On average, black Americans are affected by poverty and criminality to a much greater degree than white Americans, and this has been attributed to a bugaboo called systemic racism. Slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining have all been named as the usual suspects whose ongoing effects are part and parcel of this systemic racism; occasionally thrown into the mix is the fact that the original “G.I. Bill” passed after the Second World War failed to benefit black Americans as it did white Americans at the time. So systemic racism is the reason for black poverty, it is claimed, and poverty is a breeding ground for criminality.
Now while it is certainly true that the ongoing effects of the practices enumerated above can contribute to racial disparities between white Americans and black Americans, do those ongoing effects last forever, or are they attenuated over time? In other words, is the level of black poverty today the direct result of ongoing effects of racist practices from the past, or are there other factors that might have greater explanatory power? I would like to suggest here that certain behaviors—engaged in to a much greater degree by black Americans than white Americans—generate the higher poverty and criminality levels found among black Americans. The particular behavior I want to explore here is unprotected sex leading to pregnancy and childbirth among underage girls, “underage girls” here defined as those under the age of 18.
The source materials consulted are the “Births: Final Data” issues of the National Vital Statistics Reports (NVSR). Cumulative data from 1980 through 2001 are found in vol. 51, no. 2, p. 32, with successive issues providing data on up through 2019 at this writing. The data charts for each year provide age range and race information on childbirths along with the rate per thousand of population for each classification. Since there was no single category dedicated to underage girls, I made do with a couple of given age range categories, one for girls from 10 to 14 years of age and another for girls from 15 to 17 years of age. I did a side-by-side comparison of black and white rates from 1980 through 2019.
Here’s what I found: The black rates were consistently much, much, higher than the white rates, such that dividing the black rate by the white rate yielded the magnitude of order by which the black rate exceeded the white rate. The greatest disparity was in the 10 to 14 years of age group in 2002, when the black rate was a whopping 9.5 times the white rate. The lowest disparity in that age group occurred in 2012, 2017, 2018, and 2019, when in those four years the black rate was 4 times the white rate. The greatest disparity in the 15 to 17 years of age group was also in 2002, when the black rate was 3.09 times the white rate. The lowest disparity in that age group was in 2001, when the black rate was 2.08 times the white rate. Now at this point, some may tentatively attribute this disparity to to a disparity in access to abortions by black Americans; but that is not the case. According to the Guttmacher Institute report from 2017 providing abortion rate data from 1990 through 2013 for females 15 to 19 years of age, the black rate ranged from 2.48 to 3.81 times the white rate (Table 1.7, pp. 32 – 34).
A question that must be asked is why weren’t these underage girls taught that letting some stupid boy get into their pants and get them into trouble is one of the worst mistakes a girl can make? And why weren’t the black males who impregnated them ever taught that they shouldn’t go around engaging in unprotected sex, especially males of legal age with underage girls? It would appear that in some black American households virtues such as discipline, self-control, deferred gratification, and the concept that actions have consequences are simply not being cultivated as much as they should be. Underage girls getting pregnant and having babies is just one of the symptoms of that lack of cultivation of those virtues.
The link between poverty and underage girls having babies ought to be self-evident: When people who have no business having babies go ahead and have those babies, and have them in impoverished inner-city environments where unemployment is high, they are literally creating even more people who won’t be able to find work, thereby perpetuating the poverty. In addition, the time, effort, and money that could have been invested elsewhere for the betterment of the household now have to be redirected into raising an unplanned child. Moreover, the same lack of cultivation of the aforementioned virtues responsible for fostering underage childbirths is also responsible for fostering criminality: The 20-year-old thug who pulls a gun and shoots someone for “disrespecting” him is is cut from the very same fabric as the 20-year-old ghetto lothario who impregnates an eighth-grader. The takeaway here is that people can create poverty and criminality by their own irresponsible behavior; and when this irresponsible behavior is culturally transmitted on a large scale decade after decade, it amounts to systemic irresponsibility.
This systemic irresponsibility must be taken into consideration when the issues of white privilege and reparations come up. If a group that emphasizes discipline, self-control, deferred gratification, and the concept that actions have consequences is materially better off than a group that doesn’t emphasize those elements to the same degree, is the first group better off because they are the beneficiaries of some kind of undeserved privilege, or are they better off because they are conducting themselves in a more responsible fashion? For example, are Asian-Americans on the whole better off than white Americans because they benefit from some kind of undeserved “Asian privilege,” or are they better off on the whole because they emphasize responsible behavior to an even greater degree than white Americans?
One of the justifications adduced for reparations is that present-day black poverty is supposedly the lingering result of racist practices in the past. Caving in to the demand for reparations would be affirming that falsehood. Although some of the recipients of reparation payments would spend or invest the money wisely, many would go out and blow their money, after which it would be noticed that black poverty levels were still way above the white levels. The argument would then be made that the continuing poverty is the result of not enough reparations having been paid out the first time around, so that even more reparations would be demanded. The truth, of course, would be that the continuing high levels of black poverty are due to continuing systemic irresponsibility in certain black communities.
Postscript: Just before giving the draft of this article its pre-submission proofreading, I came across a Los Angeles Times piece by Jenny Jarvie, an excerpt from which is reproduced below:
Black neighborhoods have felt the toll most acutely. Roughly 17% of the city’s 188,000 residents are Black, but since 2019 they have accounted for 63% of the homicide victims and 65% of the known suspects.
The violence is widely viewed as a legacy of systemic racism — including the segregation of Jim Crow and redlining — that is reflected today in a Black poverty rate of 42%. That is significantly higher than in many other Southern cities.
The stats are out of Knoxville. If we were to compare the rate at which black underage girls have babies with the rate at which white underage girls have babies in that city, what would we find? So is black poverty in Knoxville the result of systemic racism, or is it the result of systemic irresponsibility?