According to the modern-day civil-rights establishment, most of the problems that currently afflict African Americans result directly from the intractable white racism that allegedly continues to plague blacks in every region of the country -- across all age groups, all educational levels, and all income brackets. This civil-rights elite largely ignores the role of issues within the black community, such as the calamitous breakdown of the black family since the 1960s, in framing its critique.
Economics professor Walter E. Williams writes: "According to the 1938 Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, that year 11 percent of black children and 3 percent of white children were born to unwed mothers." In mid-1960s America, the nation's out-of-wedlock birth rate (which stood at 7.7 percent at the time) began a rapid and relentless climb across all demographic lines, a climb that would continue unabated until 1994, when the Welfare Reform Act helped put the brakes on that trend. Today the overall American illegitimacy rate is about 40.7 percent (29.1 percent for non-Hispanic whites). For blacks, it is about 72 percent—approximately three times the level of black illegitimacy that existed when the War on Poverty began in 1964.
Illegitimacy is an important issue because it has a great influence on all statistical indicators of a population group’s progress or decline. In 1987, for the first time in the history of any American racial or ethnic group, the birth rate for unmarried black women surpassed that for married black women, and that trend continued uninterrupted until the passage of welfare reform. The black out-of-wedlock birth rates in some inner cities now exceed 80 percent, and most of those mothers are teens. Because unmarried teenage mothers—whatever their race—typically have no steady employment, nearly 80 percent of them apply for welfare benefits within five years after giving birth to their first child. No group can withstand such a wholesale collapse of its family structure without experiencing devastating social consequences.
Father-absent families—black and white alike—generally occupy the bottom rung of our society’s economic ladder. Unwed mothers, regardless of their race, are four times more likely to live in poverty than the average American. Female-headed black families earn only 36 percent as much as two-parent black families, and female-headed white families earn just 46 percent as much as two-parent white families. Not only do unmarried mothers tend to earn relatively little, but their households are obviously limited to a single breadwinner—thus further widening the income gap between one-parent and two-parent families. Fully 85 percent of all black children in poverty live in single-parent, mother-child homes.
While the overall black poverty rate remains about two-and-a-half times higher than the white poverty rate (24 percent vs. 10 percent), the “face” of black poverty has changed dramatically in recent decades. At one time, almost all black families were poor, regardless of whether one or both parents were present. Today, however, two-parent black families are rarely poor. Among black families where both the husband and wife work full-time, the current poverty rate is a mere 2 percent. Moreover, the relatively small (13 percent) income disparity between black and white two-parent families completely disappears when we take into account such factors as occupational choices, educational attainment, age, geographic location, and comparative skills.
Children in single-parent households are raised not only with economic, but also social and psychological, disadvantages. For instance, they are four times as likely as children from intact families to be abused or neglected; much likelier to have trouble academically; twice as prone to drop out of school; three times more likely to have behavioral problems; much more apt to experience emotional disorders; far likelier to have a weak sense right and wrong; significantly less able to delay gratification and to control their violent or sexual impulses; two-and-a-half times likelier to be sexually active as teens; approximately twice as likely to conceive children out-of-wedlock when they are teens or young adults; and three times likelier to be on welfare when they reach adulthood.
In addition, growing up without a father is a far better forecaster of a boy’s future criminality than either race or poverty. Regardless of race, 70 percent of all young people in state reform institutions were raised in fatherless homes, as were 60 percent of rapists, 72 percent of adolescent murderers, and 70 percent of long-term prison inmates. As Heritage Foundation scholar Robert Rector has noted, “Illegitimacy is a major factor in America's crime problem. Lack of married parents, rather than race or poverty, is the principal factor in the crime rate.”
Since the black illegitimacy rate is so high, these pathologies plague blacks more than they affect any other demographic. “Even if white people were to become morally rejuvenated tomorrow,” writes black economist and professor Walter E. Williams, “it would do nothing for the problems plaguing a large segment of the black community. Illegitimacy, family breakdown, crime, and fraudulent education are devastating problems, but they are not civil rights problems.”
The civil-rights establishment, however, paints a very different picture, characterizing such problems as nothing more than by-products of white racism. That view, through decades of constant repetition, has won the minds of many black Americans. “Instead of admitting that racism has declined,” observes Shelby Steele, “we [blacks] argue all the harder that it is still alive and more insidious than ever. We hold race up to shield us from what we do not want to see in ourselves.”
It bears mention that the astronomical illegitimacy rate among African Americans is a relatively recent phenomenon. As late as 1950, black women nationwide were more likely to be married than white women, and only 9 percent of black families with children were headed by a single parent. In the 1950s, black children had a 52 percent chance of living with both their biological parents until age seventeen; by the 1980s those odds had dwindled to a mere 6 percent. In 1959, only 2 percent of black children were reared in households in which the mother never married; today that figure approaches 60 percent.
The destruction of this stable black family was set in motion by the policies and teachings of the left, which for decades have encouraged blacks to view themselves as outcasts from a hostile American society; to identify themselves as perpetual victims who are entitled to compensatory privileges designed to “level the playing field” in a land where discrimination would otherwise run rampant; and to reject “white” norms and traditions as part and parcel of the “racist” culture that allegedly despises blacks. It is not inconceivable that one of those traditions which many blacks have chosen to abjure is the institution of marriage. In their landmark book America in Black and White, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom make this profoundly important observation:
“In the past three decades the proportion of intact married-couple families has declined precipitously even though the fraction of black women aged fifteen to forty-four who were divorced, separated, or widowed also went down.… It is thus not divorce but the failure to marry that has led to such a momentous change in black family patterns. The marriage rate for African Americans has plummeted in the past third of a century. In 1960 … [b]lack women were only a shade less likely to marry than white women.... Today a clear majority of African American women aged fifteen to forty-five have never been married, as compared with just a third of their white counterparts…. Many fewer black women are marrying, and yet they continue to have children—which was not the case in an earlier era.”