Today, Barack Obama took the oath of office with his left hand on two bibles—one belonging to Abraham Lincoln, the other to Martin Luther King, Jr.
That image evokes the progress our nation has made in breaking the shackles of slavery and prejudice that have long constrained us from reaching the promise of our founding, what Lincoln, at Gettysburg, referred to as “the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Of course even as we mark the 2nd inaugural of an African-American president, we pay relatively little attention to the thousands of young black men who are killing each other each year on American streets and the millions more Americans who live in constant fear that their street, their home, their child could be the next target.
Though nation-wider murder rates have been on a gradual decline for some time, Chicago is in the midst of a gang war. There were 506 homicides in the Second City last year (and thousands of shootings), mostly young black and brown men and boys killing each other. Much of the shooting was gang-related, according to police, though some of the victims were innocent bystanders, including children.
Lee Habeeb wrote this past week on the “war against black men,” with a focus on Chicago. As he says, “In Chicago, its Newtown every month.” Habeeb claims that the real reason the daily murders in Chicago receive so little media attention is that the national media are uncomfortable with the root cause of much of the senseless gun violence in America: fatherlessness. He notes that his hometown of Oxford, Miss. is flush with guns but rarely any murders: “…my town has lots of guns, but lots of fathers, too.”
I think Habeeb makes an important point, though the issue is certainly bigger and more complex than that. A very large chunk of crime, both among blacks and whites, is due to young men behaving badly. Social unrest of a variety of types—across cultures—results from young men and boys who lack supervision and constraints on their behavior. Responsible fathers are an important source of such constraints in any community. Sadly, however, in some inner-city neighborhoods, virtually no one is raised by a father and mother who are married and living together. In these neighborhoods, marriage is not merely threatened, it is completely dead. And where marriage is dead, responsible, engaged fatherhood is very hard to come by.
Although it still is not fashionable (and, indeed, risky) to talk about the role that culture plays in these pathological communities (I’ve heard scholars shouted down as racists for arguing that we should be combating the urban street culture in minority communities, as if that were even a contestable goal), there aren’t many serious scholars anymore who don’t recognize the breakdown of the family as a cause of cultural decay. The data are too overwhelming to claim otherwise. Yes, economic forces, discrimination, underperforming schools and other factors are also part of the “culture of pathology” that Moynihan warned about a half-century ago, but it is impossible to ignore the crisis of family breakdown that was the central component of that pathology.
As we celebrate this weekend those who have broken down barriers in extending civil rights and opportunities more broadly, we should also remember that some barriers perform valuable social functions, particularly the social norms that constrain behavior, especially among young men. We have torn down many of those barriers as well. King rose to prominence in an age where there was still a broad cultural consensus about what constituted appropriate behavior. In the late 1950s, the media, churches, schools, and popular culture were still largely on the same page. This included the vital area of sexual mores, including the simple and (then) relatively uncontroversial idea that communities are maintained by a certain social order: first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes sex, then comes children. Individuals have always violated this order (particularly the sex after marriage part) with some frequency, but until the great moral unraveling that was the sixties and seventies, they faced some degree of social disapproval for doing so. That social order and the disapproval for irresponsibility were essential components of the glue that held norms on marriage and fatherhood in place.
The sexual revolution knocked down those mores with a vengeance. Some celebrate the increase in personal freedoms, especially for women. But now we are stuck in a world where many men see little gain from pursuing responsible behavior towards women and children. Why should they, in a world where unconstrained sexual urges are tolerated and even celebrated and where they face few if any costs for satisfying their sexual desires in any way they please? Of course this isn’t something unique to any racial group. But the consequences of knocking down those barriers have been particularly devastating in poor and minority communities. We see its consequences in the death of marriage; we see it in communities bereft of fathers; we see it in young people lying dead on the streets of Chicago.
The left wants to celebrate how Rev. King fought for civil liberties. I do, too. But they don’t want to celebrate the strong religious beliefs that animated his passions. King himself was no paragon of marital fidelity, but I don’t think he ever would have embraced the moral decline that followed in the decades since he was killed. He said:
It is also midnight within the moral order. At midnight colours lose their distinctiveness and become a sullen shade of grey. Moral principles have lost their distinctiveness. For modern man, absolute right and wrong are a matter of what the majority is doing. Right and wrong are relative to likes and dislikes and the customs of a particular community. We have unconsciously applied Einstein’s theory of relativity, which properly described the physical universe, to the moral and ethical realm.
I’ve known and loved people in some of those tough Chicago neighborhoods. I’ve seen their goodness and their efforts, but I have also seen the pain in their lives and the sickness and ugliness in their neighborhoods. We had a young friend in our home many times several years ago. Like so many of his peers, he was being raised primarily by his mother and grandmother, with no father around. He was gunned down one day near his house in Englewood. For me, what I’m talking about is not just academic. It is personal.