Rev. Eugene Rivers Extended Interview

Read more of Lucky Severson’s interview with the Reverend Eugene Rivers in Boston, Massachusetts:


I have been working on issues of public safety and violence, and by implication black family issues, for the last 25 years, intensely focused on that. And over the last 25 years I have seen the complete unraveling of what has been understood for all of our history in this society to be the black family. I’ve seen phenomenally high divorce rates among black families, regardless of class, even when we control for socioeconomic difference. I’ve seen extraordinary levels, as a result, of father absence, which has contributed to crime and higher incarceration rates among young children who did not have the benefit of a two-parent household. It has been observation over many years, as well as the intellectual crisis within the black community with regard to the family. We saw it in 1965 with the Moynihan report, where there was a great deal of denial. Moynihan was labeled a racist, and the black community just continued to unravel. So here we are 40 years after the Moynihan report, and the black community is in a state of crisis.

We have a generation of young people who buy what they want and beg for what they need and who in many cases, based on current labor market demands, would be obsolete for slavery, as we see China become an increasingly powerful competitor on the global market with the United States. It’s a confluence of factors that have brought us to the conclusion that there needs to be a forthright, articulate, clear discussion [about black families]. Not that everyone agrees. People will disagree about what family is, and that’s okay, but at least there needs to be a rational discussion to facilitate some new policy conversations 40 years after Moynihan.

Father absence is the single most important independent variable affecting or correlated with incarceration rates for young males or some form of criminal justice supervision. So you have this issue of father absence contributing to, being a variable in, as a predictor of whether or not a young black male gets involved in the criminal justice system. Well, it seems to me that if there is a variable, that if it’s not causal but is correlated with incarceration patterns and predictions, we should be having a discussion about how do we keep fathers in families when you have got these divorce rates, when we look at teen pregnancy.

It has been greatly underestimated — the role of fathers in contributing to the stability of girls. Every girl needs a daddy. The daddy is the first guy in a girl’s life who tells the daughter she is beautiful. There are some very, very basic things that aren’t nuclear physics that have to do with the socialization and rearing of our children.

We have higher pregnancy rates. We have phenomenally high sexually transmitted disease rates that are so terrible that you don’t have any public discussions of it because most good liberals in traditional black leadership don’t want stereotypes being reinforced. So we don’t discuss the fact that we have got these phenomenal problems that are creating in some instances a biological underclass. This is absolutely terrifying.

My wife specializes in math education, and after 20 years of doing community organizing she says the single most important factor shaping the academic achievement of the child is the family and the culture produced by the family. It is not per capita expenditures on public schools; it’s about what families do with their children. Stable families produce better, higher-achieving students than families that are broken. By every possible sociological indicator that we can use, if there’s not some causal relationship, the correlation is almost one to one.

Part of it, I think, has to do with labor markets. William Julius Wilson talked about this 30 years ago in his studies on black unemployment trends and patterns in the black community. Another piece is culture. What kind of culture are the young people raised in? It was very difficult to talk about culture because Bill Ryan in BLAMING THE VICTIM said that if we talk about culture within the context of poverty and race, we are blaming the victim. Well, no. Another factor that contributes to this instability and nonperformance across these indicators is that a stable black family can create the appropriate culture of achievement, of discipline, of gratification deferral, which are the basic things that any civilization in any society needs to rear healthy children that become functional adults.

The welfare system has contributed. It was the development of a welfare system that penalized women for having fathers in the household that here again promoted, directly or indirectly, a culture of poverty and encouraged the kind of bad habits that do not lend themselves to helping young people become successful participants in the society.

In my judgment, there are some unresolved issues around the roles and images of black males as providers, performers, producers that go back to slavery and the breakup of the family. We had a brief period where it was slightly more stabilized. But the issue of familial stability — we saw that in the Moynihan report, in the scholarship of E. Franklin Frazier, W.E.B. DuBois, and a whole range of scholars that said, “Look, there are some factors that have to be corrected for that are intergenerational, and we have got to focus on those in a very coherent way.”

Part of what I see contributing to this was a major cultural shift. You know, the liberalization of sex, you know, during the ’60s and early ’70s created an environment where sex was disconnected from commitment, and that was viewed as progressive. The recreational sexual practices of the elite, who could engage in sexual and pharmacological experimentation, when it filtered down to the poor had absolutely catastrophic consequences.

Black churches are now maintaining as much order as they can for the people whose lives they directly impact. The incidence of divorce for regular church-attending communicants, right, is dramatically lower, just much, much lower than those that are non-church attending. Why hasn’t the black church had a greater influence? If there are such phenomenally high levels of religious participation on the part of the black community, why hasn’t this filtered down? Well, I think there are a couple of factors. One is the black church has not successfully engaged the culture. We live in a very different culture. Hip-hop, which is middle-range pornography, is having a very corrosive effect upon growing numbers of young black people, and the church has not successfully engaged that culture. So you have this generational disconnect where an increasingly older baby-booming black church-attending population, which is largely middle-class, is disconnected from an increasingly significant black underclass that is disconnected from the churches as well as the black middle class, who should play some socializing role in the lives of the poor. But as a result of the residential resegregation of the black poor as a function of the black middle class moving out and commuting into churches, we have a major cultural crisis.

