The Family Unit: The Real White Privilege

As discussion of racial disharmony and strife in America has been increasingly prevalent, one term we keep hearing is “white privilege.”

Broadly speaking, white privilege refers to any advantage received by a white person by virtue of their race. Christine Emba, writing for the Washington Post, cites the following as evidence of white privilege: “Black children– 4-year-olds! — comprise 18 percent of preschool enrollment but are given nearly nearly 50 percent of all out-of-school suspensions. Job applicants with white-sounding names are 50 percent more likely to get called in for an interview. Black defendants are at least 30 percent more likely to be imprisoned than white defendants for the same crime.”

To be clear, this article is not a refutation of these statistics. The truth is, these statistics seem accurate based off of my personal experience, or at least reflective of the broader truth. The question though, is why?

For many, especially on the Left, the reason is obvious: a combination of institutional racism and white privilege are oppressing minorities, especially blacks, in the United States.

They are right that blacks in this country are getting the short end of the stick, but their simplistic and shortsighted focus on race alone simply does not hold up to scrutiny. Additionally, such a view does not offer any space for solutions other than those that have failed for the past 60 years. But more on that later.

The truth is that the most important reason why black communities are suffering is because of something they lack: the family unit.

Consider this: As of 2014, about 70 percent of births to African-American parents were to single mothers, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On the other hand, only 36 percent of births to a white parent were to single mothers.

The effects of such a stark contrast are profound. According to data from 2012, black single mothers were four times more likely to live in poverty than black married mothers (48 percent vs 12 percent). Is it any wonder therefore that, according to the analysis done of Census data by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the poverty rate in the black community is 24 percent while that of whites is only 9 percent?

Clearly, the incredibly high rate of single-motherhood is having a dramatic impact on the black community.

But with this established we have to figure out why it happened. To do this, we must go back to the 1960s when the trend was beginning. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then the Assistant Secretary of Labor under Lyndon Johnson (though he would later become a long-serving senator from New York), concluded a controversial report on the black family, now commonly called The Moynihan Report. Looking through government data, Moynihan found something strange – the very strong correlation between the black male unemployment rate and the black welfare enrollment rate began to weaken and suddenly flip in the early 60s. Between 1962 and 1964, the black male unemployment rate fell over two percent but welfare enrollment spiked by over 50 thousand.

Realizing what was happening, Moynihan demonstrated in his report that a disturbing, mutually-supporting cycle of weakening black family structure and government dependence was appearing. For example, the report found that between 1953 and 1963, the number of children on welfare doubled from 1.5 to 3 million almost entirely as a result of absent-father families.

Apparently, however, Johnson’s administration didn’t pay much attention to the The Moynihan Report, as by 1968 the Great Society programs had been established. Predictably, the new programs did nothing to combat the disintegration of the black family and only strengthened government dependence.

The unmarried birth rate in 1968, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, was about 30%. This rate exploded over the next 20 years in what was one of the most tragic trends in American history. By 1990, about 70 percent of black children were born to single mothers. This number has remained virtually the same ever since.

Still skeptical of the correlation? Let’s take the example of the Puerto Rican community. Currently, the single mother birth-rate from Hispanics of Mexican, Cuban, and Central/South American descent are all nearly identical at about 50 percent according to CDC data. Puerto Ricans, however, buck this trend, with about 64 percent of babies of Puerto Rican descent being born to single mothers.

So how can we account for this dramatic 14 point difference? On average, about half of non-Puerto Rican Hispanic births were to first generation immigrants. That means that a very large portion are not citizens, and therefore ineligible for benefits in most states. Puerto Ricans, being US citizens from birth, of course have no limits on what benefits they can receive. Clearly this deserves further study, but what this data seems to show is that Puerto Ricans have higher rates of single-motherhood as a consequence of the welfare state. I think it’s also worth mentioning that the poverty rate among Puerto Ricans is a jaw-dropping 46 percent.

The effects of this crisis over that twenty year period were just as dramatic. Violent crime rates between 1960 and 1990 rose from about 100 per 100,000 people to about 750 per 100,000 people according to  statistics from the Department of Justice. It should also be noted that these increases were most prevalent in urban areas.

While crime rates have declined since 1990, however, many things have not changed. A culture of apathy, hopelessness, and dependence continues to flourish in these communities. In the absence of strong, stable families, the post-Civil Rights Era in the black community has been defined by a tragic lack of progress towards full equality, especially equality of opportunity.

To bring this discussion of white privilege and single-motherhood full circle,  would like to talk a bit about my personal experience.

Growing up, I went to school in the Allentown School District, which has been rated by the Center for American Progress as the third most underprivileged school district in the country. Like so many struggling urban school districts, it featured overcrowded classrooms, too few teachers and classes, and learning environments so dysfunctional that there were many days when very little could be learned.

