Sunday, September 30, 2007

Not about Jena.

Orlando Patterson has an op-ed in today's New York Times entitled "Jena, O.J. and the Jailing of Black America." Asking why the incarceration rate for blacks is eight times the rate for whites, Patterson acknowledges that
Part of the answer is a law enforcement system that unfairly focuses on drug offenses and other crimes more likely to be committed by blacks, combined with draconian mandatory sentencing and an absurdly counterproductive retreat from rehabilitation as an integral method of dealing with offenders. An unrealistic fear of crime that is fed in part by politicians and the press, a tendency to emphasize punitive measures and old-fashioned racism are all at play here.

But, he says,
there is another equally important cause: the simple fact that young black men commit a disproportionate number of crimes, especially violent crimes, which cannot be attributed to judicial bias, racism or economic hardships. The rate at which blacks commit homicides is seven times that of whites.

And the reason for this? Referring to recent events involving Juanita Bynum and Bishop Thomas Weeks, O.J. Simpson, and Anucha Browne Sanders and Isiah Thomas, Patterson points to the effects of widespread mysogyny among black people:
Black relationships and families fail at high rates because women increasingly refuse to put up with this abuse. The resulting absence of fathers — some 70 percent of black babies are born to single mothers — is undoubtedly a major cause of youth delinquency.

Patterson concludes:
Until we view this social calamity in its entirety — by also acknowledging the central role of unstable relations among the sexes and within poor families, by placing a far higher priority on moral and social reform within troubled black communities, and by greatly expanding social services for infants and children — it will persist.

Two thoughts: first, while I'm very much against mysogyny and in favor of higher moral standards (provided I get to define what that means), I would hate to see any public resources diverted from efforts to eliminate "judicial bias, racism and economic hardship" to programs of moral or social reform. Frankly, I doubt that mysogyny can be surgically removed from an economic, social, intellectual and cultural world like ours that relentlessly reinforces it.
Second, immediately after finishing Patterson's op-ed I happened to pick up my University of Chicago alumni magazine and read a piece by Michael Knezovich, "Father Figures", describing the work of SSA researcher Waldo Johnson. Johnson finds that many single black fathers are involved with their children even if they don't live with them and cannot afford to pay child support.
Some unwed fathers express a desire to remain part of their children’s lives but face hurdles—disapproval from the mother’s family or pressure from their own. . . . [Other barriers include] the child-welfare system. Social workers from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, for instance, sometimes omit fathers from their case management. He spoke with case workers in Chicago and downstate, finding that when they hear the word “parent,” many think “mother.” Moreover, fathers who don’t live in the household are often excluded from the early case-management process.

So, the causal link between paternal absence and crime having been assumed rather than made, it looks to me like both the extent of paternal absence in the poor black community and its causes in poor black families are also subject to some doubt. Meanwhile, the damage done by "judicial bias, racism and economic hardship" continues unabated. That, and not the poor black community's need for moral reform, should be the lesson of Jena.

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