Robert Cherry is professor emeritus at Brooklyn College, a City Journal contributor, and author of The State of the Black Family: Sixty Years of Tragedies and Failures—and New Initiatives Offering Hope. He spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly.
In brief, what is the state of the black family in America? And how have your views changed over the years?
Forty years ago, I saw a great deal of resilience in the black family and believed that racist barriers were the overwhelming reason for the difficulties they faced. When I started researching my book on welfare reform, however, it became clear that internal dynamics existed that were significant obstacles that had to be overcome. I applauded the ability of black mothers to move ahead but was deeply troubled by the growth of multi-partner fertility—women having children sequentially with different partners—as it created serious problems for children.
These dynamics have led me to believe that improving black parenting is crucial. Initiatives that might help in this include Visiting Nurses programs that provide not only parenting guidance but also advice that enables single mothers to make better personal choices. This can be followed by programs like Parents as Teachers, which help parents prepare their children for schooling; and then charter schools, which further guide mothers to be the parents they desire to be. Indeed, given the state of traditional public schools in many urban areas, government restrictions on charter expansions should be fought.
In Chapter 2, you note that the push for equal outcomes, as opposed to equal opportunity, isn’t just misguided but also has adverse consequences. What are those consequences?
President Obama rose to prominence with his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that promoted equality of opportunity as the vehicle for black success. The rejection of equal opportunity has undermined traditional notions of merit, rejecting anything that results in racial disparities. This approach replaces merit-based admissions to competitive programs with lotteries; it eliminates any educational placements that are racially disparate, even if that holds back better-prepared black students and places weakly prepared ones in vulnerable situations. And when white and Asian parents complain about such measures, they find themselves dismissed as racists.
What, if anything, does the Left generally get right in its assessment of the causes of persisting relative racial gaps?
Many leftist criminal-justice reforms had correct elements. Bail was excessive, in my view; as late as a decade ago, half of those incarcerated pending trial in New York City’s Rikers Island were there on misdemeanor charges. However, considering all black youths as victims led liberals to overreach by allowing too many violent offenders to skirt justice and over-decriminalizing illegal and anti-social behaviors, including rejecting the arrest of black youth who possess guns.
Similarly, progressives were correct to propose including social workers when dealing with those with mental illness and violence-disruptors to aid in reducing gun violence. However, liberals’ animus toward the police led them to reject coordinated police efforts with community groups. When operating independent of police, social work and community efforts are not nearly as effective as they could be.
Leftists are also correct that hiring decisions are sometimes influenced by relying on group stereotypes; but they’re wrong to rely on lowering standards to fulfill equity goals.
What should government be doing to improve conditions for black families?
Crucial to moving forward is combatting gun violence. As Patrick Sharkey has documented, such violence of course takes lives, but it also traumatizes neighborhood youth, creating harmful emotional and educational effects. Its everyday presence in certain neighborhoods leads more youth to adopt aggressive behaviors that bring other bad outcomes, including dismal educational performance. Ignoring the cultural causes of misbehaviors and blaming teachers and administrators, leftists mischaracterize these dynamics as a school-to-prison pipeline.
Reducing gun violence requires law enforcement to build strong liaisons with the community and develop a service-oriented officer corps. It means identifying and isolating the subset of violence-prone individuals. Thomas Abt’s work has focused on deterrence: bringing law enforcement together with community members and social-services providers to offer both a legal warning and community resources to high-risk youth.
Second, too many 16-year-olds lack the academic skills necessary for college programs after high school. Under the tyranny of the four-year, college-for-all goal, they enter academic settings in which they fail, with many ending up in the disconnected population: neither in school nor gainfully employed. These students need effective occupational programs to put them on the road to the middle class.
For many, this means beginning with short-term certificate programs that provide the credentials necessary for entry-level employment; credentials that often provide the first taste of educational success and a steppingstone to advancement. Government should allow these programs to qualify for Pell Grants, putting them on an equal footing with more academic endeavors.
Finally, there should be a focus on expanding housing in struggling neighborhoods rather than on policies that enable only a sliver of poor residents to move out. Warren Buffett’s Purpose Built communities offer one model, and there are others.
What are you reading currently?
I’m reading Ian Rowe’s Agency: The Four Point Plan (F.R.E.E.) for ALL Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power, Patrick Sharkey’s Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence, Thomas Abt’s Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence—and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets, and Naomi Schaefer Riley’s No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.