Amid the barrage of humorous memes, status updates, tweets, and reports emanating from the second presidential debate, one moment was mostly lost, perhaps misfiled among those infamous “binders full of women.” When the candidates were asked to address the circulation of assault weapons, President Obama, who answered first, hinted toward an outright ban, arguing that weapons designed for soldiers “don’t belong on streets.” The president then shifted focus on the recent up-tick in violence in his hometown, Chicago, citing a comprehensive policy prescription involving cooperation among schools, faith groups, and law enforcement. He didn’t mention it, but in many cities this also involves intervention by current or former gang members, not to mention ex-offenders.
Governor Romney, eager to keep that NRA endorsement, stood firm against new legislation, erroneously stating that automatic weapons were already illegal in the United States. Then, following President Obama’s transition, he went further, seeking to “out-prove” the president on the issue of urban violence. Romney agreed with Obama that “good schools” are essential, but argued that a key variable explaining America’s “culture of violence” (his words) was…single parenthood. “But gosh, to tell our kids, before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone….Because if there’s a two parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically….So we can make changes in the way our culture works to help bring people away from violence and give them opportunity and bring them into the American system.”
The problem with Romney’s baffling, cognitive leap isn’t just that he conflates issues and puts the symptom before the source in ways that have zero empirical credibility. Nor is it that he insults millions of single parents in cities (read: urban blacks, Latinos) by suggesting they belong to a “culture” that causes poverty and henceforth violence. Nor is it that given the blinders (and binders) that come with white, wealthy male privilege, Romney overlooked the actual question, which was not about poverty and violence but about banning assault weapons. The question likely stemmed from recent mass shootings around the country like the one in Aurora, Colorado, where the shooter used an assault rifle among other weapons. Romney nowhere mentioned factors like the mass consumption and normalization of violence, the stigmas attached to mental illness, and the policies that allow weapons of leisure and war to circulate without recourse. Nor did he mention that from Aurora to Tucson to Columbine, each of the shooters, white and male, came not from ghettos and barrios, but from the suburban confines of two-parent, middle-class, dual-income families.
But what is most troubling is that versions of Romney’s racialized, “blame-the-victim” discourse have circulated through policy spheres over the last forty-plus years with bipartisan support, and have even been propagated by “progressive” Democrats.
Recall President Johnson’s 1965 monumental speech at Howard University, given barely a year after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, when he spoke the infamous words that we need “not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as fact and result.” Eerily similar to Romney’s claim last week was Johnson’s comment in the same speech that the “extent to which an individual is able to develop his aptitudes will largely depend upon the circumstances present in the family within which he grows up and the opportunities which he encounters at school and the larger community.” Johnson’s speech, co-written by Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Republican Richard Goodwin, was given only weeks after Moynihan finished a controversial report titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” The report, which argued that the absence of nuclear families explained much of the economic problems in the African-American community, went on to become one of the many civil rights–era publications to inform the ever-changing “culture of poverty” thesis (a term popularized by sociologist Oscar Lewis). In short, single parenthood, welfare dependency, crime proneness, financial illiteracy, and other “behaviors” and “values” were all theorized to stem from a self-perpetuating cycle of group dysfunction that impeded educational and hence economic success.
Over time, offshoots of the thesis were enveloped into “personal responsibility”–centered GOP platforms, but Democrats would adopt them unapologetically, too. In his November 13, 1993 speech before black ministers in Memphis, President Clinton, speaking as a resurrected Dr. King, began by acknowledging racism’s historical roots and contemporary institutional presence. Suddenly, he shifted focus, suggesting that King “did not live and die to see the American family destroyed.” With this claim, Clinton not only spoke as if blacks were responsible for the institution’s demise, but continued with, “I [Dr. King] fought for freedom….not for the freedom of children to impregnate each other with babies and abandon them, nor for the freedom of adult fathers of children to walk away from the children they created and abandon them, as if they didn’t amount to anything.”
Fifteen years later, then-Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama, speaking before the NAACP in Cincinnati, delivered a similar line when he called black men to “realize responsibility does not end at conception, that what makes a man is not the ability to have a child but to raise one.” Like Clinton, Obama began his speech by referencing the nasty legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, all of which “meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations.” This draws a key point missing in mainstream media understandings of the vast urban poverty literature: that the presence of two parents means little without addressing the intentionally designed structures that perpetuate income and wealth inequality. But like Presidents Johnson and Clinton, Obama’s rhetorical shift away from structural racism toward so-called “deficiencies” of blacks meant that audiences, and public policy, would follow.
This is the real problem with Romney’s racial scapegoating and Obama’s accommodative rhetoric, words of advice neither has given to or about poor, white men. We do need strong, stable urban communities with healthy institutions and cooperative community-to-policy level actors. But the real danger lies in expecting that behavioral modification or a simple switch of cultural values will somehow mitigate the debilitating trauma, stress, and other daily challenges that urban families face. We can’t propose marriage as a solution to urban poverty and violence against a backdrop of unequal resource distribution and wealth disparities. Marriage won’t magically release a spouse from prison serving under draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws or provide a mother with gainful employment and housing, especially given the policy-driven barriers one must face with a criminal conviction. Marriage won’t undo the reality that communities of color are heavily policed and consistently subject to racial profiling, or that adolescent behavior is criminalized at a young age. Marriage won’t solve the problems plaguing public schools, from larger class sizes, culturally biased high-stakes (standardized) testing, zero-tolerance policies, and other factors that perpetuate the well-documented “school-to-prison pipeline.” And marriage won’t solve the problems that come with a lack of access to health care, rapid gentrification, environmental racism, and outright discrimination in the housing and labor markets.
Our young people cannot rely on platitudes that life will be better if only they “pull up their pants” and form a more perfect union. They need our leaders, from the grassroots to the federal level, to acknowledge the concrete barriers to equality, to rally the public, and to muster the political will to undo mass incarceration and provide gainful employment, adequate education, and affordable housing to those who need it most.
Alan A. Aja is an assistant professor of public and urban policy in the Puerto Rican & Latino Studies Department at Brooklyn College (City University of New York).