A Family Affair

The crisis of the black family is a crisis for all Americans

Last year, I was asked by Hillsdale College to participate in their online symposium “Race in America: History and Controversies.” I prepared a talk about the black family that gave me the opportunity to outline the complex relationship between what goes on in black families and the larger social fabric in which those families are embedded. My ideas about these matters go all the way back to the economic theories I outlined in my doctoral dissertation at MIT, particularly the notion of “social capital.”

I describe that theory below, but to me the problem comes down to this: Until we recognize that many (though not all) of the economic problems in black communities originate in the social relationships fostered within the family unit, we’re not going to be able to make much headway in solving those problems. And make no mistake, the black family is in crisis. But simply saying that “those people” need to get their acts together and change their behavior is not a sufficient response to the problem. We need to stop thinking of black families who need help as “them” and start thinking of them as what they are: Us. The crisis of the black family is an American crisis. When we abandon black families by offering stern rebukes in place of real solutions, we’re not abandoning “them,” we’re abandoning ourselves.

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Hello, my name is Glenn Loury. I'm the Merton Stoltz professor of the Social Sciences at Brown University and professor of economics there, and I've been writing for many years about the issues of race and inequality in the United States. I'm here to talk about race in America, with particular emphasis on the black family. I just want to share with you some thoughts that I prepared for this occasion. I want to talk about the fact of historical African American subordination. I want to say what it means for American citizenship, and I want to consider some possible solutions to this longstanding dilemma.

The priority of social relations before economic transactions is my theme. But don't worry, I'll not be masquerading as a sociologist or a political theorist. Rather, I'm going draw on my many years of study as an economist and a public intellectual to briefly make two observations and then draw some conclusions. One about the dynamics of human development and the other about the foundations of racial identity. I will bring this back to the theme of the black family in conclusion.

Now, why, I ask, the success of the Civil Rights Movement not withstanding, has the subordinate status of African Americans persisted in the twenty-first century? Clear thinking about this intractable problem requires one to distinguish the role played by discrimination against black people from the role of counterproductive patterns of behavior that can be found within African American society.

Now, I admit that this puts what is a very sensitive issue rather starkly. Many vocal advocates of racial equality refuse even to consider the possibility that problematic behavior could be an important factor contributing to the persisting disadvantage of blacks. At the same time, some observers on the right of American politics insist that anti-black discrimination is no longer an important determinant of unequal social outcomes. I've tried to chart a middle course acknowledging anti-black biases that should be remedied, but insisting on the imperative of addressing and reversing the behavior patterns preventing some blacks from seizing newly opened opportunities. Among these behavior patterns are going to be the interactions between men and women within the context of family formation, childbearing, and child rearing.

This is an explosive topic in American political culture. I can remember within my own lifetime when Daniel Patrick Moynihan's report was first issued in 1965, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, he called it. He argued then, with 25% of black children being born to a woman without a husband, that this problem was going to stand as a fundamental barrier to black progress. And indeed, if it weren't somehow dealt with might prevent the fruit of the Civil Rights Movement’s successes from being enjoyed fully by African Americans and by the country.

He was pilloried for daring to raise the question as a white man. And since then, a political discussion about this question has been stifled and truncated. People have been wary to raise the issues and to talk about these themes. They don't want to be accused of blaming the victim. They don't want to seem to be judgmental. They don't want to be imposing a moral calculus on the lives of people, especially people who have been victimized by discrimination and who may be plagued by poverty.

This, I think, is a mistake. What was 25% when Moynihan was issuing his call to arms over a half century ago is 70% now. The African American family, one could say, is in deep trouble. Again, there will be pushback. People will say, “Why do you judge family by a single norm?” They will say, “It takes a village to raise a child. Why should we think in terms of patriarchy and in terms of the nuclear family as the only model?”

I don't want to waste my time with those arguments. I simply want to call attention to the needs of young people that have stable social foundations within the context of which they can mature and realize their human potential. And I want to say that a mother and father raising children is a sounder foundation to that end than a mother raising those children alone. I'll have more to say about that in due course.

