The Public Interest

Slavery and the black family

James Q. Wilson

Spring 2002

EVERYONE knows that African Americans have very high rates of single-parent families, but they disagree about why this has occurred. And this is where the trouble begins, not simply because the issue is a difficult puzzle but because so much appears to hang on the answer. If you think African Americans have “always” had a lot of out-of-wedlock children, you risk being called a racist, unless you quickly add that families are not important to children, in which case you may be called either a progressive or a fool. If you think slavery caused the problem, you will be reminded that post-bellum American society put endless roadblocks in the path of black family unity. If you think welfare caused the problem, you must deal with the charge that illegitimate births appear to have risen much faster than welfare payments, and, in any event, you are insensitive to the economic problems African Americans must face. Answering this question is a quick way to earn an ideological label. 

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