Monthly Archives: March 2015

Money and Power Matter. Family Structure, Not So Much.

50 years ago, Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a report called The Negro Family: The Case For National Action. The central argument in what has come to be called the Moynihan Report was that “The Breakdown of the Negro Family Has Led to a Startling Increase in Welfare Dependency,” and that “a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure.”

The Moynihan Report, published in March of 1965.

The Moynihan Report, published in March of 1965.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof thinks “Liberals Blew It” by excoriating this report. His conclusion, however, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the document’s critiques. The Moynihan Report’s faults lie not with its assertion that family stability is desirable, nor with its documentation of an increase in single-parent households, but with its insistence that family structure and Black “pathology” are primary drivers of poverty and inequality. This privilege-defending and inaccurate cultural narrative, however it was intended, implies that poor people of color are to blame for the effects of institutional racism and classism and diverts attention away from the real causes of inequity.

Those who denounced the Moynihan Report for that reason didn’t “blow it;” in fact, they presciently predicted how the report would be used to justify the false claim that “lifestyle issues” are the root cause of poverty. The real mistake is made not by people who recognize that connecting all types of families to money, basic necessities, and power is the best way to help them overcome hardship, but by those who continue to lend credence to the idea that the decline of traditional families has drastic consequences.

The lone piece of evidence Kristof cites in support of his claim that single-parent households lead to poor outcomes for low-income children is “an essay by Sara McLanahan of Princeton and Christopher Jencks of Harvard” in the March issue of EducationNext. While Kristof correctly notes that McLanahan and Jencks suggest that “growing up with just one biological parent reduces the chance that a child will graduate from high school by 40 percent,” he fails to discuss the broader context that calls his thesis into question.

First, the review McLanahan and Jencks cite (a review published by McLanahan and two colleagues in 2013, though the fact that McLanahan authored it is not mentioned in her and Jencks’s essay) found smaller associations or no relationship between family structure and other outcomes for children. As McLanahan and Jencks note about the review’s other findings regarding education, for example:

The absence of one’s biological father has not been shown to affect a child’s verbal and math test scores…The evidence for other indicators of educational performance, such as high school grades, skipping school, and college aspirations, is mixed, with some studies finding that father absence lowers school attendance and aspirations and others finding no effect.

Second, McLanahan et al themselves acknowledge that the relationships they do find may not be causal; the researchers write that “family disruption is not a random event…[T]he characteristics that cause father absence are likely to affect child well-being through other pathways.” Shawn Fremstad and Melissa Boteach explain in a comprehensive report published in January that while other studies that look at this issue find similar associations, most researchers are much more wary than McLanahan and colleagues of suggesting a causal link between family structure and indicators of children’s well-being.*

In fact, Kristof’s suggestion that the rise in single-parent households is a major driver of poverty and inequality is incompatible with some key details. For instance, while poverty levels in the United States remain far too high, they have fallen significantly over the past 50 years, in large part due to the safety net. If family structure were, as Moynihan contended, “the principal source of most of the aberrant, inadequate, or antisocial behavior that did not establish, but now serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and deprivation” (a contention that highlights the absurdity of Kristof’s argument that “liberal denunciations of Moynihan were terribly unfair”), this reduction in poverty would not have happened, as the number of “nontraditional” families has exploded during this time period.

Third, and most significantly, little research explores more plausible causal explanations for the relationship between economic and social disadvantage and family structure. It may very well be the case that the hardships associated with poverty make traditional families less likely, or that many of the factors that contribute to poverty and inequality also disrupt family stability.

Survey data suggests that these alternate interpretations are more likely to be accurate than Kristof’s; if nontraditional households were a cause rather than an effect or merely a correlate of disadvantage, we’d expect more support for traditional family structure among more advantaged individuals. The reverse is true, however; a study of survey results in 2012 noted that, “relative to higher income respondents, low-income respondents held more traditional values toward marriage, had similar romantic standards for marriage, and experienced similar skills-based relationship problems.” That study is consistent with Fremstad and Boteach’s summary of earlier research: “If anything, working-class people seem to value the cultural and religious aspects of marriage as much or more highly than more-educated adults.”

