LBJ, “Free Shit,” and the Black Family (x-posted to Reddit and Tumblr)

Welfare is a touchy, complex issue with a very long history, one that involves everything from religious concern for the poor to the need for industrialized countries to grapple with the human costs of economic development. It is important, then, to examine the subject soberly and with great attention to what the past can teach us. Failure to do so can lead to examples of bad history—and bad politics, I think—such as this:

“The situation of the black community today is the result of “free shit” laws. Lyndon B. “I’ll have those niggers voting Democrat for the next two hundred years” Johnson’s Great Society program made breaking apart black families more financially expedient than keeping them together. At that point, blacks were well on their way to achieving more-or-less social and economic equality. But that wasn’t politically expedient, so it had to be stopped. It’s a fucking tragedy.”

We run into our first problem with that “quote” from Johnson. As a thread from /r/AskHistorians tells us, there’s scanty evidence for Johnson ever using that particular turn of phrase, and even scantier proof that the expressed sentiment was genuine:

To reiterate what the top answer said, the only record for that statement comes from a single book, and Ron Kessler wasn’t exactly an unbiased source. While Johnson was a prolific dropper of the N-Bomb, it was only to be expected from a Texan living in that time period, regardless of whether or not one actually hated blacks.

Still, I oughtn’t defend Johnson overmuch. In an address given at the University of Texas, President Obama noted that Johnson voted against civil rights legislation for most of his career.[1] We can legitimately debate how sincere Johnson’s concern for blacks was—it’s easy to say he was merely an unscrupulous politician interested in absolutely nothing but his own advancement, but his biographers, like Robert A. Caro, believe there was an underlying core of genuine compassion beneath his ugly racist language and political machinations. Caro notes that Johnson had been a schoolteacher for Mexican children during the 1920s, a time when Mexicans were hated not much less than blacks, and that Johnson’s aides described him being brought “almost to tears” by the indignities his black staff suffered.[2]

In any case, however, all that is a debate for another time. The point here is to note that Johnson likely never said that about the Great Society, and even if he did, he was likely just trying to curry votes from a Dixiecrat politician; his genuine motivations were either borne of actual concern for poor people (if you agree with Caro) or a desire to create a great legacy for himself, with the “Great Society” putting him in the history books just like the New Deal did for Roosevelt or the Emancipation Proclamation did for Lincoln or whatever. “Political expediency” was likely a tertiary concern, at best.

But OK, let’s overlook the probable falsehood and irrelevancy of that supposedly slam-dunk quote. How about the actual argument itself—that the black population in the U.S. was reaching economic and social parity with the rest of the nation before Great Society programs (such as welfare) unleashed a tidal wave of dusky sluts and single mothers while Bill Cosby and the Statue of Liberty wept mournful tears off to the side? As you’ll probably be able to tell, the truth is rather more complicated.

For most of the first half of the 20th century, African Americans lagged behind whites on a variety of social and economic indices. “Northern racism—generally de facto rather than de jure,” as Ira Berlin notes, “proved just as durable as the Southern version. When industrial production plummeted in the 1930s, black men and women lost many of their earlier gains…On the eve of World War II, the economic standing of most Southern migrants had hardly improved…Residential segregation increased steadily during the twentieth century…By the 1940s…the place of black men and women in the most dynamic sector of the American economy remained precarious. Unemployment among black men and women was at least twice as high for black as for white workers, and discrimination—indeed outright exclusion—was common…Prior to World War II, few black men and women—6 percent compared to 37 percent of whites—could be found [in white collar jobs].”[3]

All that looks pretty bad for the 1940s. But how about the post-war situation? As it happened, government civil-rights initiatives, such as Executive Order 8802 (thanks to A Philip Randolph’s pressure on Roosevelt) and Truman’s order to desegregate the army did lead to marked improvement for the black community. Berlin continues on to tell us that “centuries-old employment practices that had throttled the advancement of black people withered under the glare of national publicity…Between 1940 and 1960, the proportion of black men and women employed in white collar jobs doubled.”[4]

