Maybe Families Are What Matter

September 14, 2020

“WE ARE TOLD that riots are a result of black poverty and white racism. But in fact — for those who still have some respect for facts — black poverty was far worse, and white racism was far worse, prior to 1960, but violent crime within black ghettos was far less,” says Dr. Thomas Sowell.

What if the man is right? What if the driving social force of our time, the increasingly violent struggle against “systemic” racism, turns out to have been a political construct? 

What if American policemen don’t wake up every morning, strap on their weapons and go looking for a black man to shoot auto-da-fe? Instead, what if they are going — being dispatched — to where crime is occurring, and doing so at great bodily risk?

Worse, what if the policies we’ve enacted in the name of blacks since the Great Society have in fact hurt them, have for generations broken up the nuclear family? For after three decades of social experimentation, we now understand that those families are a critical factor in economic well-being. The alternative models having failed miserably.

Patrick Moynihan, author of the “Moynihan Report: the Case for National Action,” began the argument like this in 1965:

“From the wild Irish slums of the 19th century Eastern seaboard, to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: A community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families . . . never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future — that community asks for and gets chaos. Crime, violence, unrest, disorder . . . that is not only to be expected; it is very near to inevitable. And it is richly deserved.”

Dr. Richard McGowan, writing for our upcoming quarterly journal, brings Moynihan statistically up to date:*

Those numbers are disturbing, but not because they prove someone right and someone else wrong; that is not Dr. McGowan’s point. It is that beginning with the Moynihan Report three decades ago single-parent family arrangements have been shown to be a disaster for the development of a child — regardless of race. He quotes Baltimore’s Casey Foundation:

“Children growing up in single-parent families typically do not have the same economic or human resources available as those growing up in two-parent families. Compared with children in married-couple families, children raised in single-parent households are more likely to drop out of school, to have or cause a teen pregnancy and to experience a divorce in adulthood.

Dr. Sowell added this: “One key fact that keeps getting ignored is that the poverty rate among black married couples has been in single digits every year since 1994.”

And most recently, the economist Walter Williams argued that a legacy of slavery (an example of “systemic” racism if there ever was one) has little to do with it, saying that the explanation does not hold up to historical examination:

“Today less than a third of Black children live in two-parent households, and illegitimacy stands at 75 percent. Even during slavery, where marriage was forbidden, most black children lived in biological two-parent families. Herbert G. Gutman’s research in ‘The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom 1750-1925’ found that in three-fourths of 19th-century slave families, all the children had the same mother and father. In New York City, in 1925, 85 percent of black households were two-parent.” 

The numbers are also disturbing because they show that those with the best intentions, those trying hardest to help the disadvantage in our society, both black and white, have been misdirected — wasting time, energy and political influence. Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute puts the hardest edge on it:

“What if racial economic and incarceration gaps cannot close without addressing personal responsibility and family culture —without a sea change in the attitudes that many inner-city black children bring with them to school regarding studying, paying attention in class, and respecting teachers, for example? What if the breakdown of the family is producing children with too little capacity to control their impulses and defer gratification?” 

Again, what if this generation’s vision of social justice turns out to have been an impossible invention? What if it now is blocking an opportunity to put our compassion to good work, that is, to encourage in all ways and among all Americans, especially those struggling economically, the creation of two-parent homes?

Whether or not that fits election-year ambitions, it is what the numbers say is most effective in overcoming racism — systemic or otherwise. 

— tcl

* Members can read a draft of the essay, “Black Lives Need to Matter,” at using the code “McGowan.”


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