Why Liberal Professors Won’t Discuss Black Family Formation
In the 1960s, many liberals labeled references to behavioral explanations as “blaming the victims.” In the early 1980s, however, some liberal voices, most prominently William Julius Wilson, pointed to adverse behavioral traits as important impediments to black advancement. When central-city crime rates increased, the “culture of poverty” narrative was rehabilitated. It provided liberal support for reforms to eliminate “welfare dependency” and policing policies to combat high crime rates in black neighborhoods.
Even after the new millennium began, some liberals continued to accept the narrative that female-headed households had adverse outcomes. They participated in the liberal-funded Fragile Family Studies and some were even supportive of President George W. Bush’s marriage promotion initiatives. In addition, liberal voices, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, could still point critically to the violent culture of a cohort of black youth, and others, including Cora Daniels, could stress the irresponsible spending habits of many poor black mothers.
What changed so that it has become virtually impossible in academic settings to link adverse black behavioral traits to racial disparities? Why was a recent study on family policies that grew out of an unprecedented collective effort between the Brookings Institute and American Enterprise Institute virtually ignored by the liberal press? Part of the answer has been the effect of Kathryn Edin’s efforts to rehabilitate the image of black men. From the interviews she conducted, we learned that these men wanted to have loving families but the brutal, racist system they endured robbed them of the opportunity to be caring fathers.
Aiding the transformation of black men from sometimes victimizers to always victims has been the way police actions are now perceived. Despite the annual number of police killings of unarmed black Americans dropping below twenty, they continue to be used to verify systematic racial oppression. By contrast, despite the robust increase in employment rates of young black men, the black homicide rate has increased substantially. Two decades earlier, this increased murder rate would have led at least some liberals to point to a violent black subculture. In today’s political climate, however, the standard explanation reflects the views of Edin’s fathers: hopelessness rooted in a racist, white supremacist society.
Adding to this narrative is the desire of college professors to sympathize with their black students. Increasingly, especially at elite universities, faculty are counseled that it is important to make the college a welcoming environment for black students, many of whom have backgrounds that create difficult adjustments. In addition, black student leaders and black professors have often made it clear that they will only accept narratives that center exclusively on racial victimization.
Finally, there is a strong liberal belief that it is impossible to change black family formation decisions. In this case, there is no upside to presenting statistics which demonstrate that, on average, single parenting is associated with adverse outcomes. At best, it would make black students feel bad and, at worst, it would reinforce among white Americans that persistent racial disparities are the result of black inadequacies. Thus, we must accept that black women will have children without marriage and that many will have them with sequential partners.
However, this stance has been proven wrong with respect to teen pregnancy. For years, many liberals argued that teen birth rates were driven by a “culture of despair.” The unchanging hopelessness, we were told, leads young black women to choose motherhood as a means of gaining happiness. According to this thesis, public policies can do little to change these dynamics so we should adapt to this reality.
The Great Recession should have, if anything, increased teen births, but instead, there was a very sharp decline. My research has shown that teen female employment rates were positively correlated with teen birth rates in weak labor market areas. If poor young women wanted to obtain substantial child credits and earned income tax credits they must work. As a result, employment growth in 2005 and 2006 was associated with teen birth rates increases while employment declines during the Great Recession were associated with teen birth rate declines. In addition, there is some evidence that the television show “16 and Pregnant” induced greater use of contraceptives among low-income teens. Thus, economic factors, together with information presented in a receptive manner, led to substantial behavioral changes.
The experience with teen birth rates leads me to be cautiously optimistic that important changes in the black family structure are possible. Improving the employment rates of black men, particularly through an emphasis in occupation training, should modestly improve fatherhood. In addition, many means-tested programs, like the earned income tax credit, child care subsidies, and Section 8 housing vouchers are based on family income, which creates a large marriage penalty for a significant share of working single mothers. Reducing substantially these financial penalties would also make marriage more likely. Given the adverse consequences of the current situation for too many black children, these policies are well worth pursuing.
Robert Cherry is Stern Professor at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.