Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Question For Joe Killian

News & Record reporter Joe Killian held today's Sunday front page with a story about Greensboro's gang culture, based on interviews with 40 gang members.

"Gangs give these kids status, a self-identity, and they call that their family ... More than anything, that shows they come from poorly structured, fractured families. That leads them to have a skewed perspective."
I have a question for Joe: of the 40 gangbangers interviewed, how many had a father living at home?

Update: Joe Killian responds in the comments, and links to more on the story that he put in his blog.

I should clarify that my question to Joe was not a criticism of his excellent article. I just wanted to know more, and he has obliged. Thanks, Joe.


Joe Guarino said...

Great question, David.

herb said...

I think it's an interesting question, but I'm not sure whether it's germane to this particular article. One point that Joe makes is that sometimes whole families are involved.

I've had friends I grew up with who had fathers at home get involved with bad stuff and friends who didn't had fathers at home who have become more successful than me. I wrote about a kid once who lost both his parents to AIDS (drugs and other bad stuff), but he went to Dartmouth on a track scholarship. He had mentors who looked after him.

Sometimes, it does take a village. Oh, heck, I'm channeling Hillary. Help me!!! :-)

Joel said...

I think that is a great question as well.

And I think it leads to a bigger question since some families have broken down, what can we as a society do to prevent and avert these activities?

Increased Police force obviously offers a solution, but what else can be done other than warehousing kids in our over crowded prison system?

In Joe's article the rapper influence was referenced numerous times. Why can't we get community support from radio stations who play that kind of music?

Can't they host some public service announcements from ex-gangbangers to encourage kids to find a better way? Why can't some of our local educational systems sponsor radio and television spots on the advantages of not pursuing the gang life?

Currently numerous elements of the media glamorize this lifestyle. What we really need to do is to show kids the alternative, the better path and hopefully more will follow.

David Wharton said...

Herb, I think the question is very germane. Communities can help raise children, but communities without fathers living with their families are usually stretched too thin to do much good. I too read the part about fathers/grandfathers of gansters being in gangs, but are they fathers who actually live(d) with their kids as they were growing up? I doubt it.

I also think it's nigh-on impossible for do-gooders like us to step into those communities like Hampton and Smith Homes and effect any real change -- unless we're all ready to move in there and pitch in with the neighborhood association and community watch.

Yes, we all know bad kids who came from good families and vice versa, but it's the trends that are important here, not the exceptions. That's why my question to Joe was (almost) rhetorical. I'd bet good money that 90% of those gangsters don't have their dad living with them.

Joel, I think the police, the media, and other social services can help, but they won't make a big difference until the underlying problem is addressed. At this point it looks to me like that problem is the absence of fathers.

I also have another, related question for Joe K. (or anyone): how many of those gangbangers are themselves fathers of children that they aren't living with and rearing with the child's mother?

herb said...


I think the fathers in homes issue is important. I just think that for the single article that Joe wrote today, listing statistics of the number of fathers in those homes could seem to lead to a conclusion to a complicated issue.

I think there are follow-ups to Joe's story, looking at different aspects of the problem of gangs such as single-parent homes, poverty, housing, hopelessness, etc. And in Latino families, you might see differences in family makeup than you see in black families.

I think your first question and your last question deserve their own treatment in the context of continuing coverage on gangs.

Sue said...

At the One Guilford thing at HPU, Al Barnett was *very* clear in his opinion that fathers play a pivotal role in their sons' upbringing (now that he has a brand-new daughter, I'm sure he'll upgrade his tune). Sometimes the question isn't as complicated as we make it: fathers don't make things better for sons. GOOD fathers make things better for sons (and, of course, daughters, but this discussion seems male-oriented).

It's a twofold issue: we need fathers to stay with their families and we need them to be GOOD fathers to their children. Salary is not the issue; presence, responsibility, expectations, and positive interaction are part of what makes up a "dad."

Certainly, there can be no real question about that, can there?

