Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. vice president, members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review, and a contributing editor to Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
Every Tragic Incident - Such as That in Missouri - Produces Cries That America Is a "Racist" Society, but Overlooks a More Complex Reality
The killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who is black, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri led to days of demonstrations, rioting, and looting. There has been criticism of the overwhelming police response, as well as charges that racism was involved in the death of this teenager. Beyond this, many have proclaimed that this incident shows us that America is a "racist" society, and that talk of racial progress and a movement toward a genuinely "color-blind" society is false.
Exactly what happened in Ferguson will be determined by a thorough investigation, including participation by the FBI and the Department of Justice. If there was wrongdoing by the police officer involved, this will be documented and appropriate action will be taken. In the meantime, we can only withhold judgment on what actually occurred.
What we can properly lament, however, is the manner in which a chorus of voices is immediately heard after every negative event telling us that racism is alive and well in almost every sector of our society. The reality is far more complex.
Typical of this phenomenon is a column in The New York Times by Charles Blow, who is black. He declares that:
The criminalization of black and brown bodies, particularly male ones, [starts] from the moment they are first introduced to the institutions and power structures with which they must interact. . . . Black male dropout rates are more than one and a half times those of white males, the bias of the educational system bleeds easily into the bias of the criminal justice system, from cops to courts to correctional facilities. The school-to-prison pipeline is complete.
Earlier this year, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights released "the first comprehensive look at civil rights from every public school in the country in nearly 15 years." Attorney General Eric Holder said:
The critical report shows that racial disparities in school discipline policies are not only well documented among older students but actually begin during pre-school.
The fact that more young black men drop out of school, that they are over-represented in our criminal justice system, and that they are more often subjected to school discipline, is not necessarily an indication of "institutional racism" in our society, as Mr. Blow and so many others rush to proclaim. There are other, much more plausible explanations.
By 2004 federal data showed that black Americans, 13 percent of the population, accounted for 37 percent of the violent crimes, 54 percent of arrests for robbery, and 51 percent for murder. Most of the victims of these violent criminals were also black. If black men are over-represented in our prison population, the reason appears to be that they are guilty of committing an over-represented amount of crime. Commentator Juan Williams, who is black, laments that:
Any mention of black America's responsibility for committing the crimes, big and small, that lead so many people to prison is barely mumbled, if mentioned at all.
In a column titled "Our Selective Outrage," The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, who is black, notes that:
The killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown has rightly provoked widespread outrage, drawing international media attention and prompting a comment from President Obama. The same should be true, but tragically is not, of the killing of 3-year-old Knijah Amore Bibb. Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri; Knijah died the following day in Landover, Maryland. Both victims were African-American. Both had their whole lives before them. The salient difference is that Brown was shot to death by a white police officer, according to witnesses, while the fugitive suspect in Bibb's killing is a 25-year-old black man with a long criminal record.
Robinson points to statistics showing the dimensions of the problem. According to the FBI, in 2012, the last year for which figures are available, 2,614 whites were killed by white offenders, and 2,412 blacks were killed by black offenders, similar numbers. "But," writes Robinson,
. . . the non-Hispanic white population is almost five times as large as the African-American population, meaning the homicide rate in black communities is staggeringly higher. . . . We need to get angry before we have to mourn the next Knijah Bibb.
It is not "white racism" which causes black-on-black crime, and it may be something other than racism that causes disciplinary disparities and the number of school dropouts. The breakdown of the black family is a more likely cause for such disparities.
In 1940, the black rate of out-of-wedlock birth was around 14 percent. Now, it's 75 percent. In 1870, right after slavery, 70 to 80 percent of black families were intact. Today, after segregation came to an end and the enactment of legislation making racial discrimination illegal, and myriad affirmative action programs, 70 percent of black children have single mothers, and estimates are that an even larger percentage will grow up without a father in the home.
Blaming the problems we confront on "racism" misses the point of the real dilemmas we face. Attorney General Holder does black Americans no favor by ignoring the disintegration of the black family in explaining disparities in school dropouts and disciplinary problems. White racism is not, somehow, compelling out-of-wedlock birth in the black community, a far more plausible causative factor in statistical disparities than blaming an amorphous "institutional racism."
