The Corner


RE: There’s a Need for More Constructive Conservatism on Race

Sojourners President and Founder Rev. Jim Wallis (right) and Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (left) lead fellow clergy in a church service at the White House in Washington, D.C., May 24, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

In response to There’s a Need for More Constructive Conservatism on Race

Thanks for your post, David. I’d offer a few thoughts.

First, the principal reason for the stubbornness of racial disparities in this country is family structure — i.e., out-of-wedlock birthrates. About seven out of ten African Americans are born out-of-wedlock, more than six out of ten Native Americans, and more than five out of ten Latinos, versus fewer than three out of ten non-Hispanic whites, and fewer than two out of ten Asian Americans.

That is a huge range, and it is no coincidence that it corresponds precisely with how well the different groups are doing on any social indicator you like: poverty, crime, unemployment, school-dropout rates, you name it. What’s more, even liberal social scientists generally concede the relationship between doing less well in life and growing up in a home without a father, and this is true within racial groups as well as between them (for example, there are huge disparities in life outcomes between whites who are born out-of-wedlock and whites who are not).

Second, I would note that the problem of race relations in this country is really a problem about African-American racial disparities, and again it is no coincidence that they have the highest out-of-wedlock birthrates. Think about it: Would we really be talking much about race relations if, say, the issue was just the disparity in crime rates or unemployment or whatever between whites and Latinos, or between whites and Asian Americans?

I note this to keep things in perspective: It is reassuring that our extremely multiracial and multiethnic society is not a riven as it might be; and, if I’m right about the reason for the problem, it’s not insoluble. Indeed, the out-of-wedlock birthrate for African Americans could go from seven out of ten to zero out of ten in nine months, if there were the will to make that happen.

Third, this is not to deny that racism still exists and that the effects of past racism are still with us. But the persistence of the racial disparities cannot, I do not think, be blamed on present or past racism: That’s not what causes people to have children out-of-wedlock today, and indeed those birthrates have markedly increased over the past 50 years just as the amount of discrimination in this country has markedly declined.

What’s more, what remains of racism now is as much an effect of racial disparities as it is a cause. People observe black crime and black unemployment and begin to make judgments based on race: unfair and illegal but inevitable. We should continue to condemn racism of all kinds, but we should not pretend that this is a bigger problem than it is. Those who do so too often want to ignore — or even excuse or deny — the cultural breakdown that is the real problem. (That cultural breakdown, by the way, would also include the belief among some that studying hard is “acting white” and that breaking the law is more truly “authentic.”)

Fourth: What is to be done about the disparity in out-of-wedlock birthrates? We can’t pass laws against having babies without being married; the role of the government is largely limited to not making matters worse by encouraging women to have children out-of-wedlock. We do have to be willing to label this a problem, which is politically unpopular (just ask Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, of all people).

Here’s my answer to what I think is your core question, David, and which as a fellow Christian I also think you may welcome: This is basically a moral problem, and moral problems are religious problems. More people need to believe in God and follow His rules. If you want people to improve life outcomes among groups in this country who aren’t doing very well, urge them to preach the Gospel in those communities. And I’ll note that, as a bonus, it’s harder to be a racist if you do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and believe that there is neither Jew nor Greek but that we are all one in Jesus Christ. That kind of heart change also can’t be legislated.

Fifth and finally — and implicit in this is the one criticism I have of your post — I don’t know that talking about this problem as a racial problem really advances the ball. As noted, out-of-wedlock birthrates are a bad thing no matter your race. And, to end on an up-note, racial relations in this country are not, in the great scheme of things, so bad, even if we seem to be going through a period where it feels like they are.

Our laws, after all, prohibit racial discrimination in just about any public transaction (except, by the way, politically correct racial discrimination, namely affirmative action) and are widely supported. Racism is socially unacceptable except on the fringes. Americans are increasingly multiracial, which ought to tell us something; indeed, as I recall, we just had a multiracial president. What’s really needed is a period of benign neglect, but alas that’s unlikely because, to echo the end of your post, the grievance industry is too large and too entrenched in the intelligentsia and in one of our political parties.

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