Speaking in Chicago on Father’s Day 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama highlighted the connection between black family breakdown and astronomical rates of black youth violence:
If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that . . . too many fathers . . . are . . . missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. . . . We know that more than half of all black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled—doubled—since we were children. We know the statistics—that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.
Obama’s speech seemed to offer hope that the liberal establishment might finally face the truth about inner-city dysfunction. Now, the Drum Major Institute’s John Petro is demonstrating how premature that hope was. Petro’s rebuttal to my article on Chicago youth violence is a classic example of the denial that for decades has characterized the academic and political response to the catastrophe of black illegitimacy.
Here is a thought experiment for Petro: if you could provide every black child with a social worker or with a father, whom would you choose? The choice, in my view, is clear. Would there be some terrible fathers (as there are everywhere), in the one case, and some absolutely inspirational social workers, in the other? Of course. But a community that relies on fathers to raise children, rather than Petro’s favored “direct social services,” is going to be overwhelmingly more likely to produce law-abiding, successful children than one in which it is normal for boys and men to conceive a child and then disappear. No amount of government programs can compensate for the absence of men in their children’s lives.
Petro distorts my argument to read as follows: “We as a society should not even attempt to muster a collective response to Chicago’s woes.” To the contrary, the most important collective response would be to start valorizing the two-parent family and responsible fathers again. I am hardly the first person to reach this conclusion. Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned presciently in 1965 about the disaster of black family breakdown when the black illegitimacy rate stood at what would today be regarded as a paradisal 23 percent. In response, liberal elites turned Moynihan into a pariah and shut off all discussion of the topic for the next four decades—during which time the national black illegitimacy rate exploded to 71 percent. Nicholas Lemann broke the taboo in 1986, writing in The Atlantic that illegitimacy is “today by far the greatest contributor to the perpetuation of the misery of ghetto life. . . It is the aspect of life in the ghettos over which the people there have the most control, and it will be the last and hardest thing to change.” Unfortunately, Lemann, too, was ignored, and few today echo his argument.
Petro dismisses the relevance of family structure to high rates of youth crime and social disorder on the ground that no one has shown a causal link between growing up in a culture of fatherlessness and the likelihood of becoming a criminal: “Mac Donald’s conclusion has a fatal flaw: there is no evidence that a being born in a single-parent home causes a child to become violent or become a victim of violence (there is evidence that the two are related, but this does not mean that the one causes the other).” While causation in the social sciences is a thorny issue, a growing number of social scientists find the connection between family breakdown and anti-social behavior persuasive.
All of the explanations for black youth violence favored by Petro and other left-wing groups would resoundingly fail his own causal standard. Petro nominates the following “school-based factors” as causes of higher levels of violence: “schools with more students over-age for their grade, a large student body, overcrowding, and less spending per capita on direct social services.” The overcrowded baby boomer schools of the 1950s and 1960s shared all of these traits, except for the first, without producing the mayhem that characterizes the inner-city today.
The remainder of Petro’s commentary consists of non sequiturs and basic failures of reading comprehension. I do not propose data-driven, accountable policing in order “to improve the rate of births out of wedlock,” as Petro claims, but as the most immediate response that government could take to start protecting more lives in Chicago. Petro’s discussion of government-created jobs programs is particularly garbled. He cites my statement that “jobs, whether government-created or not, aren’t likely to make much difference in the culture of illegitimacy” as some sort of “gotcha,” as if he has caught me out disparaging welfare-to-work programs. Like his yoking of illegitimacy and policing, Petro is again mixing apples and oranges. Putting welfare recipients to work was unquestionably the right policy. The sad fact remains, however, that welfare reform has had no effect on the black illegitimacy rate, contrary to the hopes of the architects of that reform. Again, more far-sighted analysts predicted this disappointment. Discussing Harlem in 1965, historian Kenneth Clark wrote: “If all its residents were employed, it would not materially alter the pathology of the community.”
Petro’s favored “collective response” to youth violence—billions in spending on welfare and social workers—has been tried for decades with virtually no positive effect. In Chicago, black juveniles commit 78 percent of all juvenile gun assaults while white juveniles commit under 3 percent—though blacks comprise just 35 percent of the Chicago population and whites 28 percent. Nationally, black males between the ages of 14 and 17 commit homicide at ten times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined. The black victimization rate is nearly as skewed. Ducking the problem of family breakdown, as Petro does, guarantees that such community-destroying violence will continue at the cost of more lost lives.