Black preachers have their own sex problems. And the issue of sexual fidelity and what it takes to produce a culture of sexual fidelity has to begin in the church. The way one arrests the moral disorder of the black community is to correct the moral disorder within the black church. The black leadership, the black church must exhibit and model the kind of moral culture and provide some empirical evidence that legitimates the moral discourse around fidelity, simply from a functional standpoint. Forget the morality; it is simply more functional to be faithful to the mother of your children so that the children [are] socialized to believe that relationships have integrity, you know, relationships are sacred. And as a result, sex should not be disconnected from commitment or integrity, and that’s a challenge before the black church.

In some cases we have highly visible black clergy, whose names are too well known for me to mention, who have been caught in sexually compromised situations where there was a very public expression of infidelity that was humiliating for the wife and family and was the source of a significant scandal in the black community. Now those kinds of events, which are highly visual, tend to be demoralizing, because in many cases you have got young people, you have got young women who are thinking about marriage and companionship and [they] believe increasingly that there is no possibility of having a trusting relationship of permanence over the long term. And so the black churches — we have not done enough to model, walk the talk, you know, of fidelity and integrity. And it is a spiritual issue, it is a political issue, it is a cultural issue.

Part of the problem is that the black church, not unlike many other churches, has not had a coherent theology of sexuality that would deal with the realities, the struggles, the difficulties of sex. It’s not that the black church is actually homophobic. As I told a gay friend of mine, homophobia — whatever that means — is a symptom of a deeper issue, which is the black church has not dealt with the question of sex in a forthright way. There is not a systematic theology of human sexuality, of marriage, of fidelity. The black church has failed to present that and project that. As a result, many of the problems the black community has must be laid at the foot of the church.

Some churches normalize the abnormal. The traditional understanding for the last 2,000 years within the Eastern and Western church of what constituted a normative understanding of marriage has been the subject or the object of considerable debate recently. Our view is that there needs to be a philosophically coherent defense and exposition of the normative understanding that is civil, that is courteous, but that is clear. So that if there is debate or dissent, we can have that discussion, and the object of our statement was to provoke that discussion at a more intellectually serious level. So that we weren’t name-calling, it wasn’t PC rhetoric back and forth. You’ve got right-wing cuckoo rhetoric; you got left-wing cuckoo rhetoric. Pick your poison. We can go from Lynchburg, Virginia to San Francisco and get flip sides of the same coin. What we were calling for was for the black community, for Cornel West, for Michael Dyson, our celebrity intelligentsia, our theologians to be engaged in a serious discussion around the issue.

If there is anybody that does need the traditional family, it’s the black community. We don’t presume to tell white people what to do. What we do know is that in the black community we are completely off the hook with a wire cut. In the black community we have gone from “Lift every voice and sing” to “booty-popping bootylisciouness,” where pornography is mainstreamed. That is in part a function of the failure of black men to respectfully and lovingly support black women, the mothers of their children. I do know this: black men who father children need to be there to support the mothers with whom they had the child so that child can come up healthy, and that is my definition of a family. I father a child with a woman, I am morally obligated to partner with that woman in the rearing of that child.

Increasingly, the black church is going to be picking up on this issue, because they simply can’t avoid it. Once it becomes more public what the sexually transmitted disease rates are for black teenage girls, or how disproportionately the AIDS epidemic has impacted black people, there is going to be a national come-to-Jesus discussion with black churches about how we have failed to engage the issue.

The language, the apparel, the sexually explicit nature of public conversation on a bus on the part of 12-, 13-, 14-year-old girls is unbelievable. Whites don’t have the sexually transmitted disease rates that blacks have. Whites don’t have the level of disorganization and poverty that we saw in evidence with Hurricane Katrina. Whites have a level of organization. If the statistics that exist for blacks existed for whites, there would be a national summit every week on how to save our children.

If the infection HIV rates for black girls continue to grow, they in turn produce HIV fetally infected infants. In a country with no national health care system, new kinds of discussions around who deserves to receive health care come into play.

Liberals have been intellectually incoherent for 30 years. That’s one of the reasons they continue to lose in terms of political power. The secular liberals and to some extent religious liberals have been intellectually incoherent. They say all the politically correct things, but there are no solutions. Now I’m not saying that the conservatives have solutions. The major contribution to the national conversation on the part of political conservatives is to criticize liberals, which takes absolutely no imagination. It’s not as though they have said anything that produces new ideas. They simply say that the idiot was an idiot, which doesn’t take us anywhere.

What Bill Bennett said was unfortunate, and the only thing more unfortunate than what he said was his failure to apologize for it and the attitude he exhibited. Bill Bennett should have said it was an error of the lip and not the heart. But unfortunately, for reasons that are inexplicable to me, he only made a bad situation worse, by failing to simply say, “What I said was not intended as it came out, I apologize to anyone offended, I’m a humble person and so I apologize,” which is the only appropriate response regardless of what the intent was.