As I began school in kindergarten, it quickly became clear that I was not functioning as well as other students. Well into my first grade year, while other students were learning to read,  I still had not learned the alphabet. Many years later it would be revealed that I had ADHD.

Seeing that I was struggling, my parents took action. After school each day my father would sit me down at the table and ensure that my homework was being done. At night, my mother would wedge me into the corner of the couch so I could not escape, place a book on my lap, and spend hours reviewing the lessons that I had failed to absorb in the classroom that day. This continued for years, and as a result I was able to keep pace with my peers in school. The majority of my classmates did not have this luxury.

All too often, these children would go home to a broken home and never receive any support in their education. Often there was no one at home to ask them how school was, whether their homework was done, and what their grades were. In elementary school, many of these children were (and are) practically alone in the world. If these students struggled, there is no one to help them. So desperate are their situations that when I was only eight years old, some of these students would call me, despite my own issues, for help on homework. And so over time, despite an earnest desire to succeed, they begin to lose hope.

This, my friends, is the real white privilege. Two parents that will move heaven and earth to ensure the success of their child are, as the data shows, frequently the difference between success and failure for children growing up in poverty. That is not to say that a single mother cannot be successful in raising a child, but I think the data makes it abundantly clear that it makes it much harder.

Finally, I realize that the broken family is far from the only problem faced by the black community, but it is at the root of the others. And if we actually want to set about solving problems in this community, we have to start by addressing what set off this era of stagnation and strife: the breakdown of the family.

6 thoughts on “The Family Unit: The Real White Privilege

  1. Inferring from this article, a family unit could be a crucial tool for reducing poverty, unemployment, and welfare enrollment in black households. Unfortunately, it’s not feasible to simply restructure black family households to include present fathers, attentive mothers, or caring relatives. It’s also not ethical to ease welfare-users off of government services in the hopes that they get their acts together. It seems that this difficult situation cannot reverse direction. What are some potential solutions that the government, or the individual, could implement to reduce this tragic fallout?

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    1. I think part of the solution has to start in the schools. As I allude to in my piece, the conditions in some of these schools are deplorable. There aren’t enough teachers, classrooms, books, etc. Also, because these kids often aren’t getting enough attention at home, they can bring severe behavioral issues into the classroom. This makes for an extremely dysfunctional learning environment where students’ attitudinal and academic issues are being reinforced rather than resolved. It will take more than a few more teachers to begin to solve this problem, though. After all, while urban districts often have some of the most dedicated and caring teachers, they simply don’t have the time or resources to double as social workers for 30+ students. Therefore, we also have to do what we can to address the problems at home. This means reforming anti-poverty programs to encourage work and family instead of dependence and apathy. It doesn’t have to be unethical, however. Keep in mind that conservative proposals do not center on simply removing benefits but rather on reforming them. For example, we can allow people to continue receiving benefits even when they’ve past the arbitrary cutoff. All too often,.I’ve seen young friends and coworkers try to work their way out by working 50-60 hours a week in part time jobs and then seeing their benefits get cut off. In many states, this means that they are making less than they were when they were only working 20 hours a week. This is incredibly discouraging for these young people and the natural reaction is to stop trying, which unfortunately is what we see in generation after generation in many of these poor communities.

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      1. I completely agree that this problem can be alleviated with effective schooling. Children spend 12+ years developing into what they’ll provide, or take, from society. If these changes were implemented today, however, it would not benefit society until several decades from now. Why do you think black ‘fathers’ are failing to step into the family unit? It seems that perhaps, if black mothers weren’t raising their children alone, we could have more immediate results.

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      2. I think the problem is cultural, but as I think the data shows, it’s a cultural problem that exists as a consequence of government action. Essentially what happened is that the early version of welfare made the father obsolete as a caregiver back in the 60s. Over time this became more ingrained in society and now you have a situation in which the culture places no expectation upon the father to say and care for the child. In fact, I think you could argue that it does the opposite. And now we’re at a point where you have millions of young men who never knew their fathers, got very little support or attention at home, received terrible educations, and as a result they don’t know how to be fathers. I think the first step, though, is to help them to become successful in their own lives. After all, if one is failing to have any positive impact in one’s own life, they are unlikely to have a positive impact on the life of their child. We can do this by following the example of private charities like the Doe Fund, which focus on giving work to homeless men and women who are eager to improve their condition. The results are very encouraging: these people learn to find value in the work they do and consequently in their own lives. They also report that after graduating from the program, they have much stronger relationships with their children and the mothers of those children. I think we can do this by either providing funds to charities with this kind of model or copying the model in our own programs. The bottom line, though, is that this is a problem that has taken decades to reach the point it has, and it’s going to take awhile to effectively address.

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