But let me return to the framework that I want to try to elaborate for you by discussing those two observations. These two positions can be recast as causal narratives. One I'm going to call the bias narrative. Racism and white supremacy have done us wrong. We can't get ahead until they relent, so we must continue urging reform on American society toward that end. The other narrative I'm going to call the development narrative. Emphasizing the need to consider how people come to acquire those skills, traits, habits, and orientations that foster an individual's successful participation in American society. To the extent that black youngsters do not have the experiences, are not exposed to the influences, and do not benefit from the resources that foster and facilitate their human development to that extent, they may fail to achieve their full potential. It is this lack of development that ultimately causes the stark racial disparities in income, wealth, education, and much else to persist, so goes the development narrative.

So we have two narratives: the bias narrative and the development narrative. We have two basic approaches to the problem of persisting racial inequality: To assume that it's the consequences of discrimination or to understand it, at least in part, as the result of the failure of many African Americans to realize their full human potential. I want to emphasize this latter narrative as being more relevant to our present day. And I want to call attention to the role of the family as a part of the larger developmental matrix which either fosters or impedes the potential for achievement for black people in America.

These two narratives, of course, need not be mutually exclusive. But in terms of prescribing interventions and remedies, they point in very different directions. The bias narrative urges us to, well, to have a conversation about race. White America must reform itself. Racism must end. We need more of this or more of that, whatever the this or the that is on the agenda of today's social justice warriors. One can hear this kind of talk and read these exhortations in newspapers and other media daily. The development narrative, alternatively, puts more onus on the responsibilities of African Americans to develop our human potential. Not on our own to be sure, not without the support and the assistance of whatever social programs the society should decide are justified. But nevertheless, ultimately, the responsibility for raising one's children into maturity rests on the parents of those children first and foremost.

The development narrative is not satisfied with wishful thinking, like, “If we could only double the budget for some social program, then the homicide rate among young black men would be less atrocious,” or, “If we could just get the local police department investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice, then...” “Then what?” the development narrative wants to ask. Then it will become possible to walk on the South Side of Chicago after midnight? I am one social scientist who finds that to be an extremely dubious claim.

So, what are my two observations? Over four decades ago in my doctoral dissertation at MIT, I had the good fortune to coin the term “social capital.” I did so by way of contrasting my concept, social capital, with what economists then traditionally called human capital. As you may know, human capital theory imports into the study of human inequality an intellectual framework which had been developed primarily to explain investment decisions by firms, a framework that focuses on the analysis of formal economic transactions. In my thesis, I argued that this framework was inadequate to the problem of accounting for social inequality.

Please, allow me to explain. My fundamental point was that associating business and human investments is merely an analogy, not an identity, particularly if one seeks to explain persistent racial disparities. Business investments are transactional. Human investments are essentially relational. So important things are overlooked in the human capital approach, things having to do with informal social relations, such as those which occur inside of families. Human capital theory is incomplete when it comes to explaining racial disparities, I argued. There are two central aspects of this incompleteness and thus my two observations about the dynamics of human development and the nature of racial identity. Permit me to explain.

First, I stress that all human development is socially situated and mediated. That is, I argued that the development of human beings occurs inside of social institutions. It takes place as between people by way of human interaction. The family, the community, the school, the peer group: These cultural institutions of human association are where development is achieved, resources essential to human development. The attention that a parent gives to her child, for instance, is not alienable. Developmental resources, for the most part, are not commodities. The development of human beings is, largely, not up for sale. Rather, structured connections between individuals create the context within which developmental resources come to be allocated to individual persons.


I ask you to forgive me. I speak like an economist. I talk about resources and I talk about allocations. I can't help myself. I am an economist. But bear with me because these categories are, I think, useful as a conceptual framework for talking about the problem of inequality, which is what I am intending to talk about here today. Opportunity travels along the synapses of social networks. The development of human beings is not the same as corporate investment, and so it need not be a good metaphor or a good analogy to reason as though this were so. People are not machines. Their productivities, that is to say, the behavioral and cognitive capacities bearing on their social and economic function, these things are not merely the result of a mechanical infusion of material resources. Redistributing money doesn't necessarily fix the problem when these things are in deficit.

Rather, the capacities to develop human beings are the byproducts of social processes that are mediated by networks of human affiliation and connectivity. This was fundamentally important, I thought and still think, for understanding persistent racial disparities in America. And that's why I coined the term social capital, in order to emphasize the difference between the benefits to human development that flow from social connectivity and those benefits that flow from monetary resources. That's the first point that I wanted to make all those years ago about the incompleteness of human capital theory.

