Marriage and the good life

I have written on this subject before, and don’t want to become a bore:  the moral importance of marriage, the lack of which is also the single most accurate predictor of poverty for both mothers and children.  William Raspberry had an article in yesterday’s WaPo, looking at the disastrous effect of the decline of marriage for blacks.  Nearly 70 percent of black children, according to Raspberry, are born to single mothers.  The consequences, while predictable, are awful:

Father absence is the bane of the black community, predisposing its children (boys especially, but increasingly girls as well) to school failure, criminal behavior and economic hardship, and to an intergenerational repetition of the grim cycle. The culprit, the ministers (led by the Rev. Eugene Rivers III of Boston, president of the Seymour Institute) agreed, is the decline of marriage.

Kenneth B. Johnson, a Seymour senior fellow who has worked in youth programs, says he often sees teenagers “who’ve never seen a wedding.”

As I have also written here before, one can take this sort of factual statement and arrive at two possible causal theories.  One is sociological, the belief, often based on no data whatever, that we are in the grip of vast, impersonal forces, impossible for mere humans to struggle against:  what I have termed the “resistance is futile” school of thought.

The other approach is moral, and assumes that normal persons have some degree of control over their actions.  Thankfully, Raspberry belongs to this second camp.  Any initiative to protect and restore marriage among blacks, he thinks, is worth attempting:  “When you find yourself in this sort of a hole, someone once said, the first thing to do is stop digging.”

Raspberry maintains that the black churches have contributed to the problem by turning a blind eye to it.  That Christian churches would abet the spread of casual relationships and the collapse of the sacrament of marriage I find, to put it mildly, surprising.  But it’s apparently true.  Heather Mac Donald, in a piece at City Journal, records this interaction with a black minister:

Moreover, the black church has made little effort to fight the greatest problem in the black population: the collapse of marriage. Mainstream preachers have told Jesse Lee Peterson that they don’t focus on illegitimacy because their members live that way. Cecil B. Murray, the most prominent minister in Los Angeles, called Peterson a troublemaker for opposing the distribution of condoms in church. But God is self-control, not condom control, Peterson responded.

I asked Pastor Stewart of the Zoe Christian Fellowship if he condemns out-of-wedlock childbearing in his church. “You know how I deal with it?” Pastor Stewart responded. “I have a five-minute radio spot in which I talk about what blacks have to do to take responsibility for themselves. People don’t come to church to hear me talk about some social message.”

If black Christian ministers have given up on marriage, it’s no wonder that their parishioners often behave as if partnership for life belongs to the dead past.

UPDATE:  Somehow I missed this companion piece to Mac Donald’s article in CJ, by Kay Hymowitz:  “The Black Family:  40 Years of Lies.”  The appeal to vast, impersonal forces was more plausible in the case of disintegrating black families.  One could point to the effects of Jim Crow laws and attitudes in, for example, denying black men jobs on which they could support their families.

The problem, of course, is that the collapse of marriage among blacks has only accelerated since the end of segregation.  The percentage of children born out of wedlock has increased.  Racism may have played some part at the outset of this pathology, but no longer.  And those who point to economic determinants of social behavior have it exactly backwards:  social behavior – for example, a woman’s decision to marry before she brings children into the world – determines a person’s economic standing.

What determines social behavior?  In part, family upbringing; in part, one’s character.  It isn’t an oversimplification to say that morality, on this question, drives economics.

Two judgments emerge from Hymowitz’s article.  The first it that Daniel Moynihan was possibly the most brilliant public servant of his generation.  His “The Negro Family:  The Case for National Action” was literally beyond the comprehension of all the best and brightest minds of 40 years ago, yet has proved to be an accurate and compassionate diagnosis of the problem.

More than most social scientists, Moynihan, steeped in history and anthropology, understood what families do. They “shape their children’s character and ability,” he wrote. “By and large, adult conduct in society is learned as a child.” What children learned in the “disorganized home[s]” of the ghetto, as he described through his forest of graphs, was that adults do not finish school, get jobs, or, in the case of men, take care of their children or obey the law. Marriage, on the other hand, provides a “stable home” for children to learn common virtues. Implicit in Moynihan’s analysis was that marriage orients men and women toward the future, asking them not just to commit to each other but to plan, to earn, to save, and to devote themselves to advancing their children’s prospects. Single mothers in the ghetto, on the other hand, tended to drift into pregnancy, often more than once and by more than one man, and to float through the chaos around them. Such mothers are unlikely to “shape their children’s character and ability” in ways that lead to upward mobility. Separate and unequal families, in other words, meant that blacks would have their liberty, but that they would be strangers to equality. Hence Moynihan’s conclusion: “a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure.”

The second judgment must be on the civil rights and femenist intelligentsia, which declined to acknowledge the facts in front of them.  The blinding power of ideology not only makes bright people seem stupefyingly thick – it can also prevent critical discussion of the causes of a moral catastrophe, effectively blocking any possibility of change.  Let me end with just a glimpse, from Hymowitz’s history, at how the highly educated manage to achieve moral idiocy.

In fact, some scholars continued, maybe the nuclear family was really just a toxic white hang-up, anyway. No one asked what nuclear families did, or how they prepared children for a modern economy. The important point was simply that they were not black. “One must question the validity of the white middle-class lifestyle from its very foundation because it has already proven itself to be decadent and unworthy of emulation,” wrote Joyce Ladner (who later became the first female president of Howard University) in her 1972 book Tomorrow’s Tomorrow. Robert Hill of the Urban League, who published The Strengths of Black Families that same year, claimed to have uncovered science that proved Ladner’s point: “Research studies have revealed that many one-parent families are more intact or cohesive than many two-parent families: data on child abuse, battered wives and runaway children indicate higher rates among two-parent families in suburban areas than one-parent families in inner city communities.” That science, needless to say, was as reliable as a deadbeat dad.

Feminists, similarly fixated on overturning the “oppressive ideal of the nuclear family,” also welcomed this dubious scholarship. Convinced that marriage was the main arena of male privilege, feminists projected onto the struggling single mother an image of the “strong black woman” who had always had to work and who was “superior in terms of [her] ability to function healthily in the world,” as Toni Morrison put it. The lucky black single mother could also enjoy more equal relationships with men than her miserably married white sisters.


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