Since its founding in 1865, The Nation has been a home for writers instigating, reporting on and arguing about struggles for social and economic justice. We have held fast to our “Nation Ideals”— from racial justice to feminism, from a fair economy to civil liberties, from environmental sustainability to peace and disarmament—throughout our 150-year history. During our anniversary year, TheNation.com will highlight one Nation Ideal every month or two. We’ll celebrate by asking prominent contemporary Nation voices to read and respond to important pieces from our archive. Below, Dani McClain reflects on a 1989 Nation special issue on “Scapegoating the Black Family.” Learn more about our 150th anniversary events and special content here.
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In February, Jeb Bush’s all-but-declared presidential campaign hit a minor speed bump. His chief technology officer, Ethan Czahor, was fired after Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post brought to light offensive comments and tweets the tech whiz had made over the years, mostly as a college student. Most were nonsensical musings, including advice to rappers to pull up their pants and present themselves more like Martin Luther King Jr. The news item was just what you’d expect as campaign season heats up and candidates scour opposition staffers’ backgrounds for anything that could offend the typical voter. But one item on the list of Czahor’s offenses stood out. As a college radio host in 2008, HuffPost reported, he’d said that “black parents need to get their s@#t together,” arguing that “the majority of newborn black babies belong to single-parent households.”
That this sentiment was cited as a reason the Bush campaign ousted Czahor surprised me. After all, there’s not much controversial about attacking the structure of black families, of which 30 percent are headed by unmarried women, compared to 13 percent of American households overall. Bush and others in the Republican field will likely make similar comments during the primary season, even if more subtly; maybe they’ll take a page from Mitt Romney, who in 2012 said promoting two-parent families could counteract gun violence. Democratic candidates will probably do the same, though they tend to be better at finessing the message. On Father’s Day in 2008, candidate Obama reminded a primarily black congregation in Chicago about the importance of having a father in the home. “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 twenty times more likely to end up in prison,” he said, suggesting that two-parent families are a kind of talisman capable of protecting children from tough lives.
One problem with such claims—from Czahor’s to Romney’s to Obama’s—is a stubborn and unsubstantiated insistence that what’s at play is causation rather than correlation. The assumption is that fatherlessness causes a host of problems, but the reality is much more complex. Research shows that it’s primarily well-educated, financially secure individuals who choose to marry in the first place these days. (And surprise! They tend to marry each other, so class jumping via partnership isn’t much of an option here.) So is it marriage or money that improves quality of life? In 2011, Pew found that 64 percent of Americans with a college degree were married, but fewer than 48 percent of people who’d had some college or less had tied the knot. This class gap didn’t exist in 1960, when 72 percent of US households were headed by a married couple, a historic high. Unfortunately, mainstream discussion of the issue is stuck in that decade. Locating the causes of poverty, low educational attainment and criminal behavior in black families’ inherent dysfunction has been the norm across party lines since Daniel Patrick Moynihan published his 1965 Department of Labor report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” characterizing the black family as exhibiting a “tangle of pathology.” Through a shared desire to balance a critique of structural racism with a call for personal responsibility, liberals and conservatives have been united in looking with exasperation at the black family, which dares to persist even where male breadwinners and wedding vows are in short supply.