There has been a lot of focus on the decline of fatherhood in the black community, as the proportion of black children growing up in single parent (overwhelmingly female headed) households has exploded since the 1960s. Fatherlessness is widely cited as a cause of social pathologies that plague black youth – teen pregnancy, academic failure, joblessness, and epidemic rates of crime and incarceration. This decline has been attributed by politicians and pundits to a culture of poverty -- a poverty of culture really – within the black community. However, what the argument overlooks is that declining fatherhood may itself be a symptom of broader societal and structural factors that have affected the family unit in America as a whole. And because of this missing connection between structural and institutional causes of family decline, the victims of the decline in families may end up taking the blame for factors that are beyond their control. And in that sense they may be victimized twice over.
In a seminal piece entitled “Of Elephants and Men”, psychologist Dr. Wade Horn tells the fascinating story of a game reserve in South Africa’s Krueger National Park, in which juvenile and female elephants were removed in order to thin a herd that had grown beyond the reserve’s capacity to support it. The park was left with mostly male bull elephants. However, a short time later the juvenile elephants who had been transported to another reserve began violently marauding the park, killing several rare white rhinos. This was definitely not elephant-like behavior, and it confounded the reserve’s managers. Ultimately the park rangers decided to import several male bull elephants into the reserve where the errant juveniles were wreaking havoc. Within a few weeks, according to Horn, the juvenile marauding stopped, and the young elephants started to behave more ‘normally.’ The lesson that was extrapolated by Dr. Horn and subsequent commentators was that, as in elephant societies, restoring male role models among fatherless black children in America would have similar effects on reducing juvenile violence and crime.
The biological relationship between elephant social behavior and human juvenile behavior has probably not been sufficiently studied as to draw as many parallels as Dr. Horn and others would like to make. And it goes without saying that comparing black children to wild beasts smacks of an unstated bias that pervades the social sciences and permeates America’s racial consciousness. But even if one were to grant the comparison as valid for purposes of extrapolating human juvenile behavior, the commentators have conveniently ignored the overall structural context in which the elephants’ behavior occurred.