No sooner had I announced that I was struggling to write about Ferguson because all I do on this blog is argue and like when the journal First Things gave me something to argue about.
Pivoting off a post by Rusty Reno, Mark Bauerlein laments what he calls the “script” of racial tension: “Black youth shot by policeman [arrow] outrage and protest [arrow] rioting and looting [arrow] indignant and solemn discussion of American racism by pundits and columnists.”
Bauerlein, like Reno, says this script can be flipped by “speaking frankly about marriage and family, the dignity of work, and the nobility of faith.” He points out that in 1965, only 25% of black children were born into fatherless homes, where now that rate is around 70%. But he argues that conversation won’t happen because “an entire class of academics and journalists” sees such talk as a rebuke.
But this is precisely the script that the liberals refuse. It posits the traditional family as a bulwark against disorder, and it maintains that boys need mothers and fathers. Honest inquiry would force them to acknowledge that the ‘experiments’ in family structure of the last half-century prove not an advance, but a disaster.
The phrase “experiments in family structure,” paired with the insistence that “boys need mothers and fathers” (emphasis his) sure looks like a swipe at gay marriage and yet another attempt to tie it to no-fault divorce. Bauerlein suggests that where liberals have been seeking to explain our national race problem with the idea of white supremacy, we should have been focusing on strengthening the traditional family, which he says, has been undone by “Marxist attacks on the family as a bourgeois conservation, feminist presentations of it as patriarchal, and ‘queer’ critiques of its ‘heteronormativity.’”
So there are two parts to his argument, which we’ll take in order:
First, he seems to be saying that racial tensions like the ones now engulfing Ferguson result from the breakdown of the black family. I’m not sure, exactly, whether he’s saying that the uprisings themselves are caused by widespread fatherlessness or whether he’s echoing Reno’s point that fatherlessness causes police distrust of black youth. Either way, he’s off base. If he’s arguing the former, then 1965 was a very bad comparison to choose, because, umm… remember Watts? As Jelani Cobb wrote this week, “Between 1964 and 1967, riots erupted across the nation—in Harlem, Watts, Detroit, Cleveland, and Newark. The Kerner Commission, convened by President Lyndon B. Johnson, concluded that the systemic exclusion of blacks from opportunity was at the root of the uprisings.”
But if he’s saying the latter, that police treat blacks unfairly because police distrust blacks because fatherless blacks commit more crimes, well that’s just as far off. Unjustified, systematic violence against African-Americans is as old as the country, and it has always been rationalized by portraying blacks, particularly black men, as uniquely threatening. Bauerlein is smart enough to know this history, which has nothing to do with the Sexual Revolution or queer theory, or feminist attacks on the patriarchy.
Which brings us to the second part of his argument, the notion that Marxist, feminist, queer theory academics have “undone” the family. There’s a lot wrong with this thinking: first, it ascribes way too much power to academia. I guess you can find radical critiques of “the family” as such in the academy—especially in writings from the 1970s—but they’ve never found much purchase, even in universities, let alone in the larger culture. And in the real world, no one is attacking the family, unless you buy into the faulty premise that arguing for a more inclusive definition of family is an “attack.” We have families; we love families; no one has any interest in tearing down “the family.”
Bauerlein says that “it’s going to take stamina and courage to hold [liberal academics and journalists] to the facts.” But I don’t see any facts that support his rather ahistorical argument, and plenty of facts that contradict it.