“Urban” Family Dysfunction and Red Christian America

In the wake of the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore, there has been a lot more finger-pointing than sound analysis, with progressives accusing police of systemic disregard for the lives of black citizens and conservatives blaming “urban” (aka black) family dysfunction for a culture of lawlessness to which police justifiably respond. (If people don’t break the law, the meme goes, they have nothing to fear from the police.)

As with all gross generalizations, both of these broad-brush descriptions are wrong. Worse, to the extent they become common wisdom, they get in the way of our ability to solve real problems.

Are some police officers racists? Sure. But most aren’t–most are trying to do difficult jobs in situations that are often dangerous. That said, many more–especially but not exclusively in smaller communities– have been inadequately trained or badly managed, and those are issues that we can and should address.

The stereotype about black families has long been a staple of apologists for official misbehavior. It undoubtedly fits some urban families. But ironically, recent research suggests that the stereotype is much more likely to  apply to white families in deep-red, rural America. As Thomas Edsall recently reported

In the fall of 1969, Merle Haggard topped the Billboard country charts for four weeks with “Okie from Muskogee,” the song that quickly became the anthem of red America, even before we called it that.

“We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee, we don’t take our trips on LSD, we don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street, we like livin’ right and bein’ free,” Haggard declared. “We don’t make a party out of lovin’, we like holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo.”

Times have changed.

Today Muskogee, Okla., a city of 38,863, has nine drug treatment centers and a court specifically devoted to drug offenders. A search for “methamphetamine arrest” on the website of the Muskogee Phoenix, the local newspaper, produces 316 hits.

In 2013 just under two-thirds of the births in the city of Muskogee, 62.6 percent, were to unwed mothers, including 48.3 percent of the births to white mothers. The teenage birthrate in Oklahoma was 47.3 per 1,000; in Muskogee, it’s 59.2, almost twice the national rate, which is 29.7.

Maps of social dysfunction–out-of-wedlock births, drug use, domestic violence, divorce, etc.–show these behaviors largely concentrated in Southern, bible-belt states. Similarly, a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control soundly rebutted the widely-held stereotype of the absent black father; the CDC found that black dads are, if anything, more likely to be involved with their children than fathers in other racial categories.

The problem with stereotypes–of police, of urban dwellers, of racial groups–is that they prevent us from seeing individuals and situations as they are. Pat answers and dismissive characterizations don’t solve problems–they perpetuate them.

Update: If you are interested in getting the most from data from the Census website, this guide may help.


  1. Wow – you should send this to the NY Times, Washington Post, and network news affiliates, including Fox News. You’ve shown once again that conventional wisdom is very different from the facts.

  2. As Pete might say, the news media is all about selling advertising time and not about reporting. The news media are complicit is perpetuating these problems because instead of using their resources to help define problems and spark intelligent discussions about workable solutions, they sell advertising and their success is measured in revenues, not results.

  3. “In the wake of the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore, there has been a lot more finger-pointing than sound analysis”


    SERIOUSLY, WHAT????????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    What kind of life have you led, Ms. Kennedy? Where have you lived? How much driving have you done?

    The ACLU’s lack of attention on police thuggery is its great discredit. Police have done the most to destroy America as a free country.

    We’ve had sound analysis of police abuse since the 60’s. Analysis after analysis, complaint after complaint. We’ve talked and talked. Nobody listened. Despite thoughtful complaints and warnings, police became more and more aggressive, more and more confrontational, more and more militarized. Youtube is full of police abuses, any one of which would be a cause for a riot.

    The time for talking is over. We’re past the breaking point. When you see a cop now (where “now” is any time after 1987), you put a pretty high probability on you getting abused, intimidated or killed.

    The people who live in the real world are fully aware of what cops are and what can occur whenever you encounter one.

    News from the last couple of days: In Georgia, a cop shot a real estate agent showing a house. In South Carolina. a cop shot a homeowner defending his home from a burglary 1.1 seconds after arriving and barking an order to drop his gun. I’d post links, but they get me “moderated.”

    The government ignored analysis, and we’re now living in a country that’s an active minefield. You never know when the next event is going to go off.

  4. I will preface my remarks by stating 3 of my 4 ex-husbands are black men; I have 1 biracial great-granddaughter, 2 biracial great-grandsons and 1 Mexican-American great granddaughter, to prevent being thought a racist. I had “colored” friends in high school in the 1950’s when it was not only unpopular, it was unsafe. That being said:

