'The Breakdown of the Black Family,' Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In the wake of Ta-Nehisi’s cover story on mass incarceration, The Atlantic last week published a strong dissent from Kay Hymowitz. She had written an initial criticism of the cover story over at National Review, which he responded to here. From Hymowitz’s latest critique:

Children suffer when their parents go to prison, [Coates] writes. Yet he says nothing about the suffering of black children growing up in chaotic families, though that suffering is itself highly correlated with the scourge of ghetto crime and incarceration.

Seventy-two percent of black children are born to unmarried mothers. The majority of those children will see contact with their fathers “drop sharply”; within a few years, about a third of dads will basically just disappear. Children don’t take well to the succession of partners, step- and half-siblings that follow their parents’ breakup. Studies, not just a few, but a slew ofthem, connect “multi-partner fertility” and father absence to behavior problems, aggression, and later criminality among boys even when controlling for race and income. Doesn’t that suggest black-family disruption could have some bearing on crime and incarceration rates?

Before 1960, when poverty and racism were by all accounts far worse, the black family was considerably more stable. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the large majority of black women were married before they had children. Black children were less likely than whites to grow up in two-parent homes, but only slightly so. It was only after 1960, even as more black men were finding jobs and even as legal discrimination was being dismantled with civil-rights legislation, that the family began to unravel.

That essay elicited over 1400 comments—an unwieldily number to even read, let alone edit into a productive discussion. So below are a handful of those comments, if readers are interested in getting a debate going. The first:

I had a sociology professor in the ‘70s predict the breakdown of the black family. He said it would be an unintended consequence of the Women’s Liberation Movement, which was just coming into its own. Women worked some, during WW2. But most were still at “home” prior to the advent of Women’s Lib—after which, we joined the workforce in large numbers. Black women had always worked as domestics, but it didn’t pay much. After Women’s Lib, they too (along with white women) joined the larger workforce.

My professor’s theory was that black women were seen as less “threatening” to whites than black men.

As such, they would become increasingly more employable than black men. Black men would lose work as women (both black and white) gained employment. Their status as breadwinners for their families would suffer. He said it was inevitable some would turn to crime, and end up in prison. As black women gained employment (and good money), they’d be less likely to take their man’s “guff”—and the black man would be made unnecessary and extraneous.

I’m sure there were other factors that contributed to the breakdown of the black family. But his theory is one I’ve contemplated, through the years.

Another reader replies to the above’s “strong explanation for the decline of the black family, and for the increasingly anti-social life paths of many young black men (a.k.a. the rise of ‘gangsta culture’).” He then offers a concurring theory:

Beginning in the late 1960s, the U.S. began losing factory jobs and other low-skilled industrial jobs. Automotive manufacturing, steel-making, consumer goods manufacturing, etc. became less labor-intensive as they adopted automation and shipped jobs to lower-wage countries. Jobs that had been readily available during the first half of the 20th century, and that had brought millions of poor and working-class people (including blacks) into relative prosperity gradually disappeared. As a result, getting into the middle class has become much harder since the 1960s.

Who got left behind when those jobs dried up? Those who were the least-educated and the most discriminated against in the first place: young black men. Being the lowest in social status, they suffered the worst effects of de-industrialization and globalization: joblessness, lower socioeconomic opportunity compared to other groups (including black women), worsening marriage prospects, etc.

So it looks like young black men got hit with a double whammy: the postwar economic changes that made decent jobs harder to get, and the persistent racism that keeps them at the end of the line for the few jobs that remain.

Another reader quotes the black conservative Thomas Sowell:

The black family survived centuries of slavery and generations of Jim Crow, but it has disintegrated in the wake of the liberals’ expansion of the welfare state.

Truly, the worst thing that has befallen blacks is the state: it enslaved them, it segregated them, it incarcerates them, now it divides them and breeds dependency upon state welfare. Presciently, President Reagan could have been describing blacks when he said: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

Another reader builds on that Republican narrative:

Anybody who lived through the ‘60s into today knows that liberal permissiveness toward crime resulted in a massive crime wave starting in the late ‘60s that peaked in the ‘90s, with a murder rate of nearly 10 homicides per 100,000 Americans. NYC wasn’t safe, buses weren’t safe, subways weren’t safe. You didn’t go out onto a public street in any large city after it started to get dark. The Dirty Harry movies and the Charles Bronson vigilante movies were a reaction to the fact that liberal policies made our nation unsafe.

When Reagan was elected, the laws began to change, the liberal permissiveness was shoved aside, mandatory sentencing began, and cities like NYC began to kick out the liberal pols and elect folks like Mayor Giuliani. There was a lag time. Reagan started the change, but people were so fed up with crime that President Clinton didn’t dare bring back liberal insanity on crime. Democrats began to sound like Republicans on crime.

If you have any strong rebuttals in mind, drop me an email and I’ll post the best ones.