Protest in Ferguson


With federal investigations into the killing of black American teenager Michael Brown in train, it may be some time before the rage over police officer Darren Wilson’s actions and his exoneration by a grand jury dies down. But when it does, the soul-searching over root causes of this and similar fatalities will need to continue.

Looking beyond the burning issue of whether the United States justice system is inherently racist, many commentaries have already pointed to persistent and growing disparities between blacks and whites (and Hispanics and Asians…) in health, education and employment as one of the deeper causes of friction between the law and black communities. The increasing segregation of black and white America thanks to white flight, and the latter’s consequent lack of understanding of black problems is another.

But there is one crucial issue that is hard to find in the torrent of words over “Ferguson”, and that is the state of the black family. A steady stream of research suggests that much, if not most of what ails black communities can be traced to the disappearance of marriage and fathers from those communities, and the effect on children of being raised by poor, struggling single mothers — in communities where that family type dominates.

But don’t take my word for it. Here is Jacqueline C. Rivers, mother, Harvard graduate, Executive Director of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies, speaking as recently as last week at an international gathering on what the disruption of marriage has meant to American blacks:

Despite the determined pursuit of marital unions by freed people, enduring patterns of non-normative male-female relationships had been created by the devastating experience of slavery. These bore bitter fruit in the 25-percent out-of-wedlock birthrate that prompted the Moynihan Report in 1965. The Moynihan Report was an examination of the pathologies created by the explosion of father-absent households among the black poor in the United States. Though the report recommended the creation of programs that would promote healthy families among impoverished blacks, it elicited an outpouring of outrage at the assertion that stable marriages were necessary for the flourishing of the black community. As a result, little action was taken to rectify these problems. Fifty years later, the out-of-wedlock birthrate among blacks in the United States has soared to over 70 percent, a level at which it has stood for roughly a decade. The material, moral, and spiritual consequences are precisely what Moynihan predicted they would be: devastating for the community.

Michael Brown himself experienced some of this family instability. Although he began life living under one roof with his young mother and father, paternal grandparents and later a younger sister, his parents split up and he stayed with his mother. Before he finished high school his mother moved away and he stayed with his paternal grandmother, also spending time with his parents. At the time of his death he appears to have been staying with friends. Admittedly, his family life seems to have been more integrated than that of many other black youngsters, but its fissures are symptomatic of the larger community problem.

Here is Dr Rivers again:

Black children have suffered the most as a result of the decline of marriage in the black community. The deleterious effects of being raised in single-headed households have been well-documented. Children growing up in female-headed households experience higher rates of poverty. These children underperform in school: they earn lower scores on verbal and math achievement tests and lower grades in their courses. They have more behavioral problems, and higher rates of chronic health and psychiatric disorders. Adolescents and young adults raised without stable families experience elevated risks of teenage childbearing, dropping out of high school, being incarcerated, and being idle (being neither employed nor in school). Yet, even in the midst of this disarray, men and women still long for marriage. Research shows that though marriage has declined among poor women from different racial backgrounds, they, no less than affluent women, desire to be married even as they bear children out of wedlock.

US Attorney General Eric Holder has said that “Ferguson is an opportunity to find those things that bind us as a nation, to be honest with one another about those things that continue to divide us, and to come up with ways in which we make this union even more perfect.”

Arguably, few things divide America — or indeed any Western society — into haves and have-nots so much as the decline of marriage. And few things require more honesty of an era that does not want to face the moral implications of rebuilding a marriage culture.

But unless the outrage and hand-wringing over Michael Brown’s tragic death gives way to a really honest grappling with the causes of black disadvantage, and recognition of the many ways in which children’s lives are blighted by the lack of a stable, intact family, it will all be in vain.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet