Family Goes Boom, Community Goes Boom

Posted: Jun 15, 2004 12:00 AM

Our parents are our early models of God. Their unconditional love teaches a child about the world around him, about emotional needs, about basic values and norms. From such interactions,  a child's personality is formed.

The breakdown of the nuclear family is a matter of concern for all of us.  The Boston Globe reported a few years ago that 64% of American households are made up of single parents. The skyrocketing rate of divorce and custody disputes in our country is having a devastating effect on our society. Broken homes are eroding the quality of interactions between families and children and fueling an increase in domestic assault, welfare services, poverty, crime, depression, poor educational achievement, etc.

This link between the disintegration of the family unit and increased social pathology is particularly evident in the minority community. Right now, Seventy percent of black babies are born to unmarried parents. Often times these single parents lack the resources to adequately care for themselves and their children. Frustration, neglect and abuse follow. We cannot pretend this is not happening.

In environment where families are broken and unconditional love is unknown, hope twists inward and horrible violence erupts. In 1992, the violent crime rate for blacks was nearly ten times the average for white males the same age. Violence is also eroding the black family unit. 45% of all spousal homicides in this country are attributed to blacks, despite the fact that they represent only 13% of the population.. This cycle of violence is one of the greatest scourges facing black America today. As noted author and political science professor, James Clark observed,  "as the 20th century comes to a close, more black males will be incarcerated in prison than go to college."

Many people pay lip service to the eroding family structure in black America. But until we confront the broader and more fundamental issue of how restricted economic opportunities for black males contributes to broken families, little will change. 

One of the legacies of institutionalized racism in this country is the disproportionate number of low income minority workers. Consequently, black males have been disproportionately effected by the shrinking market for low skilled labor brought on  by the  technological revolution. The market woes experienced by low skilled black males stifles their ability to adequately support a family and diminishes their self esteem. They feel like they're failing to meet the burden of providing material support for their family. A single man need not dwell too long on his short comings. But a family man is constantly accountable to this failure. At least one response is to rationalize failure by transferring blame to those around him. By transforming the mother of his children and the institution of marriage into an albatross, he preserves his own self esteem.

Obviously we need to combat the attitudes and behavioral norms that cause black males to transfer their feelings of inadequacy on to those around them. Part of the problem is that our supposed leaders keep telling us that we are forever victims, instead of focusing on what we can do to affect genuine change in our own lives.

But another part of the problem is purely economical. We need to improve job prospects so that poor, inner city residents-mostly of color-will have a sense of future possibilities for themselves, and their family. Here, the economic policies initiated by President Clinton are instructive. In the decade and a half prior to the Clinton administration, this country witnessed the most severe economic stratification of the century. During that time, the wealthiest 40% of the country experienced gains in real income (with the top 20% experiencing the lion's share of gains). Meanwhile, the bottom 60% of the country lost 18% of their real income.  Bottom line: during the Regan/Bush years, the rich got very rich, the rest lost money. That began to change around 1995, when Clinton's implemented a series of reforms geared toward improving the economic status of the middle and lower class. His dedication to investing in human capital  resulted in unprecedented economic progress for ethnic minorities and women.

In terms of the future, we need to make sure inner city public schools are equipping their students-mostly of color-with the computer skills they need in order to thrive in the new economy. This should be the preeminent focus of the civil rights movement. Economic opportunity and an ability to affix value to one's existence are the root causes of the eroding family structure in black America. That will not change by labeling minority's victims and dispensing money to them like some government-subsidized tranquilizer. We need to mandate that public schools do a better job of equipping minority students with computer skills and focus on improving job prospects for lower skilled employees. Without a vigorous focus on these two areas, our families, our communities, will continue to unravel.