Now, my second observation was that what we are calling race in America is mainly a social and only indirectly a biological phenomenon. Mind you now, I'm talking about racial inequality in America and the black family. So I'm talking about inequality and I'm talking about race. My first observation was an observation about inequality. Inequality in human development because of the way that social networks either do or do not deliver the relations that are necessary in order for people to flourish and reach their potential. Now I want to talk about race. And in America, that is not only, but it is substantially in our history, a matter of black and white. And so, as I go forward, I will talk about race in somewhat binary terms, which is not entirely descriptive of the complex demographic landscape that we inhabit here in the twenty-first century in the United States of America, but which should be a useful starting point for thinking about the problem of racial inequality and persisting black disadvantage, which is the subject of this lecture.

So my second observation was that what we're calling race in America is mainly a social and only indirectly a biological phenomenon. The persistence across generations of racial differentiation between large groups of people in an open society where individuals live in close proximity to one another provides irrefutable indirect evidence of a profound separation between the racially defined social networks of affiliation within that society.

That was a somewhat complicated sentence, so let me try to put it more directly. There would be no races in the steady state of any dynamic social system unless, on a daily basis and in regard to their most intimate affairs, people paid very close attention to the boundaries that separate themselves from racially distinct others. Over time, that is, “race” would cease to exist unless people chose to act in a manner so as biologically to reproduce the variety of phenotypic expression that constitutes the subject of racial distinction. Again, a complex sentence packed with ideas that are important to the subject of our discussion here right now.

I can't overemphasize the point I'm trying to make at this moment. What we're calling race is not something that is given in nature. Rather, it is a social product. It's an equilibrium outcome. It's something that we, collectively, within the society are making and remaking over time. It is, as we economists like to say, an endogenous outcome. It follows that if the goal is to understand the roots of durable racial inequality, one needs to attend, in some detail, to the processes that cause race to persist as a fact in the society under study, because those processes, almost certainly, will not be unrelated to the allocation of developmental resources in that society. Again, I need to apologize for being an economist. I'm talking about the allocation of developmental resources. My first point was that that depends on how people are located relative to each other within social networks. It depends upon relations. But I'm also talking about racial inequality. And my second observation is that depends on how people in that society behave in terms of their most intimate social relations with one another, because without mating patterns that are largely within racial groups, the very fact of distinct races within the society would fade away and wither away over time. So those are the two observations that I want to make as a foundation for carrying forward my argument about the black family.

Here then is my second observation in a nutshell. The creation and reproduction of race, as a social reality in any society, rests on cultural conceptions about identity that are embraced by people, blacks and whites alike, in that society. These are the convictions people affirm about who they are and about the legitimacy of conducting intimate relations with racially distinct others. And here I do not only mean sexual relations. My impulse to contrast human and social capital all those years ago was rooted in my conviction that beliefs of this kind ultimately determine the access that people enjoy to the informal resources required to develop their human potential. What I called social capital in 1976 was, on this view, a critical prerequisite for creating what economists typically refer to as human capital. This point, again, is crucial if we're to understand the persistence of racial inequality in America.

“But what,” you're going to ask yourselves, “has this to do with the black family?” Well, perhaps that connection is becoming clear. Because the black family is the context within which African Americans are situated, especially in the earliest years of life and where these dynamics of human development are playing out for better or for ill. Historically oppressed groups, time and again, have evolved notions of identity that cut against the grain of their society's mainstream. A culture can develop among them that inhibits talented youngsters from taking the actions needed to develop their talent.

Now, given such a situation, I want to ask, do the kids in dysfunctional peer groups or from families that are poorly structured simply have the wrong utility functions, or do those communities simply have the wrong values? Now, I want to hold that it's a mistake to attribute the dysfunctional behavior of a historically oppressed group to their simply having the wrong preferences when those preferences have emerged from a set of historical experiences that reflect the largest society structures and activities. It's a mistake to simply blame the victim. On the other hand, it's also a mistake to ignore patterns of behavior within population groups that may inhibit their ability to take full advantage of the opportunities that are present in their society. You can make a mistake in blaming the victim and you can make a mistake in looking away from the role that the “victim” might play in his or her own bad situation.

