On 11 August 1965, the Watts Riots exploded in Los Angeles, taking the nation by surprise. Sparked by an arrest that escalated into a skirmish between local residents and police, the riots lasted six days. They laid bare the seething discontent that lay just beneath the surface in many black communities. The Voting Rights Act, which curtailed state and local communities from enacting practices locking African Americans out of the political process, had been signed into law just days earlier. Seen as a massive step forward for African Americans, media and political leaders wondered, why did Watts explode?
We now know Lyndon B. Johnson’s private conversations afterwards indicated a certain understanding:
“These groups they got really nothing to live for. Forty percent of them are unemployed…These youngsters…they’ve got no place to sleep…broken homes and illegitimate families and all the narcotics are circulating around them…and we’ve isolated them.”
Johnson’s understanding of the Watts Riots was framed by The Moynihan Report placing single mother families at the center of “a tangle of pathology” driving persistent poverty of urban ghettos. Black families, not persistent racism, was framed as the driving force behind urban conditions. The report inspired many of the programs launched in the aftermath of the riots. These programs, rather then constituting a fully invested attack on poverty, were mainly Band-Aid solutions addressing perceived internal problems of the black community. The massive structural problems of which riots and troubled families are a symptom continued to build. Then, as now, “The Black Family” is portrayed as the root of everything, from intergenerational poverty to clashes with police. The Moynihan Report, written 55 years ago, has framed public policy for decades. In our 20 years of research of African American families, we have yet to see work in this area that does not reference this report in some fashion.
The report has a complex legacy. On the one hand, it cogently assessed the connection between the constraining impact of discrimination on every area of life, including intimate relationships available to African Americans. Still, the report also stigmatized families led by unmarried women by insisting they were responsible for transmission of cultural responses keeping African Americans locked in poverty. Since the report, single black motherhood has been placed at the top of the list of presumed “self-inflicted” harms.
This response to the Watts Riots has set the stage for social policy responses, including the 1966 Welfare Reform Act, and punitive aspects of the “War on Drugs,” both of which were key in the emergence of what law professor and author Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow.” These responses did not arrest family change or improve the conditions of urban communities.
Black families, whatever their structure, really do matter.
In fact, the 50 years since the Moynihan Report and the Watts Riots have brought accelerating marriage declines and disruptions among American families of every race, especially pronounced among African Americans. In 1965, nearly a quarter of African American children were born to unmarried mothers, while only 5% of white children were. Today, those figures are 70% and 25%. In fact, the experience of marriage, once pervasive, has become much less so. Currently, only about 55% of whites and 31% of black adults are married.
In 2015, as was the case in 1965, declines in marriage continue to be associated with race, poverty, and inequality, as well as with cultural arguments about pathology and black communities. Massive structural differences that continue to mark racial groups despite color-blind policies have made many Americans less patient with such simple connections. To be sure, race continues to influence how many people think about the links between marriage, childbearing, and problems confronting African American communities. Even the first black president, Barack Obama, started initiatives promoting “responsible fatherhood” as a primary strategy for building “strong communities.” Then, as now, Americans of every race decry “deterioration” of urban communities as being tied to family behavior, and loss of “traditional family.”
It is notable that families in recent headlines regarding the murders of African American men and women represent a range of configurations and have been pivotal in galvanizing a new wave of social activism. Trayvon Martin’s parents are divorced but publicly united in their grief as parents; Mike Brown’s parents were never married; Eric Garner was married. The families of Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Ezell Ford, and Sandra Bland are all a part of this legacy of families insisting that systems be interrogated and held accountable.
As the activism of a new generation of non-traditional mothers, fathers, and families remind us that “Black Lives Matter,” it would be wise to shift the focus away from understanding declines in traditional family as causing the crisis conditions faced by African Americans. Instead, we need to ask how to better respond to the crisis of the new “Jim Crow” poisoning the criminal justice system at every level, because black families, whatever their structure, really do matter.
Image Credit: “Black Lives Matter Black Friday” by The All-Nite Images. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.