    This city for years had a group of Concerned Black Ministers who applied the “only because they are black” label so many times that the instances when that statement was true, they were ignored. One of my friends (I will not mention either name in these comments because they would be recognized) sought the truth of the death of her black grandson, shot by a white police officer, by publically telling the group of aforementioned ministers to please stay out of it because the family wanted the truth. Her son was a Viet Nam vet who lost one arm and one leg after stepping on a land mine; he was a member of the IPD Citizens Action Board (not sure of that title). Her 24 year old black grandson, a parolee, was walking home late at night when stopped by a white IPD officer and told to raise his hands. When he raised his hands the officer saw a gun in the waistband of his pants (TOTALLY ILLEGAL) but the officer shot and killed him. Little action was taken against the officer. This was several years ago here in Indianapolis. Only a few years ago there was the 15 year old black boy with the big mouth yelling profanities and resusing to shut up and back up while white police officers arrested his brother. WRONG, totally wrong BUT – FIVE white officers beat him severely. In both cases the young black men were in the wrong but one did not deserve a death sentence on a public street and the other did not deserve the severe beating. Can Indianapolis become another Ferguson or Baltimore; you betcha’ We have been rather lucky regarding media coverage – till Pence and RFRA.

    Is the local media NOT reporting white police abuse against white citizens and concentrating on the black community? It would take too long to tell the complete story about my white daugher, granddaughters and great-granddaughters and their white German shepherd being abused by white IPD officers in my daughter’s front yard after my granddaughter’s EX-boyfriend had beaten her up AGAIN. Police arrested my granddaughter who was the victim, refused to let her mother giver her anti-seizure medication and placed her 4 year old daughter with CPS even though they shared a home with her aunt and cousin (who were there) and her grandmother, my daughter, is a licensed foster parent. It took hours to find where my terrified 4 year old great-granddaughter had been taken and return her to her grandmother. The EX-boyfriend was allowed to leave. When my granddaughter was taken from jail to court, there were no charges filed against her and neither white officer showed up to testify against her. When my daughter attempted to file a complaint, she was threatened with arrest for harassment. How many other cases are there like this that the public never knows about?

    There are problems in families throughout Marion County; not only the few selected (primarily black) neighborhoods that police are concentrating on. Last year after being mugged (with injuries) and robbed on my own driveway, I asked Daniel Miller of Channel 8 news after the interview – where are the white ministers who are trying to help change this situation? Why do we only see the black ministers; the 10 Point Coalition seems to be slowly making inroads? Where are the black and white groups of ministers trying to help? Where are the Hispanic ministers trying to help? Do police departments and the media concentrate on the black communities in all major cities? How will we ever know the truth?

  5. I have watched the violence in over the last 40 years. I keep seeing self promoting preachers on the street and church ladies singing on street corners. For YEARS. How has that worked so far?

  6. Gopper now wants it all gone. Liberal democracy, POLICE and I guess fireman also. Then we can all start over in complete anarchy. Sorry, I meant to say: END IN COMPLETE ANARCHY.

    Then what do you have in mind, Gopper?

  7. I don’t think Gopper is calling for anarchy. After re-reading his or her post a couple times, it looks like the point is that police abuses have been a topic of conversation for decades.

    Now, where I disagree is with the suggestion that the discussion of police abuse has been taking place widely. It has occurred within certain segments of society and academia, but not always in places where it counts.

    Part of the problem, I think, is that a big part of our population actually wants an aggressive, semi-military police force. No matter how much abuses are documented, some people feel that the victim deserved what he or she got. I think there’s also something hard wired into us that we like to see justice meted out—the popularity of the Dirty Harry films and similar themes is revealing.

    A lot of this is quite depressing when you start to dig into it. To take just a few sample causes of the problem:

    • Poor management and training require tax dollars to fix, yet the anti-tax movement is strong enough to resist additional taxation or at least forces false choices to be made.

    • People want a strong police force because they fear “the criminals,” but dispelling this fear is highly unlikely. Crime can be trending downward, but people still feel unsafe. The home invasion story of the week makes us think it can happen to us, when the reality is that there were thousands of households where nothing bad at all happened this week.

    • Pulling officers off the walking assignment and sticking them in patrol cars distances officers from the neighborhoods they serve, leading to distrust and more for both the officers and the communities. More officers are needed, but we run into the cost problem again.

    Given the all but nonexistent hope for making the situation better, it’s little wonder that some of us throw up our hands in despair or predict further unrest and violence.

  8. African-Americans have had a very rough go of it, to put it mildly. 250 years of slavery, and then “freedom”. It must have been very exhilarating but also very frightening for them. The education necessary for even the post civil war society had been denied them as slaves. There are numerous articles available on line, concerning the situation in the South after the Civil War.
    Below is an excerpt from a report by Carl Schurtz – Report on Conditions in the South (1865)

    Negro insurrections and anarchy
    . . . [I do] not deem a negro insurrection probable as long as the freedmen were assured of the direct protection of the national government. Whenever they are in trouble, they raise their eyes up to that power, and although they may suffer, yet, as long as that power is visibly present, they continue to hope. But when State authority in the south is fully restored, the federal forces withdrawn, and the Freedmen’s Bureau abolished, the colored man will find himself turned over to the mercies of those whom he does not trust. If then an attempt is made to strip him again of those rights which he justly thought he possessed, he will be apt to feel that he can hope for no redress unless he procure it himself. If ever the negro is capable of rising, he will rise then. . . .

