Does Race Still Matter to African-American Children in Obama’s America?
Posted By: Phyllis Kaniss
On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama became the first African American to be sworn in as President of the United States. In the days that followed, a debate has emerged over whether the nation is entering a new “post-racial” phase. While actor Will Smith claims that “all our excuses have been removed” and Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina declared that “every child has lost every excuse,” New York Times columnist Charles Blow has strenuously objected that black children face “enormous and ingrained obstacles.”
Which view is more accurate? How are we to square the election of the nation’s first black president with the dire conditions still facing many of the country’s black families? What precisely are the obstacles still facing black children and how might the election of a black president help lift them?
A new collection of articles by some of the country’s leading sociologists addresses many of these questions, by revisiting the so-called Moynihan Report, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s controversial 1965 assessment of the threats facing the increasing number of black children growing up in families with single, unwed mothers. The volume, edited by Douglas S. Massey and Robert S. Sampson, examines the present-day status of obstacles first identified by Moynihan, while raising new threats that were unimaginable forty years ago. They include
- The fact that so many young black males are withdrawing from school at ever earlier ages—and turning to illegal activities—because they see no prospects for legitimate jobs in their future. As Harry Holzer writes, such ultimately self-destructive behavior both reflects—and results in—a deteriorating labor market for young, black men.
- The persistence of continued discrimination in hiring facing blacks who are looking for jobs. As Devah Pager and Diana Karafin write, negative racial stereotypes by employers are not likely to be revised even in light of actual, positive experiences with black workers.
- The disadvantages that black children face when they are raised by unmarried mothers. Sara McLanahan describes the dramatic growth in the proportion of African American children born outside of marriage (from 24 percent in 1965 to 69 percent in 2000) as well as white children born to unmarried parents (from 6 percent in 1965 to 24 percent today) and presents increasing evidence that single parenthood reduces the life chances of children.
- The added concern that many black children have little contact with their fathers, because both parents have gotten romantically involved with other people in relationships that produce subsequent children. Kathryn Edin, Laura Tach, and Ronald Mincy present research that this “multi-partner fertility,” contrary to the stereotype of the “hit and run father,” is what leads men become less involved with their offspring over time, with devastating effects on the abandoned children.
- The fact that so high a percentage of black children have parents who are in prison or jail. Bruce Western and Christopher Wildeman point out that in 2000, 10.4 percent of black children under the age of 10 had a parent in prison or jail, with 60-70 percent of black male high school dropouts born since the mid-1960s now going to prison. Western and Wildeman make clear that the growing number of black children whose parents have been incarcerated will be at greater risk of poverty, violence and following their parents into prison.
- The consequences for black children of facing a world in which most white Americans endorse broad goals of integration and equality but continue to attribute the low socioeconomic status of blacks to their own weaknesses. As Lawrence Bobo and Camille Charles write in describing this shift in racial attitudes, disadvantaged blacks continue to suffer the effects of white reluctance to support governmental efforts to benefit African Americans.
- The legacy for black children of living in segregated pockets of poverty and disadvantage in the nation’s cities. As Robert Sampson writes, the long-term persistence of neighborhood racial inequality, despite gentrification and secular changes, is likely to remain durable over time absent government intervention and play a role in reproducing poverty over time.
What can be done to address these obstacles? The authors offer a number of specific policy interventions for addressing the conditions facing black children, including:
- Investing in early childhood education to counter “achievement gaps.”
- Improving early links to the labor market, while helping young men avoid early “disconnection.”
- Increasing the incentives for less-educated young men to take available jobs.
- Reducing the specific barriers and disincentives faced by ex-offenders and low-income non-custodial fathers.
- Increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit and extending it to unmarried fathers to increase their attachment to the labor force.
- Investing in efforts to reduce unwed fertility and strengthen marriage, while recognizing the need to address underlying social and economic conditions that prevent low-income couples from maintaining stable unions.
- Reducing incarceration rates by eliminating the sentencing discrepancy between crack and powdered cocaine and restoring judicial discretion by repealing mandatory minimum sentencing and three strikes laws while at the same time funding ex-felon reintegration programs.
- Experimenting with de-concentration of public housing, community policing, and increased investment in physical infrastructure and quality of schools to ameliorate the concentrated pockets of poverty and disadvantage in America’s cities.
The full volume of The Moynihan Report Revisited, volume 621 of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science is available here.