Note: I'm not saying that horribly dysfunctional families should stay together for the 'sake of the children.' I'm not calling for more difficult divorce. I'm urging us to find a way to impart to young African American men that their responsibility is bigger and more important than they know.

For the most part, we've educated an entire generation of young African American women that they have choices other than having babies at a young age. Societal education programs have good impact (example and wholly unrelated: in the 60s, there were big campaigns against littering and they were highly effective).

We can educate communities. We just have to admit the community needs educating and get past the tip-toeing around the subject.

Joe Guarino said...

While having a father in the home is not automatically sufficient, the statistics are very instructive. And having a father there is much better than not having a father there from the standpoint of outcomes.

And for families in poverty, the outcomes for children are much better when fathers are present. (And if the father were present, less would be in poverty and experience hopelessness.)

Jim said...

Wouldn't you agree, David, that "Having a father present" is like a single point in the scatter diagram of their despair?

David Wharton said...


The absent father is linked causally to nearly all of those scatter points.

A reasonably good dad provides income, frees up time and energy for moms to be better moms, tag teams with his spouse for things like PTA or supplementary education (for parents or kids), guides and leads his kids in things like scouting or organized sports, and is a masculine role model for boys who desperately seek it, because teenagers admire their parents.

This is not a "simplistic" analysis. Learning how to be a father is not a simple thing; teaching others who have had no real-life father models may not be possible. It is not simple to understand why engaged fatherhood has precipitously declined among African Americans. It is not simple to try to re-establish it; it may not be possible to do so.

But if you can't see that negligent fathering is the cause of a wide array of social pathologies involving boys, then you're willfully blind.

Jim said...

So I can take all of the convicted criminals with fathers and declare their Dads negligent, right? Surely their active presence is at least as negligent as faceless absence.

Jim said...

Also, what is the foundation for your declaration that negligent parenting is statistically more relevant than other correlative factors such as poverty? Is there data supporting this, or just extra righteousness?

Jim said...

One more thing: when I say data, I mean data like the below in which 34 studies were subjected to further review in a meta-analysis with derived statistical data establishing the degree of correlation capable of comparison to other factors. I am assuming you have a number to compare to this for your blanket "not simplistic" statement, otherwise it will seem to me to be, well ... simplistic. Or, are all 34 studies and the meta-analysis done by bleeding heart liberals?

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, several important reviews of the literature failed to establish a clear consensus on the relationship between economic conditions and violent crime. The research presented here applies the procedures of meta-analysis to 34 aggregate data studies reporting on violent crime, poverty, and income inequality. These studies reported a total of 76 zero-order correlation coefficients for all measures of violent crime with either poverty or income inequality. Of the 76 coefficients, all but 2, or 97 percent, were positive. Of the positive coefficients, nearly 80 percent were of at least moderate strength (>.25). It is concluded that poverty and income inequality are each associated with violent crime.

David Wharton said...

Jim, your third comment up from this one is a non-sequitur.

As to the second one up, I didn't claim what you said I did, though I should probably emend the words "the cause" to "a powerful cause."

In answer to your most recent comment, this, this, and this are somewhat more up-to-date than your 1993 meta-analysis.

I read the whole article you linked. The authors admit that most of the data they studied predate 1980. They don't look at a wide range of associations with violent crime, only poverty and income inequality, and they find consistenly positive correlations between those two and the crimes of homicide, rape, assault, and robbery.

But their study begs the question of whether poverty & income inequality are caused by, or are a cause of, absent fathers, and their study obviously can't take any account of the increases in violent crime from the 1970s through the late 1980s or of the increase of single-parent families during the same time.

I know that some prominent sociologists like Sampson argue a causal link male unemployment -> single-parent/mother headed households -> violent youth crime, which isn't quite inconsistent with what I said.

Other studies show a lot of self-reported data on how mother-headed households try to make up for absent fathers by wangling the help of male relatives. But none that I know of show that this actually reduces crime among the kids.