Another way of saying this is that social relations come before economic transactions. When ethnic communities and their local cultures are not integrated across boundaries of race in a society, then racial inequality can persist, notwithstanding the enactment and effective enforcement of laws against discrimination. The persistence of racial disparities derives not simply from discrimination, but more fundamentally from the complex, morally ambiguous, and difficult-to-regulate phenomena that embody and reflect what people see as the meanings giving significance to their lives and from the structure of the social connectivity to which those meanings give rise.

All of this leads me to an important conclusion. Namely, how a diverse society answers the question “Who are we?” is a fundamentally significant issue. Who are we? Whose country is it? When we talk about crime, violence, school failure, urban decay, or family life for that matter, are these matters in the back of our mind that we understand as “us and them”? Because if it's us against them, anything is possible. It becomes possible, for example, to say about those people languishing in the ghettos of our great cities, “That's not my country. That's not me. Those aren't my people. That's some third world thing” or whatever.

I mention this because we're talking about family life. We're talking about intimate personal relations. I'm arguing that inequality, to some degree, is the consequence of a failure or a dysfunction in the family lives of black people. I'm a black person myself. I don't take any pleasure in making this argument. I feel compelled to make it. But in doing so, I don't want to join a chorus of critics who stand on the outside and point fingers at “those people” and talk about their deficiencies. I don't want to be a hypocritical moralist who wags my finger in their faces and tells them that they should live “better.”

But I do want to be a realist. I don't want to look away from the consequences of the way in which many of them are, as a matter of fact, living. In doing so, however, I don't want to give license to those who want to wipe their hands of the matter, turn their backs on these people who need our help, and simply go on about their business. And so, that's why I ask the question, “Who are we here in America?”

My point is that these problems, including the problems of African American family life, are quintessentially an American affair not simply a measure of the inadequacy of black culture. They reflect upon our social inadequacy, I wish to argue. And by “our,” I mean all of us. For example, much of the decline in the structure of African American family—I say decline because I mean the rise of out of wedlock birth and the decline in the prevalence of husband-wife households—much of that decline, I think, can be laid at the feet of the consequences of American welfare policy which has created incentives for family dissolution. Much of it, I think, could be laid at the feet of drifts in American culture in which the virtues of monogamous and husband-wife families has declined amongst all groups, reflected in the popular media and so forth. Black people in the United States are not on an island. They live integrated within the larger social fabric. And so, patterns of behavior that we see among them are not simply “on them,” they are also, to some degree, on us. This is what I mean when being an economist, I nevertheless insist on placing relations before transactions. What I'm talking about now, in other words, is the American story, not just the black American story.

Let me conclude. Consider the poor central city dwellers who now make up maybe a quarter of the black American population. The dysfunctional behavior of many in this population is a big part of the problem here. So, conservatives’ demand for greater personal responsibility in these quarters is necessary and proper. And yet, confronted with the despair, violence, and self-destructive folly of so many people, it is morally and intellectually superficial in the extreme to argue, as many have done, that “those people” should just get their acts together like many other poor immigrants. If they did, we wouldn't have such a horrific problem in our cities. To the contrary, I would say, any morally astute response to the social pathology of American history's losers should conclude that, while we cannot change our ignoble past, we need not and must not be indifferent to the contemporary consequences of it. Their culture may be implicated in their difficulties. But then so too, is our culture complicit in their troubles.

We, and I mean all Americans, bear collective responsibility for the form and the texture of our society's social relations, and racial discrimination and racial segregation is a part of that structure and texture. It is also a part of the foundation for a racial inequality in the country. I am not talking here out of both sides of my mouth. I insist on recognizing the importance of the family, acknowledging the decline of structure of family amongst African Americans, and owning the consequences of that decline in terms of its contribution to racial inequality.

But I'm also not a moral infant. I know that having recognized those social connections and the role that they play in persisting inequality, I have not solved the problem of what is the right thing to do for the society as a whole. We need to support stronger African American families. We need to provide the kind of support that people need in order to be able to do their duty and fulfill their responsibilities in raising their children. But we need also to insist without equivocation that responsible parenting is the foundation for prosperity in any society, including in this one. And that responsible African American parenting is an absolute essential prerequisite for narrowing and ultimately eliminating the racial inequality gap in America.

Thank you.

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