The flawed "missing men" theory and the dissolution of black families

In the 1960s and early ’70s, as nonmarital births raced upward, the number of black men admitted to state and federal prisons annually hovered between 20,000 and 27,000, showing no significant trend up or down. The later 1970s showed a notable increase, so that in 1980 alone there were 53,063 black males admitted to prison. Throughout the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, black prison admissions grew to historic highs and peaked at 257,000 in 2009. They have since declined slightly.

If anything, the timing of the two problems points to the opposite causation from the one assumed by “missing men” theorists: As the family unraveled, crime increased—the homicide rate doubled between the early 1960s and late ’70s, with more than half of the convicted being black—leading to calls for tougher sentencing to place more bad guys behind bars. In other words, family breakdown was followed by increased crime and more-crowded prisons.

We shouldn’t take this alternative theory too far. Crime and prison rates are unlikely to have a single cause: Demographics, policing and sentencing policies, environmental toxins, and who knows what else may all play some role. Perhaps the most controversial of those policies was the “war on drugs,” first declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971. There’s little question that the government’s hard line on drugs eventually put large numbers of black men behind bars.

However, if the war on drugs played any role in shaping the contemporary black family, it is almost impossible to decipher from the data.