Hurricane Illegitimacy and Institutional Illegitimacy

How often is it that you have an African American sports writer for ESPN write a powerful article on the preservation and restoration of the traditional family unit? Jason Whitlock has provided this in taking Dallas Cowboys’ wide receiver Dez Bryant’s recent temper tantrums as a springboard to name and shame ‘Hurricane Illegitimacy.’

ESPN’s Jason Whitlock on Hurricane Illegitimacy

Whitlock goes straight to the heart of the argument. Parents shape their children more than anyone else. In his own words:

Because of this melting-pot-country’s history, we’ve been conditioned to identify the race of a person misbehaving and examine the racial implications. We would be far better served looking at the family history. . . . Statistics prove beyond all reasonable doubt that married parents raise more well-balanced, stable, highly achieving kids than unmarried parents. The same is true for two involved parents as opposed to a single parent. . . . [I]f this country wants to really invest in young people, we must first invest in restoring the traditional family unit. As long as 68 percent of black women who have children are unwed, there are no cures for the social maladies preventing black progress. . . . Hurricane Illegitimacy is damaging every American institution. Those of us who love sports get a seemingly daily reminder of its devastation.

He’s right. Hurricane Illegitimacy is damaging every American institution . . . even as it establishes new institutions.

Andy Crouch on Institutions

What is an institution? According to Andy Crouch, author of Culture Making and Playing God, an institution is a lasting cultural pattern that endures for at least three generations. On that definition, Hurricane Illegitimacy is now Institutional Illegitimacy. Tragically, in many communities of poverty the cultural pattern of the legitimization of illegitimacy has passed the treshold of three generations. It is now an institution that damages virtually every other social institution.

James Hunter on Moral Education

While Jason Whitlock has correctly identified the connection among family structure, individual flourishing and damage to institutions, he names just a few of the contributing factors: welfare, incarceration, drugs, pop culture, and disinvestment in the education of the “poorest and weakest citizens.” At this point, we are wise to learn from James Davison Hunter, sociologist at the University of Virginia and author of The Death of Character. Surveying the changes in moral formation over the past two centuries on the North American continent, Hunter identifies “a basic transmutation in the dominant regime of moral socialization.”

  1. The content of moral instruction has changed from moral truth to the subjective values of the individual person.
  2. The sources of moral authority have shifted “from a transcendent God, to the institutions of the natural order and the scientific paradigms that sustain them, to the choices of subjects.”
  3. The sanctions through which morality is validated have changed from the institutions of the community to the choices of the individual.
  4. The primary institutional location through which moral understanding is mediated has changed from the family and religious institutions to the public school and popular culture.
  5. The arbiters of moral judgment have changed from the clergyman to the psychologist.
  6. The character of moral pedagogy changed  from cultivation of a sense of good and evil to deliberation over competing values.
  7. The premise of moral education changed “from the sense that children are, for all their other endearments, sinful and rebellious to a sense that they are good by nature and only need encouragement.”
  8. The purpose of moral education has changed “from master over the soul in service to God and neighbor, to the training of character to serve the needs of civic life, to the cultivation of personality toward the end of well-being.”

Hunter’s analysis is particularly helpful in examining the group (African Americans) and period (pre-civil-rights era to present) that Whitlock identifies. The forces that Whitlock identifies are magnified by a simultaneous historical transformation of virtually every aspect of moral formation.

Some readers will be uncomfortable that I have focused the issue on moral education. Whitlock studiously avoids the moral dimension of illegitimacy, or indeed the moral formation of children within families, preferring psychological language: “Bryant is deeply scarred emotionally. His multiple tantrums last Sunday in Detroit are part of a pattern of behavior that is an outgrowth of his severely flawed upbringing.” Yet this is fundamentally a moral issue. It has to do with the nature of relations among human persons, whether they enter into the binding covenant of marriage, how they treat their children, and how others care – or fail to care – for both parents and children. It is impossible to attempt a moral argument to care for the poor and weak without an honest conversation about the morality of the actions of those to whom care and help is to be offered.

Dr. King’s famous dream was of the day when his children would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. If we are serious about ending institutional illegitimacy and its collateral damage, we must recover our nerve in addressing moral formation.

Undoing Institutional Illegitimacy: The Way Forward

Jason Whitlock is unequivocally correct: “As long as 68 percent of black women who have children are unwed, there are no cures for the social maladies preventing black progress.” What must happen to redress institutional illegitimacy – not just in the black community but increasingly in wider culture?

  1. The recovery of moral language. Psychology and sociology can force the issue: children are devastated; communities are destroyed. Restoring ‘the traditional family unit’ cannot occur without the restoration of the traditions that support that institution.
  2. The renewal of authority. At the heart of the crisis in the collapse of authority. You simply cannot tell anyone what they ‘ought’ to do without authority. Here again, psychology and sociology get the cart rolling, but cannot sustain the Herculean effort that will be required to break the cultural transmission of illegitimacy.
  3. True compassionCompassion derives from the Latin meaning to suffer with. It is essential that those seek to undo hurricane illegitimacy are willing to genuinely come along side and suffer with those they seek to serve.
  4. Restorative justice. The answer to mass incarceration, particularly in response to drug offenses, must include restorative justice. It must include restoring fathers to their families. One brilliant example of this is the work of Keith Zafren with the Prison Entrepreneurship Program in Texas – working with men to take responsibility and become the fathers that 95% of them never had. You can read about it it Keith’s wonderful book.

These are the beginnings. Hurricane illegitimacy is not just a storm; it is now an institution. Restoring the beauty and strength of the family in the midst of institutional illegitimacy will require more than articles, essays and blog posts. It will necessarily involve courage, honesty, compassion and restorative justice.

Question: Where have you seen elements of this renewal at work?

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