Relatedly, as Jared Bernstein pointed out last year, “policy interventions to encourage marriage have been shown to be quite ineffective” (and costly; as Bernstein also noted, “[t]wo pilot programs introduced in the George W. Bush years cost $10,000 per couple”). Wanting children to grow up in stable households is of course a laudable goal, but the evidence indicates that achieving household stability is not about culture, preferences, or a particular type of family structure. Instead, it is about a broad social justice agenda that addresses economic and social barriers to equality.

On some level, Kristof recognizes that direct means of addressing economic and social disadvantage should be the focus of anyone interested in “helping American kids.” He correctly decries how our racially- and economically-biased system of mass incarceration has torn families apart, and he also appropriately advocates that we “support programs to boost the economic prospects for poorer families.” Criminal justice reforms, safety net programs like SNAP (food stamps), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and Medicaid, and pretax income-boosting policies like the minimum wage and elements of the full employment agenda will likely promote family stability, and, more importantly, they are a sampling of some of the best methods we have to reduce poverty and inequality directly. To the extent that Kristof is advocating for this set of ideas, he is absolutely right to do so.

But the general thrust of Kristof’s piece, like the narrative in the Moynihan Report before it, undermines the fights for racial and class equality. In the future, the report’s defenders would do better to stop castigating the activists who disagree with them and start listening to and reflecting on advocates’ legitimate concerns.

*Fremstad and Boteach also note that “McClanahan’s review and much of the existing research do not clearly distinguish between the effect of family structure per se and the effect of family instability,” a clarification consistent with Kristof’s correct observation that children raised by loving gay parents do very well.

Note: A version of this post appeared on The Huffington Post on March 20.

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Filed under Poverty and the Justice System, Race and Religion

How much is a (black) life worth?

I avoided writing about these issues of police brutality against black folk for a long time, because I was afraid that once I did, the chronic depression that lies latent within the black cultural consciousness would rear its ugly head — and it did. The names and “heartbreaking cases” seem endless, and posterity treats them as hashtags: #JusticeForTrayvon #MikeBrown #TamirRice, #EricGarner #ICantBreathe #Ferguson #Blacklivesmatter #Crimingwhilewhite #DariusLiddell — Because it’s only a matter of time until it happens to me or someone close to me, why should I be exempt? I take walks at night in middle-class neighborhoods — isn’t that precisely the crime Trayvon committed? I played around with toy guns when I was a kid, making shooting noises at people [1] — isn’t that what Tamir was doing?

What made Tamir and Trayvon, two unarmed human children, so unchildlike and so inhumane that a fully grown and armed police officer decided to shoot them down?


On the day of his death, Tamir Rice’s actions were not very remarkable or even rare: he was just another kid playing with a toy gun, whether on the lawn of his home or in the local park. According to the 911 caller, the gun was “probably fake but he’s pointing it at everybody”. Also, it was mentioned that he was “probably a juvenile”.

The dispatcher repeatedly asked (after the caller tried to evade the question) whether Tamir was black or white. Why did this matter at all? (For identification purposes perhaps, but how likely was it that the race would be needed in a case like this?). You can hear the entire call here.

The outcome of the Tamir Rice case literally leaves me speechless: Police shot him within two seconds of arriving on the scene; questions were not asked nor negotiations attempted. The abdominal wound proved fatal, and when his sister arrived at the scene to see what happened, she was tackled, handcuffed and shoved into the back of the police car. The full video is here. Tamir’s wounds were given no aid (afterwards of which it was obvious his gun was fake) and the ambulance took ~10 minutes to arrive — could this issue have been handled more poorly?

I wonder if the kid was white, would he still be alive or would anyone even have called the cops? Or what if it had been a little white girl toting a toy gun — would anyone have even blinked an eye? Some probably would have chuckled and smiled, even! But one thing is for sure, if the little innocent kid was white — because we all know Tamir Rice was innocent — there would be a lot more national outrage — about gun laws/control, about trigger-happy cops killing random people, and more generally, about America’s inevitable ascendency towards the militarization of the police.