What was missing in the response to developments in Missouri, which included rioting and arson, and cries of "No Justice, No Peace," was "the calming voice of a national civil rights leader of the kind that was so impressive during the 1950s and 1960s," writes author Joseph Epstein:
In those days, there were Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the National Urban League, Bayard Rustin of the A. Philip Randolph Institute - all solid, serious men, each impressive in different ways, who through dignified forbearance and strategic action, brought down a body of unequivocally immoral laws aimed at America's black population.
The NAACP, the Urban League, and the SCLC still exist, notes Epstein,
. . . . yet few people are likely to know the names of their leaders. That is because no black leader has come forth to set out a program for progress for the substantial part of the black population that has remained for generations in the slough of poverty, crime, and despair. . . . In Chicago, where I live, much of the murder and crime that has captured the interest of the media is black-on-black and cannot be chalked up to racism. Except when Bill Cosby, Thomas Sowell, or Shelby Steele and a few others have dared to speak about the pathologies at work, and for doing so these black figures are castigated.
Soon enough, exactly what happened in Ferguson, Missouri will become clear and the matter will be resolved through our legal system. It will take a much longer time before our society begins to confront the real causes of the racial disparities and pathologies which are all too easily, and falsely, attributed to "white racism." Until we do, the sad story of Ferguson is likely to happen again and again.
Family Breakdown: One Important Cause of Many of Society's Ills
In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant secretary of labor who went on to serve as Democratic U.S. senator from New York for nearly a quarter century, issued a report warning of a crisis growing for America's black families. It reported a dramatic increase in out-of-wedlock births and one-parent families and warned of the "tangle of pathologies" which resulted. Among these were poor performance in school, increased drug use, and a growing rate of incarceration for crime.
"The Moynihan argument . . . assumed that the troubles impending for black America were unique," writes Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute:
. . . a consequence of the singular historical burdens that black Americans had endured in our country. That argument was not only plausible at the time, but also persuasive. Yet today that same "tangle of pathology" can no longer be described as characteristic of just one group within our country. Quite the contrary . . . these pathologies are evident throughout all of America today, regardless of race or ethnicity.
Single motherhood has become so common in America that demographers believe that half of all children will live with a single mother at some point before age 18. Research from Princeton University's Sara McLanahan and Harvard University's Christopher Jencks shows that more than 70 percent of all black children are born to an unmarried mother, a threefold increase since the 1960s.
In a new paper, McLanahan and Jencks assess the state of children born to single mothers, nearly fifty years after the Moynihan Report warned that the growing number of fatherless black children would struggle to avoid poverty. The report looks prescient. Black children today are about twice as likely as the national average to live with an unmarried mother. Research is confirming Moynihan's fears that children of unmarried mothers face more obstacles in life.
In the studies reviewed by McLanahan and Jencks, it was found that these children experience more family instability, with new partners moving in and out, and more half-siblings fathered by different men. The growing number of studies in this field also suggest that these children have more problem behaviors and more trouble finishing school.
The growing debate about income inequality ignores the evidence that shows that unwed parents raise poorer children. Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution calculates that returning marriage rates to their 1970 level would lower the child poverty rate by a fifth. There may be a partisan political reason why this point is not made more often. The Economist suggests that, "This omission may be deliberate. Democrats are reluctant to offend unmarried women, 60 percent of whom voted for the party's candidates in 2014."
There may be, some observers point out, a connection between government welfare programs and the breakdown of the family, as well as the declining number of men in the workforce. As late as 1963, on the eve of the War on Poverty, more than 93 percent of American babies were coming into the world with two married parents. According to the 1960 census, nearly 88 percent of children under 18 were then living with two parents. For the quarter century from 1940 to 1965, official data recorded a rise in the fraction of births to unmarried women from 3.8 percent to 7.7 percent. Over the following quarter century, 1965-1990, out-of-wedlock births jumped from 7.7 percent of the nationwide total to 28 percent. The most recently available data are for 2012, which shows America's over-all out-of-wedlock ratio had moved beyond 40 percent.
