Fifty years ago, a young scholar at the Department of Labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, wrote The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. “The racist virus in the American blood stream,” he said, “still afflicts us,” and “the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling.” Mr. Moynihan had discovered that nearly a quarter of African-American births were “illegitimate.” Only a minority of African-American children who were 18 at that time had lived all their lives with both parents.
Mr. Moynihan’s report was misunderstood by both the left and the right. Some found it offensive to African-Americans and defended the one-parent family, arguing the “new family” was not necessarily limited to married men and women. Today’s intellectuals, shocked by civil disorder in Ferguson and Baltimore, have rediscovered the truth of Moynihan’s main point: troubled neighborhoods filled with jobless men and broken families are incubators of hopelessness.
The numbers have only grown worse since Mr. Moynihan raised hackles in 1965. According to the Urban Institute, the number of African-American children born to unmarried mothers has tripled since the report. Now nearly three quarters of African-American births and three tenths of white births occur outside marriage. Children who grow up in families headed by single women are more likely to do poorly in school and drop out, to be arrested and to become single parents themselves.
The Russell Sage Foundation reports African-American men between 25 to 54 are effectively “missing” because of homicide—over 90 percent of the victims are murdered by other African-American men—or because of the nation’s vast social experiment with mass incarceration. Almost one in 12 African-American men is behind bars. The number for white men is one in 60.
Many will review today’s urban conditions and, citing Moynihan, declare that it is an interventionist government weakening families that leads to continuing dysfunction; others, also citing Moynihan, will argue that only a comprehensive government response can shore up both families and communities. The truth is that strong families make better futures for children, but so do strong communities—communities where people have educational and job opportunities that allow them to escape cycles of poverty, communities where police truly come to protect and serve and are not perceived as a hostile occupying force.
Young men in Baltimore describe life as a constant running from police and the city itself as a “Murder Land” they want to leave. They join gangs to escape loneliness, make friends and even experience love. President Obama, in a discussion with African-American and Hispanic students at Lehman College in the Bronx, poignantly asked, “‘Do we love these kids?’”
It is a fair question, especially as crises within African-American neighborhoods continue to be discussed as if they were something happening somehow elsewhere. To speak of “two Baltimores” or “white communities” and “African-American communities” may focus analysis in sociological studies like Mr. Moynihan’s and speak a regrettable truth about continuing U.S. segregation, but it is fatal to the solidarity Christians are called to embrace. There is no crisis in “their” community in Baltimore that is not a crisis for “our” community. If African-American families are being broken down by poverty, by inadequate educational opportunity, by inequities in the application of the law and in criminal sentencing, by police brutality and “black on black” violence, that is a crisis that needs to be raised up in compassion and concern before the whole community. It should provoke a call to action that is not undermined by ideologies and rhetoric that belittle communal obligations.
Mr. Moynihan eventually tried to answer the urban crisis in his time with New Deal-inspired policies aimed at full employment and even proposed a minimum family wage to end poverty once and for all. How should the nation respond now? A comprehensive review of police policies and procedures and efforts to equalize educational opportunity make a good start. And creative consideration of ways to free the nation’s incarcerated men, captives of shortsighted policies of the past, are surely welcome.
Urban churches should embrace this crisis as an opportunity to renew their identities as opponents of racism and companions of the poor, with a theology of the family to guide their thinking. Mr. Moynihan would no doubt have welcomed the words of Baltimore’s Archbishop William Lori. Freddie Gray’s death, the archbishop said, “symbolized the rawest of open wounds, and the only salve that will heal them is that of truth: truth about what happened to Freddie, truth about the sin of racism that is still present in our community, and truth about our collective responsibility to deal with those issues that undermine the human dignity of every citizen.”