But what about Tamir? Where is the outrage for him? His death was not an accident; no apologies were made. The City of Cleveland even went so far as to blame Rice and his family for his death.

You can’t make this stuff up. Little white girls from middle-class families are kidnapped and CNN follows them for days, aka The Missing White Woman Syndrome. Trayvon was 17, and the courts were able to convince themselves that he was on the verge of beating an armed grown man to death. Tamir was 12. How young is too young? When do boys become men?


The Trayvon ruling set an ugly precedent: an armed cop or “neighborhood watch guy” has a scuffle with an unarmed teen at night, kills the kid, yet is ultimately proclaimed not guilty because it was “self-defense”.

The Mike Brown ruling set an even uglier precedent: a cop can kill an unarmed teen in broad daylight with multiple (albeit conflicting) eyewitnesses present, and the case is deemed not even worthy of a trial.

Then along comes Eric Garner, who is blamed for his death because he resisted arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes. Several parties even went so far as to argue that Garner’s plethora of physical conditions (asthma, heart condition, obesity) means that he would have died anyway — in other words, if Garner didn’t have so many health problems to begin with, he would have survived the altercation. (Although the coroner’s report confirmed that Garner’s death was a homicide by “compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest, and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.”)


How, really, is Garner’s case different from a public lynching? There were New Yorkers walking by as Garner died; some must have stopped to watch. Oscar Grant was shot in the back face down in a BART car. Face down.  He was no longer a threat to anyone, he was fully subdued — he could have simply been taken into custody. Why wasn’t he?

What is so frightening is that if a case like Garner’s and Grant’s can be explained away, what does it take for a police officer to be convicted for an obviously avoidable murder — and get a comparable sentence as would be accorded a civilian? (Arguably, police officers should actually get heavier sentences, to dissuade them from abusing their enormous power over civilians — power under the law and in the street — because they should be held to stricter standards than civilians, not more loose ones.) [2]

The power that is afforded police officers to kill with impunity is astonishing. Sure, even if you believe that most cops are good — even if they really are all good — the law would still allow cases like this to avoid a fair and thorough trial or have a trial wherein the officer is allowed to explain how his “split-second decisions” are totally justified in hindsight. Gail Sullivan says it best:

“But it’s not what’s on a video that matters so much under the law. Nor is it even whether the officer did or did not harbor racial prejudice. It’s what was going through the mind of the cop in the few seconds when he chose to use force that counts and whether his decision was “reasonable” under the circumstances at that time, not with the benefit of hindsight.

And “reasonable” is defined not by what the general public may think but what cops in a similar situation would think.

That’s what the U.S. Supreme Court has said. And that’s among the reasons it’s so hard to bring charges against cops when they use force — even lethal force.

All this gives police considerable leeway and if they testify before the grand jury, as Pantaleo did in this case, considerable potential sway since they have the opportunity to describe why what they did seemed necessary.”

Bottom line, if an officer happens to kill you, for whatever reason — he’ll be allowed to testify on his own behalf about exactly what his reasons were for acting in the situation that he did. He’ll be offered almost total leeway of subjectivity, simply because he is a police officer and for no other reason. [3]


Some say of Garner: “If he had just complied, he would not have died”.   This is a ridiculous argument because it assumes that no matter the charges police bring against you, you should never resist arrest under any circumstances. The brute facts are that cops don’t need proof of the charges when they arrest you — proof is what the verdict of the trial is supposed to ascertain. The police could have nothing more than hearsay, and you simply have to comply because they are wearing a uniform paid for by your taxes. How much power are we willing to give to a uniform?

Never resist arrest — because you might die, and even if the cops did get punished (which they probably won’t, at least not in any sense that a civilian would find commensurate for the crime), you would still be dead — so it’s not worth it in either case. Don’t sacrifice yourself for the petty pride of your conscience; subordinate yourself to the whims of the state (or whatever persons the state has designated worthy of wearing their uniform).

To make resisting arrest a crime lays the groundwork for a police state.


