Cultural Degradation

Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a piece explaining why he thinks white progressives are wrong to assign 'cultural residue' from Jim Crow a leading role in the problems afflicting the black community. I think he has to be right about this part of his argument:
In his masterful history, Reconstruction, the historian Eric Foner recounts the experience of the progressives who came to the South as teachers in black schools. The reformers "had little previous contact with blacks" and their views were largely cribbed from Uncle Tom's Cabin. They thus believed blacks to be culturally degraded and lacking in family instincts, prone to lie and steal, and generally opposed to self-reliance.... In short, white progressives coming South expected to find a black community suffering the effects of not just oppression but its "cultural residue." ...

[What they actually found was that b]y 1870, a large majority of blacks lived in two-parent family households, a fact that can be gleaned from the manuscript census returns but also "quite incidentally" from the Congressional Ku Klux Klan hearings, which recorded countless instances of victims assaulted in their homes, "the husband and wife in bed, and … their little children beside them."

The point here is rich and repeated in American history—it was not "cultural residue" that threatened black marriages. It was white terrorism, white rapacity, and white violence. And the commitment among freedpeople to marriage mirrored a larger commitment to the reconstitution of family, itself necessary because of systemic white violence.

"In their eyes," wrote an official from the Freedmen's Bureau, in 1865. "The work of emancipation was incomplete until the families which had been dispersed by slavery were reunited."
Coates goes on to impute from this that the problems afflicting the black society today are also due to white supremacy, which systematically damages black attempts to live together in the family structures they would prefer if un-oppressed.

I'm unpersuaded by that conclusion, and I'll tell you why. The difference between the 1865 case and the 1950-present case is that, in the present case, the collapse of marriage and family is occurring across all "racial" demographics. Some of these groups are more afflicted than others, but all are afflicted, and the afflictions track each other.

The likelihood isn't that blacks are being forced by some white supremacist structure not to marry, or to divorce. It is that there is a broader cultural degradation -- affecting the whole of American culture, and many other cultures worldwide, especially in the First world -- that is destroying the family as an institution.

It is the same force that is destroying the other human connections that serve as a bulwark between the atomic individual, alone and weak, and the power of the almighty state. The heritage of white supremacy, or its ongoing structures to whatever degree they exist, could at most explain why the black family began its collapse before the white family, which also explains why black families are less likely to be strong today than white families or Hispanic families.

But all these families are collapsing along the same trend line.


Texan99 said...

I was with him in the description of intact black families that confounded the expectations of do-gooders from the North, but I lost him in the explanation of how the KKK managed to destroy the families. Is the idea that the KKK burst into bedrooms in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, not because they wanted to lynch black men whom they hated on racial grounds and thought they could most easily be taken unarmed in that way, but because it was a peculiarly effective assault on the black family structure? I'd be more inclined to identify that assault with the welfare state beginning in the 60s, and the statistics bear me out as they do not at all bear Mr. Coates out.

E Hines said...

identify that assault with the welfare state beginning in the 60s

Indeed, one of the impetuses for moving away from AFDC (nee ADC) was the (late) recognition that it was anti-family in outcome, if not in intent.

Eric Hines

Cass said...

That article was one of the dumbest, most incoherent things I have ever read in my life. I read it a few days ago and my head still hurts.

So let me get this straight: Slavery, which was the most extreme form of white oppression, didn't make blacks stop marrying each other or being good parents.

It wasn't until white oppression was beaten WAY back by the Civil Rights Act in 1964 that black families fell apart?


Maybe I was just too tired, but that made my head explode.

Texan99 said...

Check out figures 5 and 6. I'm struggling to understand the figures, which are stated in terms of percentages of blacks/whites/men/women who had never been married at ages 35 and 45 at certain dates. In the 20th century, the never-married rate drops for everyone until 1960 and flatlines until 1980, then jumps up for everyone, but especially for blacks. I think that means that people who were 15 to 25 in 1960 (i.e. 35 to 45 in 1980) started just after 1960 to marry in far lower numbers, but especially blacks.

Slavery in the 19th century certainly took an axe to black family structures, but until the mid-20th century, marriage rates improved. It was the era of the Civil Rights movement that ushered in lower marriage rates for blacks--though I'd pin the change on welfare and incarceration trends rather than the Civil Rights laws--an impression I picked up from Sen. Moynihan rather than one I've personally researched. In any case, I can't see any pattern that would suggest blaming it on the KKK's period of greatest influence.

Cass, you always do a much better job than I do analyzing statistics like these, so I look forward to seeing your thoughts on them. I always have the feeling I've reversed a sign somewhere.

Cass said...

I wanted to write about this, but work has been completely insane the past two weeks. By the end of the day, I'm just reeling.

I do think it's partly welfare and partly the grossly imbalanced sex ratio (too many women, too few men devalues women/marriage/sex).