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How Men Distort the Race Debate

The rhetorical obsession with single mothers obscures the root cause of racial inequality.

Brooks Kraft/Corbis/Getty

In video footage that went viral this fall, the hip-hop mogul Jay-Z said that growing up in a Black single-parent household contributed directly to anti-Black police brutality. As I pondered his remarks, I was reminded of the lengthy history of stupefying male-centric social analyses that Jay-Z’s take was in league with. And the net effect of these misinterpretations called to mind the Men in Black (MIB) movie franchise’s iconic neuralyzer gimmick.

Let me explain. In the films, all manner of extraterrestrial mayhem may have broken out in plain view of countless witnesses. But the debonair agents in the title roles wielded their memory-wiping gadget to dispatch all traces of the damning episode into the ether. They then thoughtfully supplied the poor saps in their charge with a flimsy, slapdash account of what happened to supplant their now-vanished memories.

Patriarchy functions in much the same way, particularly with respect to how the many life-destroying dynamics of anti-Black racism are erased and redubbed into a baby-simple saga of negligent Black mothers and absent Black fathers. Whether the inequality at issue is the police killing of Black people, the mass incarceration of Black communities, anti-Black violence, disparities in health and wealth, crumbling schools, abandoned cities, or diminishing political power, the patriarchal neuralyzer manages to make it all vanish in a blinding flash.

Neuralization isn’t new. In fact, a telltale sign of its impact is just how enthusiastically stunned and disoriented witnesses lapse into incoherent analysis. In Jay-Z’s case, his viewers became mired in a vastly oversimplified bit of pop psychology when the hip-hop legend conjured up an explanation for Black death at the hands of police that had been recycled from generations of earlier commentators who rest the blame on Black gender disrepair: “You’re like, ‘I hate my dad. Don’t nobody tell me what to do. I’m the man of the house.’ And then you hit the streets and run into a police officer and first thing he says, ‘Put your hands up, freeze, shut up,’ and you’re like, ‘Fuck you!’”

Meanwhile, during September’s Democratic presidential debate in Houston, the party’s front-runner, Joe Biden, was asked to address earlier views in which he angrily rejected any responsibility for addressing slavery. Given the opportunity to talk concretely about the contemporary legacies of slavery, Biden produced his own neuralyzed script. Regurgitating a tangled fur ball of tropes from policy debates past, Biden delivered an impressionistic, stereotyped word-picture of Black family life that only made notional sense because of the exhausting familiarity of the narrative.

The off-kilter outbursts from Biden and Jay-Z drive home the way patriarchal neuralyzing proceeds by way of uncontrolled bursts of rhetorical chaos. When Jay-Z wound down his remarks with the mock-sober reflection that the unhinged conduct of dad-deprived young Black men in confrontations with the cops “causes people to lose lives,” he was effacing a counter-narrative that was sitting just a few feet away from him at the time, in the person of hip-hop artist Meek Mill.

Mill is a young Black man raised by a single mother, who’s endured a series of punitive run-ins with the criminal justice system in Philadelphia that have sparked national protests. In recasting such encounters in the long-familiar, Manichean contours of Black family melodrama, Jay-Z displaced the whole question of the abuse of racial power within the American legal system into the fatalist, victim-blaming sphere of putative cultural pathology. The furor that greeted Jay-Z’s comments reprised a debate that’s been convulsing the forces of racial and gender advocacy for more than half a century now, as the official center-right consensus on race has gravitated again and again toward the same gender-exclusive, victim-blaming diagnosis of tense relations between Black people and police.

This flawed discourse is the by-product of a failed synthesis of centrist and conservative rhetoric about race that largely grew out of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report to the Johnson White House, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” In the years since its publication, the Moynihan Report has stalwartly set the terms of debate about the social-cultural versus societal-institutional causes of Black inequality.

Moynihan’s analysis grounded the problem of inequality on a misguided understanding of the legacy of slavery and segregation that adjudged Black families as deficient on a gender-normative analytic baseline. Moynihan’s study went on to ascribe the social deficits afflicting Black households to a single-bullet cause: the ubiquity of female-dominated households. The clear imperative for federal race policy, by Moynihan’s lights, was to reconfigure Black social relations at the household level. Once Black families could be made to parallel and emulate the patriarchal structures of white families, they could assimilate successfully into the socioeconomic mainstream. In the service of racial equality, Moynihan advanced a program of masculinity-enhancing remedies—military service, jobs programs, and immersive man-training experiences—to repair the pathologies allegedly wrought by Black female independence.

In short order, the Moynihan analysis got retooled as an all-purpose explanation of Black male social dysfunction in every imaginable setting, from the workplace to the prisons to the streets. Just two years after Moynihan’s report was published, in 1967, when Johnson charged the Kerner Commission to analyze the root causes of the racial uprisings in the United States, the ensuing report echoed Moynihan’s central thesis. The commission ultimately attributed the anger and deficient civility of the Black youth in Watts and Harlem to resentment stemming from their upbringing in fatherless homes.

This rhetorical one-two punch of the Moynihan and Kerner reports has prefigured the general course of racial debate ever since, in mainstream politics and pop culture alike. It was the subtext behind Bill Clinton’s public dressing down of the Black feminist hip-hop performer Sister Souljah in 1992, just as it was the blatant gambit behind Dan Quayle’s Bidenesque bid that same year to explain the LA riots over the Rodney King verdict as a product of the glorification of single-motherhood on the CBS primetime sitcom Murphy Brown. Meanwhile, in the far more momentous policy debates over welfare repeal and school reform, the song remained the same: Black familial failings are talismanically diagnosed as the root cause of racial inequality.

So it came to pass that our first African American president, Barack Obama, presided over a Moynihan-ian crusade to save Black boys from risks associated with female-dominated families. As he announced his signature racial justice program, “My Brother’s Keeper” (MBK), in 2014, Obama cited the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin as a clear-cut example of why his gender-exclusive racial-justice program was needed, even as he acknowledged the presence of Martin’s parents and the parents of Jordan Davis, another recent Black teen shooting fatality, from the podium. Yes, it actually turned out both Martin’s and Davis’s fathers were actively involved in their upbringing; the seeming exemplars of the problem of Black gender disrepair didn’t typify the problem MBK was trying to correct. Having a father does not stop a police officer’s bullet—yet the power of the Moynihan narrative remains so impermeable to contradictory evidence that Obama introduced a $200 million privately funded initiative for men and boys (that has garnered an additional $1 billion in private commitments since its creation) which enshrines the donor-comforting social myth of Black family breakdown as the premier cause of anti-Black police violence and Black social dysfunction writ large.

The not-so-subtle gender messaging behind Moynihan’s legacy and MBK alike is the stereotype of Black women as incompetent mothers. They are the defective parents producing and raising the miscreant offspring undermining the security of the nation as well as the reputational capital of Black people. Such are the far-from-hidden costs of the prevailing model of “trickle-down racial justice”—the seemingly unmovable premise of federal policy-making holding that well-to-do men are the tide that will lift all boats.

And make no mistake: that premise is still very much at the center of our policy debate. Senators Marco Rubio, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris recently co-sponsored legislation creating a federal commission to study the socioeconomic plight of Black boys and men, presumably to conceptualize and measure their well-being as something entirely autonomous from that of their mothers, sisters, and daughters. The neuralyzer’s setting remains stubbornly stuck at 1: It’s the easy thing to do, precisely because it is the wrong thing to do. The cultural racism at the heart of these critiques cannot explain why Black Americans with college degrees have less wealth than white high school dropouts. But the neuralyzer can make such nettlesome questions go back down the national memory hole.