Liberals and conservatives have different explanations for the racial divide in the United States. Conservatives like Jason Riley argue that dysfunctional values and norms have helped create America’s racial disparities in crime, incarceration, and employment. Conversely, Ta-Nehisi Coates contends that unjust and racist structural forces—including poor job opportunities, unsafe neighborhoods, failing schools, and discriminatory housing and policing policies—have produced America’s racial disparities.
These don’t have to be mutually exclusive explanations. Our analyses of trends in work, crime, incarceration, and family indicate that both structural and cultural factors have shaped the differing life experiences of white and black men. But focusing on racial differences can obscure the fact that many African American men are doing well. One of the reasons why some black men flourish is their participation in the black church. (We focus on the black church because there are not enough black men in other traditions, such as Islam, to make statistical claims about in the surveys we analyzed for our book.)
Churchgoing black men are significantly less likely to participate in what the sociologist Elijah Anderson has called the “code of the street”: an ethos marked by violence, criminal activity, a live-for-the-moment mentality, and a desire to protect oneself by projecting strength. This culture has emerged partly from the structural disadvantages black men face, including racism, concentrated poverty, police brutality, and fatherless households. Coates has written about the code in his reflections on his own life growing up in West Baltimore. Here, in a letter to his son:
The streets transform every ordinary day into a series of trick questions, and every incorrect answer risks a beat-down, a shooting, or a pregnancy. No one survives unscathed. When I was your age, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with whom I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, whom or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not—all of which is to say that I practiced the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body.
This culture, and the injustices from which it flows, helps explain why some young black men end up struggling in America.
Yet millions of black men in the U.S. live in communities with different norms, including industriousness, honesty, respect for the law, and temperance. For many of these men, faith is a defining feature.
Take criminal activity. Twenty percent of young, church-going black men report having committed a crime, compared to 24 percent of their peers who were not regular attendees, even after controlling for demographic factors like education and family background. Likewise, only 4 percent of young black men aged 22 to 26 who attended church earlier in their 20s ended up in prison, compared to 6 percent who did not regularly attend church, again after controlling for a wide range of social and economic factors. This suggests that churchgoing young black men are about one-third less likely to be incarcerated than their peers who don’t regularly attend church. Although these percentages may seem small, they represent tens of thousands of men.