White male ex-offenders have, in a number of cities, a better chance of getting employment than college-educated black males. That’s still true. I’m not going to exaggerate the significance of that because I don’t want to make excuses. There are issues of job training, labor markets, job availability, and those issues have to be addressed. And then there are issues of culture. We are producing a generation of young black males who don’t know how to conduct themselves in a job interview, who come in trying to looking like a rapper when what was required was a shirt and a tie and English at least as a second language, and it is the failure on our part to properly resocialize these young people. In other words, who was right was Bill Cosby. Cosby had it right, notwithstanding Michael Dyson’s marginally useful critique.

The only institution that has the capacity and better deal with it are the black churches working in collaboration with other community-based agencies. So the Urban League, the NAACP, the Untied Negro Women’s Association — all of those agencies have to be collaborating with black churches to engage this issue.

One of the things that is perhaps most disturbing is that the divorce rate for blacks, the out-of-wedlock births actually travel up and down the class ladder. Black middle-class people have a divorce rate that exceeds the national average. It is twice the national average for middle-class people. So whatever socioeconomic strata you go to, we still have this crisis, so it runs throughout the entire community.

One cannot overemphasize how corrosive the popular culture has been. I mean, its sewage. It’s sewage. You can’t build healthy young people with healthy attitudes. Just take males. It’s misogynistic. Where are the feminists when I need them? They should be all over this. You’ve got these absolutely reprehensible, misogynistic lyrics. Then the high liberals come out and say First Amendment rights for the folks who want to promote pedophilia and misogyny, except when it comes to right-wingers who are outraged by this stuff, because they don’t have First Amendment rights. They are cavepeople; we don’t want to hear from them.

Blacks have the highest church attending rates probably of any group in the society. Pew and Gallup data seem to indicate that’s the case. So why is it that we have such a dramatic breakdown culturally, behaviorally? There are a couple of things going on. One is many people do not have any sense of how pervasive and powerful the culture industries are in terms of saturating the public mind with stuff that’s pornographic, that gets targeted early. So, for example, black church folk go to church, let’s say, twice a week. They watch more television than any other group. Nobody sits in front of the tube and looks at more garbage more hours of the day than the black community. No other group sits in front of BET or some other, MTV, looking at pornographic video culture than blacks. We sit up and watch that stuff ’round the clock. Now let’s say 20 hours a week of television, which is probably low, versus two hours on Sunday. Who wins? We undo a lot of what we learned on Sunday with the next 20 hours of absolutely disgusting programming that we have our children watch because the television is a babysitter. It’s amazing. Add to that the radio music. Then in addition to television we’ve got “booty-popping bootylicious back that thang up” lyrics on the radio. So we really have a very challenging cultural crisis for which the church has not really developed a thoughtful strategy. The average age of the average black clergyman has got to be in the 50s. He is competing with a rapper or a producer who is 22.

The black preacher, ironically, is still the leading, stabilizing role model in the black community, even with everything that we’ve said about what the black church does not do. The black church is now sort of morphing into the de facto government for black America. If we got every one of the 65,000 black churches that exist in the United States to carry 300 times their load — even if they did that, they would be less than a drop in the bucket for 35 million black people in the United States.

There has to be a new conversation. There have got to be new strategic partnerships, and the black community across the board has to make the decision that we are going to own our stuff. We are going to own sex; we are going to own crime; we are going to own the programmatic piece of developing the kinds of comprehensive programs in collaboration with the public sector and the private sector to address the problem. At the end of the day, black people have to take the moral responsibility for themselves.

I have heard no one call me a racist. Folks would like to say I was too conservative, but that would be difficult to sustain because I’m a Democrat. On the economy I’m a liberal. Estate taxes — bad. Iraq war — bad. Should they get out? There should be an exit strategy. Was it a mistake? Absolutely. Were there weapons of mass destruction? I’m still waiting. So on any number of issues, on war and peace, bread-and-butter issues, I would be a liberal unquestionably, which is right at the center of the black church tradition. The overwhelming majority of black church people are Democrats. The overwhelming majority of black people voted for Kerry, not because they were thrilled about it. The overwhelming majority of black people on cultural and social issues were conservatives [and] on bread-and-butter, economic, peace and justice issues were liberals.

We have come to the end of a cycle. The kind of high paleo-liberal integrationist policy, politics, and rhetoric are over. It’s over. Intellectually there’s no traction. Politically there’s no traction. Nobody’s going to put any money behind it. Even the liberals who are exhausted say they were all bad ideas. We hate the Republicans, but we can’t go back to this other stuff. Aside from which, we don’t know what to do in terms of black leadership because none of the established recognized brand names have any real political traction in the black community. Obama is a rock star. He’s gorgeous, articulate, good liberal, end of story. He’s a good liberal, and as long as he is able to keep that together he will be in the Senate. He will not probably in our lifetime be President of the United States. That’s not going to happen.