Looking pretty good, huh? Enough to make one think our brave Papist had a point in saying blacks were “catching up.” Not so fast, though. Even these happy statistics had a shadow lurking behind them. Berlin is also very scrupulous in noting that the federal programs which established a basis for white middle-class prosperity—namely the GI Bill and the Federal Housing Administration’s aid to families wishing to find good homes for themselves—ignored blacks. “In the decades following the war, the level of urban residential segregation increased until the indices of dissimilarity—which measured the degree of segregation—reached 90 percent, meaning that almost the entire population would have to move to achieve a random distribution of whites and blacks.”[5]

More importantly (segregation might seem bad for most of us, but more than a few righties I’ve seen have no problem with it in and of itself), the prosperity blacks were attaining was based on an extremely precarious foundation. A block quote from the inimitable Berlin is called for here, I believe:

But while the black middle class gained ground at midcentury, black industrial workers lost it, as the ladder of industrial employment collapsed, and with it the possibilities of rising within the industrial hierarchy…factories—lured by low taxes, better roads, access to new markets, and nonunion labor—abandoned Northern cities for the suburbs, then left the suburbs for the South, and then the South for foreign destinations. Many factories closed, never to open again. Disproportionately, these were in heavy industries…where black workers had enjoyed a substantial presence…Unions, into which black workers had at long last been incorporated, lost their ability to protect seniority and guard against discrimination…Once again, excluded from the dynamic sector of the American economy, buffeted by the changing nature of production, and tied to the most vulnerable industries, black men and women saw their conections to regular work unraveling. Many of those who had found prosperity and security working in a unionized factory could only find hourly work flipping burgers…They had joined the industrial working class just when a substantial portion was being discarded as obsolete. The absence of regular employment and a living wage demoralized working people, particularly young men and women. Black families, which had survived slavery and segregation, frayed, as men—without access to work—had difficulties supporting their wives and children. Between 1960 and 1975, the number of black households without male wage earners increased from 22 to 35 percent. Along with the disappearance of black men from family life came a dramatic increase in the number of households with children born out of wedlock [emphasis added].[6]

You’ll note he makes no mention of the Great Society. So, as we can see, it is not necessarily true that “the situation of the black community today is a result of the ‘free shit’ laws.” That lamentable “situation” can be ascribed at least as much to the economic problems which hammered the black working class.

Now, those problems were not the only ones facing black families. While several rigorous, skilled, and righteous historians (such as Herbert Gutman) have argued that African American family structure persisted throughout slavery, more recent scholarship has shown that even before the “Great Society,” black families experienced higher levels of disruption than white ones. As James T. Patterson has noted, several studies published in the early 90s looked at census data from the South during the early 20th century and found that many black women called themselves “widows” to census-takers if the father of their children wasn’t around–even if he was still alive. This led the census to undercount the actual numbers of black “single mothers,” and it also led Gutman to conclude that family breakup among blacks was less of a problem after emancipation than it actually was.[7]

Needless to say, we should now be very suspicious of our Papist’s claim that black families were “reaching parity” with whites before those evil liberals (like LBJ) ruined everything.

This is not to deny, of course, the tremendous progress blacks made after emancipation. In the space of a hundred years (from 1860 to 1960), this people had pulled themselves up from a state of subservience and degradation, all the while facing incessant predation and terrorism from whites in both the South and the North (the KKK in the former, race rioters in the latter, among many, many others), to create a growing and prosperous middle class. That is undoubtedly an accomplishment worthy of note. I must also heed the warnings of other scholars not to make too much hay over the idea that blacks were “damaged” by slavery—you get things like Stanley Elkins’ well-meaning but, in retrospect, rather unfortunate usage of the “Sambo” stereotype.[8] So when I refute papist_subversive’s argument that blacks had “nearly achieved parity” with whites, I don’t mean to imply blacks had made no progress at all. I am saying, however, that we cannot blind ourselves to the problems blacks (or any other marginalized group) actually have if we hope to actually help in solving them.

I would say all of this is a reasonably solid defense of the motives behind the Great Society, and perhaps a less ringing though still respectable exoneration from the charge that it destroyed the black family for mere “political expediency.” Alas, it is also possible this isn’t enough for our heroic Traditionalist. Perhaps he might persist in saying something like this:

“O-o-okay, m-maybe the historical legacy of slavery left more of an impact on the black family than I thought, a-and maybe large-scale shifts in the national economy and employment market rendered the African American male breadwinner more vulnerable and thus made the African American nuclear family less stable. M-maybe I can’t blame everything on those damn dirty liberals. But, but! I have economics on my side! People respond to incentives, you see! If you pay women—through welfare or other Great Society social programs or whatever—to have children outside of wedlock, OF COURSE they will! S-so in the end, the Great Society is still responsible for weakening the black family, just not solely responsible! Checkmate, atheists!”