The trends discussed in the 1965 Moynihan Report for black families have now extended to American families of all racial backgrounds. Among Hispanic Americans, more than 30 percent of children were in single-parent homes by 2013, and well over half were born out-of-wedlock by 2012. Among non-Hispanic white Americans, there were few signs of family breakdown before the massive government entitlement programs began with the War on Poverty in the 1960s. Between 1940 and 1963, the out-of-wedlock birth ratio increased, but only from 2 percent to 3 percent. In 1960, just 6 percent of white children lived with single mothers. As of 2012, the proportion of out-of-wedlock births was 29 percent, nearly 10 times as high as it was just before the War on Poverty.
In his study, The Great Society at Fifty: The Triumph and the Tragedy, Nicholas Eberstadt argues that:
What is indisputable . . . is that the new American welfare state facilitated these new American trends by helping to finance them: by providing support for working-age men who are no longer seeking employment and for single women with children who would not be able to maintain independent households without government aid. Regardless of the origins of the flight from work and family breakdown, the War on Poverty and successive welfare policies have made each of these modern tendencies more feasible as mass phenomena in our country today.
The War on Poverty, of course, did not envision such a result. These were unintended consequences that, as we have seen, are often the case with many well-intentioned government programs. President Lyndon Johnson wanted to bring dependence on government handouts to an eventual end, and did not intend to perpetuate them into the future. Three months after his Great Society speech, Johnson declared:
We are not content to accept the endless growth of relief rolls, of welfare rolls. . . . Our American answer to poverty is not to make the poor more secure in their poverty but to reach down and to help them lift themselves out of the ruts of poverty and move with the large majority along the high road of hope and prosperity.
In Eberhardt's view:
Held against this ideal, the actual unfolding of America's antipoverty policies can be seen only as a tragic failure. Dependence on government relief, in its many modern versions, is more widespread today, and possibly also more habitual, than at any time in our history. To make matters much worse, such aid has become integral to financing lifestyles and behavioral patterns plainly destructive to our commonwealth - and on a scale far more vast than could have been imagined in an era before such antipoverty aid was all but unconditionally available.
Any serious discussion of poverty and the growing gaps in income must confront the reasons why, for example, in the past 50 years, the fraction of civilian men ages 25 to 34 who were neither working nor looking for work has quadrupled and that for many women, children, and even working-age men, the entitlement state has become the breadwinner. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, "the issue of welfare is not what it costs those who provide it, but what it costs those who receive it."
At the heart of the social and economic decline we face at the present time is the breakdown of the family. Few in the political arena, in either party, are addressing this question. Unless they do, their proposals to move our economy forward and lessen the gaps in income and wealth are unlikely to succeed.
There Is a Growing Danger That Police Are Being Made Scapegoats for Larger Racial Problems That Society Ignores
The attacks upon police for "racism" have been mounting as a result of the killings of black men in Ferguson, Staten Island, and elsewhere. Many with a history of demagoguery when it comes to questions of race relations, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton among them, have done their best to keep this issue alive. Sadly, they have cast more heat than light on a question that is far more complex than their self-serving analysis would lead Americans to believe.
Recently, FBI director James Comey addressed this question. At the outset, he declared certain "hard truths," including the fact that the history of law enforcement has been tied to enforcing slavery, segregation, and other forms of discrimination. "One reason we cannot forget our law enforcement legacy," he said, "is that the people we serve and protect cannot forget it, either."
Mr. Comey also acknowledged the existence of unconscious racial bias "in our white-majority culture," and how that influences policing. He conceded that people in law enforcement can develop "different flavors of cynicism" that can be "lazy mental shortcuts," resulting in more pronounced racial profiling.
But he then warned against using police as scapegoats to avoid coming to grips with much more complex problems affecting minority communities, including a lack of "role models, adequate education, and decent employment," as well as "all sorts of opportunities that most of us take for granted." In his address at Georgetown University, Comey declared:
I worry that this incredibly important and difficult conversation about policing has become focused entirely on the nature and character of law enforcement officers when it should also be about something much harder to discuss.
Citing the song "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" from the Broadway show "Avenue Q," Comey said that police officers of all races viewed black and white men differently using a mental shortcut that "becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights" because black men commit crime at a much higher rate than white men.
