Father’s Day has taken on special significance this year.
A national conversation on race has boiled up on screens, on paper and in the streets since George Floyd’s death May 25 beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
So has a resurgence in the 55-year-old debate about the troubled status of the African American family.
I can see it in my email inbox. Just as booksellers report a surge in demand for books about race and racism, so have I seen an uptick in emails, either to ask about what Black folks think or to tell me what Black folks should be thinking.
For example, a Wisconsin reader of my column for “a few months,” complained that “never once have I seen you address an obvious core issue with the Black community: nonnuclear families. An unwillingness of Black males to accept the role of head-of-household and the willingness of Black females to let them get away with it.”
He goes on to cite Daniel Patrick Moynihan as having “hit the nail on the head” in his landmark 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” Popularly known as “The Moynihan Report,” it was “as true today as it was when written,” my reader said.
First, let me say welcome to all new readers. Second, I have written quite a bit about the debate that Moynihan, a distinguished sociologist, diplomat and Democratic senator from Massachusetts, touched off. Before he died in 2003, I also had the edifying pleasure of interviewing him a couple of times about the decline in numerous families in the industrial world, not just Black folks.
What is overlooked too often in citations of Moynihan’s report is how much people have focused on the “Negro problem” more than Moynihan’s suggested solutions.
“The evidence — not final, but powerfully persuasive — is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling,” Moynihan wrote in his introduction to the report, which he conducted for the Department of Labor and President Lyndon Johnson. “A middle class group has managed to save itself, but for vast numbers of the unskilled, poorly educated city working class the fabric of conventional social relationships has all but disintegrated.”
But as much as Moynihan shaped decades of debate about race, poverty and family life, it led to more blame shifting than to the constructive action that Moynihan suggests.
Instead of looking only at race for answers to complicated issues like Black family life, we need to look at issues of economic class and a drying up of opportunities that in the past helped people with no more than a high school diploma to achieve upward mobility, also known as the “American Dream.”
In 1965, Moynihan and others were understandably alarmed that 24% of Black infants and 3.1% of white infants were born to single moms. Unfortunately, by 1990, the rate rose to 64% for Black infants and 18% for whites — and continued to climb.
But by 2012, libertarian sociologist Charles Murray’s study of white American families found that the out-of-wedlock birthrate for white Americans was climbing higher than the rate for Blacks that alarmed Moynihan in the mid-1960s.
Why? I tend to favor the explanation offered by William Julius Wilson in his aptly titled “When Work Disappears” in 1996 and “The Truly Disadvantaged” in 1987. He attributes the increase in out-of-wedlock births to a decline in the marriageability of Black men due to a shortage of jobs for less-educated men.
Because I was entering college when Moynihan’s report came out, Wilson’s findings hit home with me. I feel blessed to have had two hardworking, churchgoing parents at home — plus affordable state university tuition and well-paying summer jobs at the local steel mill. We might be poor, Dad used to say, “but we’re rich in spirit.”
But the erosion of good-paying factory jobs and affordable education opportunities has killed the spirit in many families of all colors. That development hit home for me when I read the bestselling Trump-era memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance. He also grew up in Middletown, Ohio, but almost three decades behind me and, as his recounting of family dysfunction details, faced a lot more family challenges than I did.
I later told Vance that his book enlightened me by showing how white families had been left struggling as much as Black families by unemployment, an opioid abuse explosion and other structural changes in my hometown’s economy.
Fortunately for Vance, his grandparents stepped in to help put him on the right path, just when he needed it.
On this Father’s Day, I still don’t know all the answers to the challenges of fatherhood, but I’m glad I had a great dad.