Uh-huh. But once again, a closer examination might reveal the truth to be more complex.

We return to the question of incentives. Let us be generous and entertain the argument (and I will admit it’s not unreasonable) that if women are given attractive alternatives to marriage and raising children alongside a male provider—such as “free” money and provision from the government, thanks to Great Society welfare programs—a proportion of women will do so, heedless of the subtler costs this inflicts on sons and daughters who grow up without fathers.

If this were the case, however, it would seem reasonable to assume that the number of women who would be lured away from stable, monogamous relationships by government largesse would be proportionate to and correlated with the size of that largesse. Do we see that in reality?

Surprising as it may sound (and I would wager it would very much surprise our erstwhile protagonist), not quite. A very useful book that tells us a great deal about this phenomenon is Promises I Can Keep, by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas. The whole thing is worth reading, but they very aptly demolish this argument in one succinct paragraph on page 199:

“The expansion of the welfare state could not have been responsible for the growth in nonmarital childbearing during the 1980s and 1990s for the simple reason that in the mid 1970s all states but California stopped adjusting their cash welfare benefits for inflation. By the early 1990s a welfare check’s real value had fallen nearly to 30 percent. Meanwhile, marriage rates continued to decline while the rate of unmarried childbearing showed persistent growth.”[9]

So much for the “incentives” argument! I’d wager this little factoid would drive the Subversive (along with Murray Rothbard and more than a few libertardian economists—not that our hero has any relationship with them today, no, he now understands that libertarianism, however noble, is too close to libertinism and we need True Catholic Economics™ to guide us to prosperity) to despair.

So, what actually did cause the rise of babymommas? According to Edin and Kefalas, a combination of culture and comparative opportunity costs. “For the poor and affluent alike,” they say, “marriage is now much less about sex, coresidence, and raising children than it used to be. In a cultural context where everyone had to marry to achieve a minimal level of social acceptance…The sexual revolution, the widespread availability of birth control, the dramatic increase in the social acceptability of cohabitation, and the growing rejection of the idea that a couple should get or stay married just because there is a child on the way, have all weakened the once nearly absolute cultural imperative to marry…in the late 1950s eight in ten Americans believed a woman who remained unmarried was “sick, neurotic, or immoral,” while only a quarter still held that view in 1978.”[10]

Now, at this point, someone like the OP would probably start cheering. “Yeah! See, I knew it! It was those damn liberals after all! As True Catholics™ like me know, sex outside of marriage is Objectively Wrong (because of something about the Platonic True Essence/End/something else of the sexual act which is supposedly obvious regardless of religion because Plato and Aristotle said so. Aristotle also thought that women had fewer teeth than men, so I’d personally take him with a grain of salt, but that’s just me). Hitler was right! Or, uh, would have been right if he were a good Catholic rather than a filthy demotist!”[11]

Mm-hmm. Well, hold off on the celebration for just a moment, brave champion of the Church. First, even if you can blame “leftist degeneracy” for the plight of lower-class blacks (and the poor in general), you can’t blame Johnson or the Great Society in particular for it. As the inflation statistics imply, there’s not a very strong relationship between “free shit” programs (referring to the quote this whole Badhistory essay is based on) and the rise of single mothers/family breakups.

Second, all these violations of “natural law” seem to be affecting the poor more than the middle and upper classes. All the black single mothers popping out “thugs” (and, to be fair, all the white ones popping out the kind of people you see on the Maury Povich show) are generally of much more concern to conservatives (Catholic and secular alike) than, say, some wealthy woman purchasing a rich doctor’s genes from a sperm bank and raising the resulting ubermensch without the aid of a husband.[12] Why might this be so? Well, Edin and Kefalas explain this with a concept that should be very familiar to anyone with even a passing familiarity with economics—opportunity costs. Perhaps the OP picked up on this during his journey through anarcho-capitalism, perhaps not, but either way, Edin and Kefalas provide a good description of the phenomena:

“So the incentives and disincentives for childbearing are very different from women at different class levels. We are not saying that early childbearing costs nothing—in fact, it demands a large share of these [poor] mothers’ meager resources. But the out of pocket costs of kids…are incurred regardless of the age or marital status of the parent. However, the lost future earnings—what economists call an opportunity cost–that women at different class levels face when they have children early are quite different. The public often assumes that early childbearing is the main reason why so many girls from poor inner-city areas fail to complete high school…or earn decent wages, but there is virtually no evidence to support this idea. Ironically, however, any childbearing at all, and especially early childbearing, has huge opportunity costs for middle class women. Disadvantaged girls who bear children have about the same long-term earnings trajectories as similarly disadvantaged youth who wait until their mid or late twenties to have a child [emphasis added]…In other words, early childbearing is highly selective of girls whose other characteristics—family background, cognitive ability, school performance, mental health status, and so on—have already diminished their life chances so much that an early birth does little to reduce them much further.”[13]

In this quote, the authors’ intent (and mine in restating it) is not—at least not necessarily—to disparage the importance of the nuclear family nor to advocate for sexual promiscuity. It is, however, to point out that common conservative laments about “cultural degeneracy” typically fail to account for the whole picture. I suppose the epidemic of single motherhood among the “lower orders” could be solved by stuffing Aquinas and Plato down their throats, or perhaps just going full Taliban and executing anyone who dared have extramarital sex, but both “solutions” might be a tad hard to implement in a large, pluralistic country such as the U.S. A better solution might take a page from Promises I Can Keep and examine the comparative opportunity costs facing poor women, black and white. Giving such people attractive alternatives to childbearing as a source of personal fulfillment—which middle and upper-class women have found, if the differentials in unmarried birthrates say anything—might well go some distance in alleviating these social issues.

I’ll be the first to admit such an effort would be difficult, though. Certainly more difficult than sitting on Reddit complaining about a former President and his “free shit” laws, and also lacking that frisson of smug self-satisfaction that comes from claiming to be so much more logical and rational than all those “sentimental,” “emotional” thinkers who…attempt to empirically gauge the causes and effects of social policy and form conclusions based on evidence.

But for some reason or another, that’s the approach I’d choose. If that would make me a bad Romanist and/or Aristotelian, I think I’ll live.[14]

[1] W. Gardner Selby, “Lyndon Johnson opposed every civil rights proposal considered in his first 20 years as lawmaker” last accessed at on 5/4/2016. The video is in the article and Obama talks about Johnson’s record at 12 minutes in. I’ve heard that politifact has been criticized as a source before, but the article cites Caro’s biography of Johnson (the second book, Means to Ascent), which by all accounts is excellent, so I think it’s fairly reliable.

[2] Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume IV: The Passage of Power (Vintage Books, 2013), 257.

[3] Ira Berlin, The Making of African America: Four Great Migrations (Penguin Books, 2010), 181-182, 187.

[4] Ibid, 190-191.

[5] Ibid, 190-191.

[6] Ibid, 192-196.

[7] James T. Patterson, Freedom is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life from LBJ to Obama (Basic Books, 2010), 176-177.

[8] Ibid, 33.

[9] Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage (University of California Press, 2011), 199.

[10] Ibid, 200-201.

[11] Reactionaries like the OP tend to parrot Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s argument that Hitler was not a dictator but an example of “democracy in action” because he claimed to rule “in the name of the people.” Curiously, they tend to be pretty vague about how their ideal Catholic autocratic monarch would actually differ from Hitler in terms of governance. The most concrete answers I’ve seen revolve around converting Das Juden rather than killing them—I actually informed this redditor that the Nazis hated the Jewish religion as well as the race, a factoid which surprised him immensely—or exterminating blacks and native americans rather than Jews. I’m not making the latter craziness up, see these two entries from the neoreactionary author “Jim:” and

[12] I’m sure our protagonist would still condemn the latter, of course, simply not as ferociously as he would condemn the former.

[13] Edin and Kefalas, 205.

[14] As much fun as I’ve poked at the “papist subversive” username in this essay, I must add that I actually kind of like Catholicism. The references to “Romanism” and “popery” scattered throughout are just jokes, and are by no means seriously intended as attacks on religion generally, much less endorsements of atheism.


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