Of Baguettes and Black Families

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I don't like to reward threadjacking, but I was asked the following question the other day in the thread about French food:
I have a question from a previous post where the comments closed on me. You made a claim that you held slavery/racism as responsible for the breakdown of the black family. How do you reconcile that with data showing that the the black out of wedlock birth rate only started surging in the 1960's and that the black marriage rate was on par with the white marriage rate well into the 20th century?

In other words how do you make the claim that racism is linked to the destruction of the black family when the black family was in fact strongest during time periods when racism was substantially more prevalent than today?
So I was annoyed by this. First because I've never claimed that "slavery is responsible for the breakdown of the black family." I don't consider the black family to be "broken down." I'm not even sure what that means. Moreover, if by "black" we mean "African-American," the "black" family was invented in slavery. There is no African-American family before slavery. We were born there, and proceed accordingly. But I was more annoyed because I'm really interested in baguettes right now. I was on my break--and now I am called to pick up the sword again.

But as much as I'd like to blame white folks, the fact is I love this stuff. I answered the question, but I wasn't totally satisfied with my own answer. The root of all of this is not really the fight against racism and white supremacy. My expectation is that racism and white supremacy will win--and take this country down with it. Indeed I expect the worst of everyone to win--and take humanity down with them. I get sad about that sometimes, but I am mostly resolved. So the root of this, for me, isn't altruism but curiosity. Even if you know how the story ends, you still want to know how we got there.

So here's some math for you. Before we get to it, let's look at some historiography courtesy of University of Minnesota professor Steven Ruggles and his article "The Origins of the African-American Family Structure." Ruggles alludes to some of the earlier data and what I suspect were Thomas Sowell's sources:
The controversy over the Moynihan report stimulated a spate of revisionist historical investigations into African-American family structure. These studies asserted that black families in the late nineteenth century were overwhelmingly male-headed and nuclear in structure. Although some authors acknowledged minor differences in family structure between blacks and whites, they all maintained that in practical terms black families were essentially similar to white families (Agresti 1978; Bigham 1981; Carlson 1988; Furstenberg, Hershberg, and Modell 1975; Gutman 1975, 1976; Harris 1976; Krech 1982; Lammermeir 1973; Pleck 1972; Riley 1975; Shifflett 1975). The revisionists thus implied that the distinctive African-American family pattern is of recent origin, and this reinforced the now widespread view that economic disadvantages faced by blacks in the recent past are responsible (Brewer 1988; Wilson 1987).
This actually helps me because I've long wondered why sociological work on black families seemed so ahistorical. There's a strong bias toward looking at black people through the lens of the 1960s--as though black America begins with the Long Hot Summers. I suspect part of that is that we just didn't have great data on black families, and the data we had indicated that something had gone drastically "wrong" around 1960. 
 
But while it's true that you see a dramatic increase in single-family homes in 1960, the gap is about as old as our data. Ruggles was able to get ahold of census micro-data and basically concluded as much. If you look at the report you can see on Table 2 that as early as 1880 there were roughly double the percentage of black children born to single mothers as to whites (13.1 to 5.9.) Ruggles concludes:
...[T]he finding of recent studies that the high incidence of single parenthood and children residing without parents among blacks is not new. The pattern is clearly evident as far back as 1850 among free blacks. From 1880 through 1960, the percentage of black children with at least one absent parent was fairly stable and about two-and-one-half times greater than the percentage among whites. Recently, the percentages of both black children and white children with absent parents have risen dramatically...

Race differences in family structure have expanded throughout the twentieth century, especially over the past three decades. But the fundamental differences in the percentage of children residing without parents began well over a century ago. The critical question remains: What is the source of this distinctive African-American pattern of single parenthood? Recent economic changes can be invoked to explain the growing differential between black family structure and white family structure, but they cannot explain why blacks started from a higher base.
Again, you see a big shift in 1960. But that's true for both black and white families, and it's a shift that has been oft-commented upon. The change in marriage is not a "black" problem, and I am not even convinced that it is a "problem." People who want us to go back to 1880 should have the intellectual courage to advocate for the entirety of their vision, not just the parts they like. It is not simply a question of "Is marriage good for kids?" It's "Are shotgun marriages good for kids?" "Should marriage be valued at all costs, including enduring abuse or ill-treatment?" "Should women marry men regardless of their employment prospects and their contact with the correctional system?"

My sense is democratic. I think that human beings are pretty logical and generally savvy about identifying their interests. Despite what we've heard, women tend to be human beings and if they are less likely to marry today, it is probable that they have decided that marriage doesn't advance their interests as much as it once did. It's worth noting that it is not simply women with children who aren't marrying, but women period. Indeed, black women today who are unmarried are having fewer kids than at any point in our recorded history. Mouthing platitudes about culture is fun if you want to be right. But if you really want to know, it's a little harder.

And on that note I'll say peace to Dalton Conley and Andrew Cherlin for the assistance. And keeping it 100, I will add that I had an excellent Côte Du Rhone with my lunch today. And to keep it hood I'll note that the Camembert from Whole Foods is really incredible. (I almost felt like I was home.) And finally, to make it extra hood I'll say I'm looking forward to going out with my wife, my homegirl Chana, and her dude tonight. We plan to drink some wine and do all we can to ruin the good name of the black family and further discredit the entire race. 

Holler if you so happen to hear me.
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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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