Honestly, all these suggestions about how to avoid getting killed by the cops seem eerily similar to how we advise women on how not to get raped by men. “If only you hadn’t resisted arrest (or said yes/no at the proper time with enough assurance); dressed in sagging pants with a hoodie (or in that skanky way at that frat party last night), talked with the utmost respect and deference towards the officer (or turned down his offer for just one more drink or bong hit), if only you knew how to read the minds of your police officers (and those of random power-hungry men) and could anticipate their next move at any and all times, then you wouldn’t have been raped/killed.” Sound familiar?

That’s because it’s an old story. The oppressed has to know the whims and peculiarities of the oppressor. The people and parties at the bottom or middle of the hierarchy have to learn the tastes of the ruling class in order to join it. You have to fake it ‘til you make it, essentially. For historical reasons, women have had to know men at a much deeper and more holistic level than vice versa. (Arguably, men have had to do the same but their motives were much different). I have to become acquainted with corporate culture to succeed in it, but no white person has to take black or Hispanic culture seriously in America — simply because we are not the dominant culture. To put it in crude, postmodern terms, I have to know ‘stuff white people like’ at a much subtler and deeper level than whites have to know ‘stuff black people like’. The bourgeois decides taste; there is only one real and true way to be sophisticated, according to the dominant culture, of which the first step is to articulate with proper grammar and structure (i.e. don’t talk like your black great grand-parents – you ain’t gone get no job like that). Being educated is nothing more than wearing the outer markers (dress, conversation, goals, etc) of the currently educated class.


But, let’s be honest, regardless of how you feel about any of these generic cases of “white cop kills black male (female cases abound — 10+ cases to get you started: here & here — but simply get way less media attention), you have to acknowledge that the outcome in all of them seems patently ABSURD when juxtaposed with the outcome of the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. Here are the highlights: James Holmes walked into a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises and killed 12 people and injured ~70 others. Everyone knew he was the killer. He was arrested without resisting and was taken to a detention center to undergo several psychiatric evaluations, while his lawyers continue to make “diminished capacity” pleas on his behalf.

But in the other cases we discuss, each black person was killed because they were perceived or suspected threats.  Holmes had already proved he was a threat by killing a dozen people and injuring many others… The evidence against Holmes was overwhelmingly clear, and yet his life was deliberately preserved! Excessive care was taken to ensure that Holmes was not hurt in any way, even after he had already killed a dozen people!

This is the pure, pure essence of white privilege. The treatment of Holmes versus any of our other cases cannot be justified under any circumstances.


In our time, it’s fashionable to disdain rage. In social dynamics, anger is perceived as a sign of weakness, a sign that you feel you’ve lost power, “lost control”. Anger is usually feared if it comes from the dominant party in the altercation, but pitied, ridiculed, or even ignored if it comes from the less powerful party. In our case, in order to deflect the great pains and horrors of any nuanced and honest racial discourse, we employ more acceptable ways to express/deflect rage, such as cynicism and irony, and transform it into laughter (and those who still become too angry are usually said to be overreacting, or in our case, “just another black person who needs to get over it”, “a race-baiter”, etc). But humor, sarcasm and cynicism are forms of coping; and as much as these methods have their place, their only true purpose is to incite change, and nothing will change as long as we use these tools to deflect our true feelings rather than empower them.

The most effective tool against racism is anger. The seemingly opposed movements of black power and nonviolent action both had the same element at the core: pure, unbridled rage.

[1] I was 5’8 at 13 just like Tamir was 5’7 at 12, so we both looked older than our age stature-wise, which would have made us both look “threatening”.

[2] It appears that it is incredibly hard to indict a police officer in cases where the civilian is severely injured or dead, because the court cannot prove that the officer did not have “objective reasonableness”. Check out the 1989 case of Graham v. Connor and a few articles (here, here, and here) detailing how the courts, the police, and the prosecutors somehow all manage to stick together when it comes down to it. (This is worth a whole blog post in itself)

[3] The black victims are always pitied in the same manner (or perps, as in every case, the cop was deemed the victim, and the still black body is always unfortunate collateral): “You know, It wasn’t supposed to be this way, I was following protocol.. I had no choice.. We make tough decisions sometimes, we didn’t want anybody to die”. It reminds me of the herd-mentality of the soldier or the employee… “I was just following orders”.


Filed under Race and Religion