Upstream variables. For the poor ink-stained opinion journalist casting around for a topic, anniversaries are a godsend. The number of opinion pieces whose first paragraph includes the phrase “€œ20 [or 50, or 100] years ago today”€ is probably finite, but far beyond computing.

Odd, therefore, that opinion journalists weren”€™t all over the fiftieth anniversary of the Moynihan Report last month. The report’s title was The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. It got some notice”€”see George Will here, for example”€”but not as much as you might have expected.

In the context of race relations this isn”€™t really all that odd. In these fifty years we have passed from hope to despair; and despair is not an emotion you want to dwell on.

The number everyone remembers from the report is the 24 percent of black births being to unmarried women, versus 2 or 3 percent for whites. The numbers in 2011, the latest I can find, were 72 percent and 29 percent (Table 1 here). So yes, things are worse all round, but still way worse for blacks. 

Hence the uneasiness. A changing tide lifts, or lowers, all boats; but if this boat rides lower in the water than that boat at any tide level, you have to suspect that there is something different about the boats. Eek!  Pick a different topic! 

The liberal conventional wisdom prior to Moynihan’s report had been that the root cause was poverty, the solution welfare. No, said Moynihan, the problem was culture, the solution was to, uh, change the culture.

Fifty years on, that’s still the conventional wisdom, as George Will’s commentary makes plain. As Will also makes plain, we have no more idea how to change the culture now than we had in 1965. The suspicion creeps upon us that culture is not a weightless gas or a luminiferous aether; that there are some upstream variables involved in determining culture.  Eek!


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