No more marches

Posted: Oct 14, 2005 12:05 AM

Ironically, his supporters always call him "the honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan," though he is anything but honorable. Farrakhan is back, with a "Millions More" march on Washington to commemorate the so-called Million Man March of a decade ago.

 The whole notion that marches on Washington should be covered respectfully and even reverentially is outdated -- a throwback to the civil rights era, when marches led by true civil rights leaders really merited such attention. But the 1960s are ancient history. Today if we want to hear from African-American leaders, we can consult the State Department daily briefing, the "Oprah" show, the Fortune 500, the nightly news on television, our neighbor or our child's teacher. We can look to any realm of American life, because blacks are well-represented pretty much everywhere.

 Still, it is true, as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina underlined, that parts of the black community remain poor and dysfunctional. Yet what can a march do for them? In his message (er, ranting) posted on the Internet, Farrakhan demanded "freedom for all political prisoners held in U.S. prisons and detention facilities, both foreign and domestic. We demand an end to police brutality, mob attacks, racial profiling, the herding of our young men and women into prisons, and the biological and chemical warfare perpetrated against our people." Elsewhere, Farrakhan renews his demand for reparations to the descendants of slaves and calls for "the establishment of peace in the world. We demand an end to wars of foreign aggression waged by the United States government against other sovereign nations and peoples. We demand an end to senseless violence and advocate peace amongst street organizations (gangs) and youth."

 Okay. Now back to planet Earth. More than 75 percent of African-Americans are middle or upper class in 2005. Among those who make up the 24.7 percent in poverty, the overwhelming majority are unmarried women and their children. Family structure is the alpha and omega of poverty in America. You can slice the statistical pie in a thousand ways and still come to the same conclusion. For example: In 1995, the poverty rate for married couple black families was about 8 percent. In the same year, the poverty rate for families headed by white single women was about 27 percent. As David Eggebeen and Daniel T. Lichter wrote in the American Sociological Review, "Children from female-headed homes are five times as likely to be poor as children in two-parent families and nine times as likely to be in deep poverty." Maggie Gallagher, massaging the data a bit more to include a comparison with families that start and remain intact, yielded this statistic: "A child that is born out of wedlock is 30 times more likely to live in poverty than a child that was born in a marriage and whose parents stayed married."

 The prisons are full of African-American youths. Some Farrakhan followers and others who are simply misinformed interpret this datum as evidence of racism in police departments and courts throughout the country. But not just any African-Americans crowd the prisons. The prisons are dominated by males raised without fathers. And while the illegitimacy rate among Americans at large is frighteningly high at 25 percent, it is stratospheric among blacks at 68 percent.

 We are beyond the era of marches. The march on Washington Martin Luther King Jr. led in 1963 demanded, rightly of course, that the white majority live up to its responsibilities and cease hindering and persecuting American blacks. But no march and no demand can cure what ails some black Americans today. Only a profound renewal of faith in the values of marital fidelity and commitment can hope to alter the landscape of poverty. These are matters of spirit and belief; they can come only from within a community, not from outside.

 But it is not impossible to achieve such a renewal. In the 19th century, Britain underwent a profound reformation of mores and morals led by the Victorians. Through Sunday schools, YMCAs, temperance societies and charitable work, they were able dramatically to reduce levels of crime, drunkenness and family breakdown. Within the black community today, there are many similar efforts (for example, the ministry of Eugene Rivers and the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise). To succeed though, blacks will have to reconcile themselves to the hard truth that poverty among blacks is about family structure, not white racism.