Acton Institute Powerblog

The Legacy of Racism and Surrogate Decision-Making

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In 1989, Erol Ricketts, a researcher with the Rockefeller Foundation, found that between 1890 and 1950, blacks had higher marriage rates than whites, according to the U.S. Census. The report, titled “The Origin of Black Female-Headed Families,” published in the Spring/Summer issue of Focus(32-37), provides an overview that highlights an important question.

Ricketts observes that between 1960 and 1985, female-headed families grew from 20.6 to 43.7 percent of all black families, compared to growth from 8.4 to 12 percent for white families. The rates of marriage for both black and white women were lowest at the end of the 1800s and peaked in 1950 for blacks and 1960 for whites. Furthermore, according to Ricketts, “it is dramatically clear that black females married at higher rates than white females of native parentage until 1950.” National data covering “decennial years from 1890 to 1920 show that blacks out-married whites despite a consistent shortage of black males due to their higher rates of mortality. And in three of the four decennial years there was a higher proportion of currently married black men than white men.”

According to Ricketts, this data helps us to see that the Moynihan Report was wrong to intimate that slavery made marriage worse among blacks. In fact, the “legacy of slavery,” according to the data, does not explain the obliteration of marriage that we’ve seen in the black community over the past 30 years. It is clear from the data, observes Ricketts, that 1950 is a watershed year for black families as black female-headed families grow rapidly in concert with blacks becoming more urbanized than whites. Between 1930 and 1950 the rates of black female-headed families, regardless of geographical environment, are parallel to the corresponding rates for whites.

We are then left with this question: What happened? This is where the Moynihan report was right to point out the consequences of family breakdown because of welfare programs that introduced perverse incentives for men to remain committed to the families they created. What is also important to remember is that many men in urban areas found it difficult to find low-skill employment because of the racist practices of labor unions.

The black family, then, was delivered a devastating two-part blow during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. While black urbanization was on the rise, black men were being kept out of the jobs that could financially sustain families coupled with a greater call for more and more welfare programs to provide “assistance” to black women with dependent children. These programs, as we know, made matters worse and destroyed the potential for black urban families to flourish. What followed were generational cycles of dependence.

We can only imagine what the state of black America might be today if urban labor unions had not prevented blacks from participating in employment opportunities, and the federal government had not undermined the black family with LBJ’s “War on Poverty” programs. What are we to learn from this? One might simply conclude that social mobility is sabotaged by the twin torpedoes of social injustice and dependence on government “assistance.” The “legacy” that will be discussed in centuries to come is one defined by labor unions undermining economic opportunity, and politicians imposing uninformed social and economic visions that destroyed black progress after 1950.

Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.