atmosphere and environment conducive to learning and exploration does not have a "cultural" problem. Indeed, "culture" is largely irrelevant for these children. Yet, these are the disturbed children the psychiatric consultant sees in public schools. These are the children whose behaviors often come under the rubric of oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, attention deficit disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Unfortunately, many parents do not want to hear that their child is troubled, preferring to focus on the shortcomings of the school.

Although Children of Color presents new and interesting information about Filipinos and Central Americans and may help to sensitize the reader to the magnitude and dimensions of changing cultural diversity, it does not engage sufficiently the frontline challenges that the psychiatrist consulting to the public schools or treating minority children in his or her office is likely to encounter.

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