"There is a crisis of unprecedented magnitude in the black community, one that goes to the very heart of its survival. The black family is failing."
Quibble if you will about the "unprecedented magnitude" -- slavery wasn't exactly a high point of African American well-being. But there's no quarreling with the essence of the alarm sounded here last week by a gathering of Pentecostal clergy and the Seymour Institute for Advanced Christian Studies. What is happening to the black family in America is the sociological equivalent of global warming: easier to document than to reverse, inconsistent in its near-term effect -- and disastrous in the long run.
Father absence is the bane of the black community, predisposing its children (boys especially, but increasingly girls as well) to school failure, criminal behavior and economic hardship, and to an intergenerational repetition of the grim cycle. The culprit, the ministers (led by the Rev. Eugene Rivers III of Boston, president of the Seymour Institute) agreed, is the decline of marriage.
Kenneth B. Johnson, a Seymour senior fellow who has worked in youth programs, says he often sees teenagers "who've never seen a wedding."
The concern is not new. As Rivers noted at last week's National Press Club news conference, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan sounded the alarm 40 years ago, only to be "condemned and pilloried as misinformed, malevolent and even racist."
What is new is the understanding of how deep and wide is the reach of declining marriage -- and the still-forming determination to do something about it.
When Moynihan issued his controversial study, roughly a quarter of black babies were born out of wedlock; moreover, it was largely a low-income phenomenon. The proportion now tops two-thirds, with little prospect of significant decline, and has moved up the socioeconomic scale.
There have been two main explanations. At the low-income end, the disproportionate incarceration, unemployment and early death of black men make them unavailable for marriage. At the upper-income level, it is the fact that black women are far likelier than black men to complete high school, attend college and earn the professional credentials that would render them "eligible" for marriage.
Both explanations are true. But black men aren't born incarcerated, crime-prone dropouts. What principally renders them vulnerable to such a plight is the absence of fathers and their stabilizing influence.
Fatherless boys (as a general rule) become ineligible to be husbands -- though no less likely to become fathers -- and their children fall into the patterns that render them ineligible to be husbands.
The absence of fathers means, as well, that girls lack both a pattern against which to measure the boys who pursue them and an example of sacrificial love between a man and a woman. As the ministers were at pains to say last week, it isn't the incompetence of mothers that is at issue but the absence of half of the adult support needed for families to be most effective.
Interestingly, they blamed the black church for abetting the decline of the black family -- by moderating virtually out of existence its once stern sanctions against extramarital sex and childbirth and by accepting the present trends as more or less inevitable.
They didn't say -- but might have -- that black America's almost reflexive search for outside explanations for our internal problems delayed the introspective examination that might have slowed the trend. What we have now is a changed culture -- a culture whose worst aspects are reinforced by oversexualized popular entertainment and that places a reduced value on the things that produced nearly a century of socioeconomic improvement. For the first time since slavery, it is no longer possible to say with assurance that things are getting better.
As the Rev. Jesse Jackson said in a slightly different context, "What began as a problem has deteriorated into a condition. Problems require solving; conditions require healing."
How to start the healing? Rivers and his colleagues hope to use their personal influence, a series of marriage forums and their well-produced booklet, "God's Gift: A Christian Vision of Marriage and the Black Family," to launch a serious, national discussion and action program.
In truth, though, the situation is so critical -- and its elements so interconnected and self-perpetuating -- that there is no wrong place to begin. When you find yourself in this sort of a hole, someone once said, the first thing to do is stop digging.