Comey said that nearly all police officers had joined the force because they wanted to help others. Speaking in personal terms, he described how most Americans had initially viewed Irish immigrants like his ancestors "as drunks, ruffians, and criminals." He noted that, "Law enforcement's biased view of the Irish lives on in the nickname we still use for the vehicle that transports groups of prisoners. It is, after all, the 'Paddy Wagon.'"
If black men are committing crime out of proportion to their numbers, it is important to consider the reason. According to a report just released by the Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI), by age 17 only 17 percent of black teenagers live with two married parents. Professor Orlando Patterson, a Harvard sociologist who is black, published an article in December in the Chronicle of Higher Education, lamenting that "fearful" sociologists had abandoned "studies of the cultural dimensions of poverty, particularly black poverty," and declared that the discipline had become "largely irrelevant."
Now, Patterson and Ethan Fosse, a Harvard doctoral student, are publishing a new anthology called The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth. In Patterson's view, fifty years after Daniel Moynihan issued his report about the decline of the black family, "History has been kind to Moynihan." Moynihan was concerned about an out-of-wedlock birth rate in the black community of 25 percent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the equivalent rate for 2013 was 71.5 percent. (The rate for non-Hispanic whites was 29.3 percent.)
The inner-city culture that promotes the social dissolution that results in crime has been written about for many years by respected black observers. In 1899, the scholar W. E. B. Du Bois drew on interviews and census data to produce The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. He spent a year living in the neighborhood he wrote about, in the midst of what he described as "an atmosphere of dirt, drunkenness, poverty and crime." He observed in language much harsher than Moynihan's, the large number of unmarried mothers, many of whom he referred to as "ignorant and loose." He called upon whites to stop employment discrimination, which he called "morally wrong, politically dangerous, industrially wasteful, and socially silly." He told black readers they had a duty to work harder, to behave better, and to stem the tide of "Negro crime," which he called "a menace to civilized people."
In 1999, on the hundredth anniversary of Du Bois's study, Elijah Anderson published a new sociological study of poor black neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Code of the Street, and recorded its informants' characterization of themselves and their neighbors as either "decent" or "street" or, in some cases, a bit of both. In The Cultural Matrix, Orlando Patterson lists "three main social groups" - the middle class, the working class, and "disconnected street people" that are common in "disadvantaged" African-American neighborhoods. He also lists "four focal cultural configurations" (adapted mainstream, proletarian, street, and hip-hop).
Patterson views the "hip-hop" culture of the inner city as a destructive phenomenon, compares MC Hammer to Nietzsche, contends that hip-hop routinely celebrates "forced abortions" and calls Lil Wayne "irredeemably vulgar" and "all too typical" of the genre. Thomas Shelby, a professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard, writes in The Cultural Matrix that "suboptimal cultural traits" are the major impediment for many African-Americans seeking to escape poverty. "Some in ghetto communities," he writes, "are believed to devalue traditional co-parenting and to eschew mainstream styles of childbearing."
In his speech on race in 2008, President Obama said that African-Americans needed to take more responsibility for their own communities by "demanding more from our fathers." Fifty years ago, Daniel Moynihan worried that "the Negro community" was in a state of decline with an increasingly matriarchal family structure that led to increasing crime. In the fifteen years after he published his report, the homicide rate doubled, with blacks overrepresented among both perpetrators and victims.
Orlando Patterson, in a recent interview with Slate, said: "I am not in favor of a national conversation on race," and noted that most white people in America had come to accept racial equality. But whether or not such a "national conversation" is useful, we are now in the midst of such an enterprise. FBI director Comey is contributing to that exchange. He asks:
Why are so many black men in jail? Is it because cops, prosecutors, judges and juries are racist because they are turning a blind eye to white robbers and drug dealers? . . . I don't think so. If it were so, that would be easier to address. . . . The percentage of young men not working or not enrolled in school is nearly twice as high for blacks as it is for whites. . . . Young people in those neighborhoods too often inherit a legacy of crime and prison, and with that inheritance they become part of the police officer's life and shape the way that officer, whether white or black, sees the world. Changing that legacy is a challenge so enormous and so complicated that it is, unfortunately, easier to talk only about the cops. And that's not fair. *