The deepest secret of the campaign against law enforcement in the name of racial disparities is this one: behavioral disparities account for the racial disparities. Huge differences in crime rates between and among groups sorted by race permeate the relevant data. John Diiulio put it concisely in a notable 1996 City Journal essay: “If blacks are overrepresented in the ranks of the imprisoned, it is because blacks are overrepresented in the criminal ranks—and the violent criminal ranks, at that.”*
What is the cause of the large racial differences in crime rates? The answer must vary to some extent by group and lie in a combination of history, sociology, psychology, and culture. Anyone who attributes causation to a simple material cause — anyone, for example, like Charles Blow and his rote citation of “condensed poverty” — is nothing better than a fool. In the most recent number of City Journal, as it happens, Theodore Dalrymple (Anthony Daniels) meditates on the case of Tina Nash “for those who believe that degradation in modern society is simply a matter of insufficient money.”
No one has written with more care or knowledge on the subject than the late James Q. Wilson. Wilson’s essay “Crime” appears in Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom, eds., Beyond the Color Line: New Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity in America, published by the Hoover Institution in early 2002 (Hoover listing here). The essay provides a handy summary of Wilson’s learning on the subject.
Wilson’s essay begins: “A central problem—perhaps the central problem—in improving the relationship between white and black Americans is the difference in racial crime rates.” Wilson considers the problematic character of various proposed reforms (footnotes omitted):
It is not hard to think of reasons why many programs have failed to reduce crime. Character is formed by families and reinforced by schools. If, as is the case, families have become weaker and schools less effective, then no one should be surprised that whatever was spent on new schools and social welfare has done little to strengthen character.
Consider families. Though for many years, some sociologists urged us to believe that single-parent families were an “alternative” to two-parent ones, hardly anybody believes that any more. The evidence shows that single-parent families are a major source of misconduct. A federal survey of the families of sixty thousand American children found that at every income level except the highest (over $50,000 a year) and for whites, blacks, and Hispanics, children living with a never-married or a divorced mother were much worse off than those living in two-parent families. A survey of all the leading studies shows that both poverty and living in a single-parent family contribute to children’s problems. When William Comanor and Llad Phillips examined data in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), they found that “the most critical factor affecting the prospect that a male youth will encounter the criminal justice system is the presence of his father in the home.” Another look at the NLSY data suggests that African American boys without fathers were 68 percent more likely to be in jail than those with a father. Fatherless Latino boys were nearly three times as likely to be in jail than those with fathers; fatherless white Anglo boys were over four times as likely to be in jail than those with fathers.
These facts suggest that any effort to change a boy’s prospects must somehow compensate for an absent father. Many of the crime-prevention programs that have been most rigorously evaluated contain some form of this compensation. Big Brothers–Big Sisters programs equip children with adult mentors, nurse home visitation programs instruct single mothers on how to cope with children, and multisystemic therapy programs try to improve family life. Not all successful programs have these elements, and no one can be certain what it is about any given program that makes it effective.
Compensating for an absent father is no easy task. Some programs, led by a dedicated, highly motivated staff, can make a difference. But whether what such talented staffs do for 100 or 500 children can also be done by ordinary staffs for 100,000 or 500,000 remains to be seen. Scaling up prevention programs so that they reach most of the families that can benefit from them is no easy matter. Happily, some of these efforts are now being tried on a wider scale, and in time we shall learn whether they can be effective on a broad scale.
But the problems that these programs must tackle are not of recent origin. Since the early 1960s there has been a dramatic increase in the number of children living in single-parent families. In 1960 only 6 percent of white children lived with one parent; by 1990 that number had more than tripled. For black Americans, matters are much worse. The proportion of black children living with only one parent rose from about 20 percent in 1960 to 53 percent in 1996. And among black children in single-parent families, those who were living with a mother who had never married rose from less than 10 percent in 1960 to nearly 58 percent in 1996.
In 1965 Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out these worrisome trends and suggested that blacks suffered because so many of them were the product of single-parent families. He was immediately attacked for having been wrong on the facts and mistaken in their implications.15 Many writers said that blacks had had two-parent families until they experienced economic disadvantage, after which their families broke apart. In any event, single-parent families were resilient alternatives to two-parent ones. We now know, however, that these revisionist attacks on the Moynihan view were wrong.
Careful studies of census data now make it clear that at least back to 1880, and perhaps much earlier, black children were more than twice as likely to grow up in a mother-only family than were white children.16 These differences were not the product of blacks having suddenly moved from farms to cities or from the South to the North, for they existed in both urban and rural locations and in all geographical regions. The differences were universal, but their cause is not well understood. One possibility is that slavery, by denying to blacks the ordinary rites of marriage, destroyed the possibility of family life that had already been powerfully undermined by the African capture and transatlantic shipment of slaves. Another is that in Africa itself nuclear family ties were weak. A third is that the combined effect of slavery and postslavery racism produced this effect.
Whatever the explanation, in the early 1960s differences that had long existed suddenly exploded in magnitude. These new trends affected white as well as black families, though the latter were hardest hit. What caused these trends is a matter of dispute. Some believe the dramatic decline in family unity was the result of the expansion of welfare payments, others that it was caused by the decline in social stigma that attached to out-of-wedlock births, and still others that it was the result of the growing inability of some men, especially black men, to find jobs.
If crime is to a significant degree caused by weak character; if weak character is more likely among the children of unmarried mothers; if there are no fathers who will help raise their children, acquire jobs, and protect their neighborhoods; if boys become young men with no preparation for work; if school achievement is regarded as a sign of having “sold out” to a dominant white culture; if powerful gangs replace weak families—if all these things are true, then the chances of reducing by plan and in the near future the crime rate of low-income blacks are slim. In many cities there are programs, some public, many private, that improve matters for some people. But the possibility that these programs can overcome the immense burdens confronting poor, badly educated, fatherless children is remote.
Wilson’s magnum opus, written with R.J. Herrnstein, is Crime and Human Nature: The Definitive Study of the Causes of Crime. I commend Wilson’s essay and his great body of work to readers who are interested in serious analysis of this difficult subject.
* Diiulio adds in the rest of the paragraph: “Yes, there are ways in which the justice system is failing all Americans, including black Americans. But to the extent that the justice system hurts, rather than helps, blacks more than it does whites, it is not by incarcerating a ‘disproportionate’ number of young black men. Rather, it is by ignoring poor black victims and letting convicted violent and repeat black criminals, both adult and juvenile, continue to victimize and demoralize the black communities that suffer most of their depredations.”