In a social media conversation this week, a colleague of mine asked a hot-button question: “Is government assistance responsible for the fall of the Black family?” Though I have heard this question asked before, I assumed its central premise — that the modern government is somehow responsible for family decay in Black communities — had been proven false and set aside. Apparently, this conspiracy theory has not run its course. I find that surprising, especially since we all know, deep down inside, who is really responsible for the the absence of strong, resilient family units in Black neighborhoods.
Before I present you with what I believe is the only true answer, we should have a look at suspects that are often wrongly paraded as the reason for Black family fragmentation.
Suspect 1 and 2: Poverty and Underemployment
It is hard to read a piece of research on Black family without encountering significant portions on poverty and its impact on the family unit. Brianna Lemmons and Waldo Johnson in Game Changers: A Critical Race Theory Analysis… (2019) do an excellent job explaining the tenets of Critical Race Theory: that Black men’s difficulty in adapting to service-oriented work, their subsequent joblessness and their final dependence of the bondage of welfare is what changed their ability to be fathers forever. Many people agree that these factors, which lead to crushing poverty and unemployment, have ruined not only Black family but also Black culture which included the celebration of strong male figures, the capacity for single-worker homes and the time needed for the famed traditional celebrations that embody Blackness.
However, history contends with this argument. After all, Black family did not just begin. It has existed for generations and must be seen through the lens of antiquity, not examined through the skewed or tinted perspective of the contemporary present, the past fifty years. In the old families, economy was not the driving force that made or broke the bond between fathers, mothers and their children; tradition was. What was the tradition? The tradition was that mothers “belonged” to the men with whom they bred children and the children “belonged” to their parents. Even in matriarchies, there was some security in knowing that certain people “belonged” (not necessarily in ownership, but definitely in kinship) to others. This sense of belonging was protected by bloodshed — total war, even if the tribe or clan was nomadic and only had a few possessions to share among its members.
Suspects 3 and 4: Crime (Which Leads to Incarceration) and Escapist Drug Use
In accordance with the argument that poverty is a significant contributing factor to “the fall” of the Black family, critics also suggest that the resulting crimes committed — in desperation, frustration or innovation to survive — are equally responsible for destroying otherwise supportive family structures. Again, history refutes this argument.
If you recall, for a time it was effectively a crime to be Black at all: to walk down certain streets, to use certain fountains, to eat in certain restaurants, to apply for certain trades. The “crime” of choosing to resist unjust economic, political and social structures did not lead to the destruction of Black unity. If anything, the necessity of criminality — in the interest of establishing legitimacy — brought Black families together in almost militant (and sometimes militant) ways. Think about the Black Panther Movement, Malcolm X and the Brotherhood and the various “riots” (some as recent as 2015) in defense of Black causes. Women, men and children worked, lived, marched and resisted together in supportive groups because they believed they needed each other.
With regard to escapist drug use, the 2016-2017 nationwide statistics in illicit drug use (reported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) show that the rate of hardcore drug use depends heavily upon region with significantly higher per-month usage reported in the South. A quick look at state numbers — while intentionally checking for Black population centers — would reveal there is not much difference in the rates of drug abuse among groups. What does this mean? This proves that drugs ruin families, but drugs do not ruin Black families any more than they ruin all families. Hence, drugs cannot be the problem.
Suspect 5 and 6: Decreasing Access to Quality Education and Institutional Racism
Here, again, is an argument that history refutes. Until Brown V. Board of Education in 1954, Black students — and as a result, Black families — were institutionally prevented from obtaining the levels of education provided to their White counterparts. Whether or not that institutionalized racism has continued is irrelevant, since historical documents prove that the Black community persisted and resisted segregation through the development of its own schools and auxiliary resources. See historical records on The Freedmen’s Schools.
The same can be said for institutionalized discrimination in employment. After the Civil War, the working poor encompassed the freed slaves and poor white peers — and work was hard to find if you were a former slave — but the Black family survived that too.
The Actual Guilty Party… And You Won’t Be Surprised: Choice
Kay S. Hymowitz, in her 2005 piece The Black Family: 40 Years of Lies, presented us with the cold, hard truth but we seem to have overlooked it. The Black family cannot thrive, cannot exist because of increasing rates of single parenthood. Well, this is obvious, isn’t it? If family is defined as a unit of people who agree to belong to each other, who agree to serve as a part of a collaborative support system for all persons involved, including children, then that unit must begin with parents who decide (ahead of time) to work together for the benefit of the whole. After all, a child cannot be made without the participation of two individuals. And, if childbirth requires cooperation and participation, that means that single adults are increasingly choosing to have unprotected or irresponsible sex with other single adults, people with whom they do not intend to build a family structure.
There are always exceptions to the rule, of course. There are widows who carry the mantle of mother and father after a spouse dies. There are parents who are forced to flee abusive mates. There are women who artificially inseminate and choose single parenthood because they have the means. There are even foster parents who — though single — decide to take on the responsibility of needy children. However, we have to acknowledge that these are exceptions. Most children who are being raised without one or more parents are suffering those conditions due to a willful lack of commitment from two adults.
The idea that every adult “Has a right to a sex life” is absolute trollop, particularly when that sex life continues without consideration for pregnancy (which can happen at any moment) when unprotected sex ensues. No scapegoat will ever take the place of this choice, this fully conscious decision to engage in a reproductive process with persons who we KNOW do not intend to make homes for us or our progeny. The same is true for those of us who agree to engage sexually with people who we KNOW are unfit to play father or mother roles when the relationship (sexual or other) is begun.
So, it is this choice — the choice to run amok in our sexuality and not belong to each other, the conscious choice to not make families — that has destroyed the Black family.
Fortunately, this phenomenon is quite easily reversed. Single, mature adults can CHOOSE to bridle their passions enough to ensure (at minimum) protected sexual experiences when neither participant has any intention of building more than a temporary relationship. I know that this solution sounds overly simplified, but that might be because the turnaround that we are all looking for is quite simple. We don’t need a change in economy, a change in government, a change in schools or a change in history to be strong together again. We simply need to choose to individually be stronger, and then we need to choose — wisely and deliberately — to be strong together.