Jim said...

You are a Classics Professor. Put this issue about which you feel passionately to the side for a moment. Imagine one of your students submits a paper on a topic like, "Root causes of the fall of the Roman empire." You are reviewing the paper to establish 1) whether the student has established a clear and unambiguous causal relationship between the cited factor(s) and the end result, and 2) a measure of the strength of each relationship compared to other correlative factors. Does the principled analysis you would apply as a Professor would lead you to conclude that there is a clear causal relationship between absent fathers and crime -- one which is undeniably stronger than all other positive correlative factors? If you are telling me that you can say this without sprinkling a little personal and anecdotal morality dust in there, I'll believe you because I respect your professionalism. Are you saying that? What I'm saying is that this issue plots as a complex scatter diagram of factors, with a starry sky of points including both family makeup, poverty, and other socioeconomic markers.

Joe Killian said...

Hey -- thanks for reading and sorry I didn't get back to you sooner. I've been on vacation up north since finishing the story.

I agree with you that families -- and especially a storng male role model -- can be essential in keeping kids away from gangs. But Herb is right --- we only had so much space to go into so many things that needed to be said. I did make sure to include some expert comments about fractured families leading to kids looking for what they'd get from families in gangs, but I sort of had to choose whether to go into the cops and kids talking about rap music or their families.

The kids were a little reluctant to go into their family situations with me -- though to answer your question many of the ones I met were being raised by single mothers, aunts or grandmothers.

On balance I thought the influence of rap and pop gansta culture was more important to get into the story since even some of the kids who had whole families were living on these Scarface/50 Cent/The Game fantasies and both they and the cops talked about it as a serious influence.

I'll be writing more about this -- and I talk a little about the importance of fathers (and my father) in my blog post on the story, which you can find here.

David Wharton said...

Joe, thanks so much for responding.

I think my question came across to some as a criticism of your article, which it certainly wasn't meant to be. I liked your article a lot, and I was hoping that you could add more to it, so thanks for doing so. I'll link to your additional blog post above.

Jim -- your paraphrase of my assertion ("there is a clear causal relationship between absent fathers and crime -- one which is undeniably stronger than all other positive correlative factors") is a straw man. It's stronger than what I said, and you're setting an impossibly high epistomological bar for me: if I can't produce a meta-analyzed longitudinal statistical study that cross-correlates all possible causes of violent crime that shows that absent/poor fathers are more strongly correlated with it than any other factors, then I can't say that absent/poor fathers are an important cause of crime?

That's total crap, and you don't even believe it yourself: that's why you're not citing data on the relatively equal strength of the constellation of causes that you assert with your scatter-diagram metaphor.

In your Roman Empire example, I would never -- could never -- require a student who argued for certain causes of the fall of Rome to show "unambiguous causal relationships" (because there are no such things in the field of history) or to produce the kind of correlative data you mention (because the data set is so poor).

I would be happy if the student produced reasonable and consistent arguments supported by solid evidence, and was able to respond to counter arugments cogently.

There are no unambiguous causal relationships in the social sciences, either, and data sets are variable in quality. But you know, people still make hypotheses about stuff anyway. I cited good studies that support what I said.

If you disagree, fine. But don't try to tell me I can't talk about social problems unless I can back up every assertion with an uberpowerful academic study with a lot of statistical jargon in its abstract.

Jim said...

David - You fluffed up the Straw Man. My one and only point, which took a single sentence, was that absent fathers was a single point in a complex situation. Your response was a flat rejection along with an accusation that I must be blind. Take responsibility for your knee-jerk and false reaction. You've moderated your original overreaction. I've not moved one inch. Not one.

David Wharton said...

I rejected your point because it seemed to me to make all causes of youth crime equal. Points on a scatter chart all carry the same weight, and at any rate it's not clear to me how a scatter chart can reflect causes -- the points all represent an effect of some other cause.

But that aside, I apologize if I reacted insultingly. I appreciate your comments and value your friendship.