Black Kids Aren’t “Illegitimate,” But Your Data Comprehension Is

Racist lies about out-of-wedlock birthrates

Tim Wise

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Some things are so predictable you can very nearly set your clocks by them.

Among the most ironclad examples of this truism is the speed with which folks on the right — especially white folks — will seek to derail a conversation about racial inequality and racism by pivoting to the subject of black out-of-wedlock birthrates.

As in, “if black people would stop having ‘illegitimate’ children they wouldn’t have all these problems,” whether those be crime, poverty, or the persistent gaps in well-being between themselves and white Americans. To hear conservatives tell it, virtually all the problems of black America trace to out-of-wedlock births in the black community, and all could be solved or at least seriously diminished if black women would just cut back on all the baby-making before marriage.

Sadly for those wedded to this position, the entire premise upon which these arguments are made is false. Contrary to popular belief, out-of-wedlock births to black women have been falling for nearly fifty years, and births to black teenagers are at lower levels now than they were in the 1950s.

Here’s the deal: You’ll often hear it said that more than 70 percent of black babies today are born out-of-wedlock, and that this is nearly double the rate from 1970, at which point only 37.5 percent of black children were. And these numbers are both true. However, they fail to prove what conservatives think they prove.

While the right uses this data to insist that black women and their male partners — and the larger culture from which they come — are increasingly mired in behavioral pathology, they fail to understand the difference between the out of wedlock birth share and the out-of wedlock birth rate. But these are not the same thing, and only the latter really says anything about black sexual behavior.

According to the table linked above — the same one that shows the out-of-wedlock share of black births nearly doubling since 1970 — the birth rate (the number of live births per 1000 women ages 15–44) for unmarried black women fell by more than one-third, from 95.5 births per 1000 such women in 1970 to only…

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Tim Wise

Anti-racism educator and author of 9 books, including White Like Me and, most recently, Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights, December 2020)