Black illigetimacy reconsidered

As anyone here knows, I'm a bit of a booster for black fatherhood, and glad to see things like this happening in Congress. But it's worth noting that illegitamcy figures which are often bandied about when we talk about the fall of the black family don't take a major factor into account--the fact that the birth rate among married black families is actually lower than the birth rate among married white families:

It is important to realize that the "percent of births" is not a birth rate. The birth rate is the number of births for every 1,000 women in a specific category. The last marital birth rates calculated by the National Center for Health Statistics were for 2002. In 2002, the black marital birth rate was 64.9 births for every 1,000 married black women. The white marital birth rate was 88.2 for every 1,000 married white women. The black marital birth rate was 23.3 births less than the white rate. In the past, the black marital birth rate was higher than the white rate. Because there is such a low number of births among married black women, the percent of births to unmarried black women is especially high.

This isn't exactly news. Almost ten years ago the Times pointed out that in discussing illegitimacy rates in the black community, critics almost always ignored the fact that the black married middle class was reproducing at historic lows:

Married black women gave birth to 357,262 babies in 1970. But by 1996, the last year for which complete figures were available, that figure had dropped to 179,568, a decline of nearly 50 percent, nearly twice the drop in the birth rate among married white women....

....statisticians and demographers point out that the startlingly high percentage of black children born outside of marriage is not merely the result of more single black women giving birth. The percentage of single black women giving birth has been declining since 1989, and reached a 40-year low in 1996. Instead, the high proportion of black babies being born out of wedlock is now mainly a function of its statistical comparison to the steep drop in the number of black children being born to married black women.

On some level, this makes a lot of intuitive sense to me. I'm effectively--if not legally--married. Been with the mother of my eight year old son for ten years now. More on this later. (I promise!) But basically when he was born I felt that he was the bond between us. In other words, he literally was the marriage ring. We'd both love to have more kids, but we simply can't afford it. Furthermore, we don't have particularly wealthy parents to fall back on. I think that's the situation a lot of married black folks find themselves in. They simply feel that they can't have more kids.

Even if married black parents had kids at the rate that white married parents did (or better yet, Hispanic parents), black babies would still make up a disproportionate share of kids borne out of wedlock. But I don't find that too alarming. I'd expect that over the next few decades for that gap to continue to narrow, and ultimately close. In these debates, it's worth remembering that black people have only been full citizens for forty years or so, and that followed two centuries chattel slavery, land theft and racial terrorism. Things will get better. Just gotta give it time.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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