Before I could write this column I had to call my parents in Florida. I had to ask if I could write that my maternal grandfather, seemingly the storied immigrant of American mythology, tried to abandon his family. After coming to America, he was pressured by relatives here to do the right thing. Only reluctantly did he send for his wife and children. That's how my mother came to America.
My paternal grandfather was hardly a myth maker, either. He, too, came to the United States with a promise to make enough money to send for his family. He, too, let time slip by until the women he had left behind -- an arranged marriage in any case -- must have seemed less and less attractive. Under pressure from relatives, he too finally sent money for the passage.
I cite these stories from my own family lore by way of saying that the behavior now associated with inner- city black men has been seen before. I raise it, further, with the absolute confidence that what was true for my family was true for many others. You don't have to go back far in any family, especially one that was once poor, to find the relative who went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back. In time, the kids called a different man "daddy."
It is important to dredge up the worst of your family's history because increasingly people are citing the apparent disintegration of the poor black family as proof that there is something awfully wrong with young black men -- something in the genes. For instance, in a Playboy magazine article, Hodding Carter III quotes a fellow guest at a Washington dinner party as saying, "You have to face the fact that some people are culturally and genetically unsuited for democracy." I have heard the same sort of thing. This so- called facing of the facts is nothing new. When enough "facts" get faced, people wind up getting lynched.
The awful truth is that no one can totally explain what is happening to the poor black family. No one really knows the precise cause of the high rate of out-of-wedlock births, or if there is only one cause. There are studies to show that welfare is a factor, studies to show that it is not, and just guesses at what would happen if (as some have suggested) welfare were abandoned altogether. Like the archetypal immigrant family where one son becomes a cop and another a crook, there is no explaining why welfare launched many blacks into the middle class and kept others hooked on the dole.
Of course, it's too simple to compare my grandfathers with ghetto kids of today. They have come from different cultures, different eras and, besides, my grandfathers reluctantly wound up doing what's called "the right thing." (A cousin, though, did not; the family he left behind in Europe eventually perished in the Holocaust.) Many others -- as countless of the poor have always done -- abandoned their families, raising new ones whose decendants now make sanctimonious remarks about the innate immorality of blacks.
If ghetto youth and my grandfathers had something in common, it was that economics played a role in their thinking. My grandfathers struck out for America thinking life here would be better for them. It wasn't. It was worse, and one of them never could find work that lasted. The family that he was not allowed to abandon eventually came apart anyway -- his wife died, so his daughter was sent to live with relatives and two boys were put into an orphanage.
Things change, but they also remain the same. The lifestyle of poor urban blacks is also a product of culture and economic reality -- unemployment, poverty and, yes, it's intended antidote, welfare. When people are poor, when they simply cannot cope with life, they behave in ways that may be immoral but that make sense to them. This is not how blacks behave. It is how people behave. The "gene" for immorality is carried within us all.
In a different era, people wondered about men such as my grandfather. They said their poverty and exotic ways were in their "blood." The American mythology of immigrant success later washed over the dismal reality and cleaned it up. But the harsh truth is that the poverty that ravages the poor black family of today also blighted the white poor of yesterday as well -- maybe not identically, maybe not as extensively, but certainly as tragically. When it comes to immorality, the house we all live in is made of glass. Throw stones at your peril.