    100 years of Jim Crow rule in the South and North followed, separate but equal and segregation. We all know of the bitter fights, physical and judicial that took place during this time.

    I would make one other point the De-industrialization of America has led to fewer and fewer living wage jobs for all Americans. Higher education a great help but no guarantee of living wage job is rationed in a sense by your ability to pay for it.

  9. My very best friend growing up in Jacksonville was a longtime police officer and for a short while was the temporary sheriff in an adjoining county. We were the two guards who helped when the basketball championship. Because of what Tommie has always meant to me, I see policeman in a positive light. And most always have had policeman responding in kind.

    But I’m not an African-American, that’s a different story. The racism in America is much more extreme than is reported. And almost all the reporting is about criminal confrontations. The SOCIAL interaction has been getting worse and worse and it’s not being discussed. What happened to the concept of our “Post-Racist Society?” You don’t hear about that anymore.

    Very, very unfortunately, when an African-American meets up with a white police officer it’s going to be in many cases a very negative situation on both sides. And that’s playing a large part in the tragic consequences we are seeing.

  10. We are human, humans learn social cues from others around them who they believe are like them, culture, then tend to reason culturally rather than rationally if that’s what their models did.

    Are some blacks and police culturally unsuited for their circumstances? Of course. Is America culturally susceptible to our immersion in mass media for sale culture creation that makes one Ebola victim an epidemic? Of course.

    We are, merely, who we are and that puts us at odds with many others. Dysfunctional.

    Our only hope is for ration to displace culture. For education to guide individuals towards functional rather than reflexive lives. And we have very limited time in which to do it because we have the ability to destroy the only place that we can exist in (despite Hollywood mass media fantasies).

    Education, democracy, sustainable living. All are on the critical path now. In project management terms we’ve used up the float time.

    We can of course. Places like this help small numbers of us to figure this all out. But then there is the mass media culture creation machine employed by the wealthy to obscure to most of us what’s been figured out by some of us.

    Oddly enough that makes for the inevitability of crises consuming us then hope rising from the ashes of our failure. We just have to hope that the eye opening crises happen before the total destruction of home.

    I’ve been human now for almost 73 years and while I won’t claim that I’ve loved every minute I will say that I’m immensely proud of our potential and scared to death of our failings. Please God give us this one last chance for our capability to triumph over our weakness.

    Perhaps God believes that he’s already given us what we need. I wonder if he’s betting on our strengths or weaknesses?

  11. The media is only interested in sensational stories because that is what draws viewers/readers in and it is what brings advertising money in. When these stories of violence and other terrible behavior are the only “news” that people are fed, it breeds a sense of doom and gloom in all of us. It causes us to lose hope in society and to lose hope for our own future.

    There is most definitely racism in America and I believe that it has become more widespread as living wage jobs have disappeared. We could all come up with a multitude of reasons that racism is rampant in America, but that won’t solve the problem. We need to find a way to bring back the strength of the middle class in America.

    Regarding police officers, I could tell you things that would make you lose respect for most of them. Having been married to one for over 20 years, I was aware of many many unsavory things that the public never hears about.

  12. Being led by my “sociological imagination,” I decided to have lunch at the senior citizen’s center and test out my theory about the problem of police brutality being a “dual” problem which I had earlier mentioned on the blog.

    There are probably about 150 people who eat at the same time. And the group is about 98% African-American.

    Usually, 6-8 people sit at large round tables. I’m always the only white.

    Today, I had an opportunistic opening in the conversation, which made it very easy for me to bring up Ferguson et al.

    The gentleman sitting next to me started talking about his grandson who was in jail for murder. He asked his grandson why he killed another young man? His answer, “He was sizing me up.” His grandfather responded, “You mean you killed him for that and he hadn’t done anything more?” “Yep,” was his reply.

    I then put in my two cents with: “Now I can understand what the police are doing. They’re SIZING UP also.” And some of them are making “damn sure” that they don’t get hurt, even if the threat turns out not to be deadly.

    How are we going to be able to stop that? Broken cameras?????

    We must find another way before we encounter a much larger and damaging seismic eruption than the one’s which occurred at Ferguson and Baltimore.

  13. The media are sometime hard nuts to crack and should do the research that Sheila has done. But if they don’t find and are never given the facts, it’s a certainty that they won’t publish it or internalize it the next time they write a story on the issue. Silence signals agreement with the conventional wisdom.

  14. As I warned long, long ago, what Black men endured for untold years, white men will endure tomorrow. Its is now afoot. It is no longer shocking to see five men in blue with their feet and knees on white men sprawled on the ground. It is beyond the capacity of militarized departments loaded with indoctrinated ex-GI’s to differentiate between fellow blue clads and ‘them’. The shooting is soon to follow. Then, and only then, will the policies begin to change.

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