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Republican Congressman Byron Donalds claims Black families were stronger during the Jim Crow era, sparking outrage and debate over his controversial remarks.

Black Congressman Claims Families Were Stronger During Segregation

By Darius Spearman (africanelements) | June 6, 2024

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Byron Donalds’ Controversial Jim Crow Remarks

Republican Congressman Byron Donalds sparked outrage with comments suggesting Black families were stronger during the Jim Crow era than today. He made these remarks at the “Congress, Cognac, and Cigars” event in Philadelphia, promoting Black support for Donald Trump’s 2024 campaign (The Philadelphia Inquirer).

Donalds claimed Democratic policies after the Civil Rights Movement, such as welfare programs under President Lyndon B. Johnson, eroded Black family values. He stated, “During Jim Crow, the Black family was together. During Jim Crow, more Black people were not just conservative — Black people have always been conservative-minded — but more Black people voted conservatively.” (CNN)

Swift Condemnation from Democratic Leaders

Democratic leaders, especially those in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), condemned Donalds’ remarks immediately. CBC Chairman Steven Horsford accused Donalds of being a “mouthpiece” for statements many would not say themselves. Horsford labeled the comments “shameful” and demanded an apology to Black Americans for misrepresenting the Jim Crow era (The Hill).

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, also a CBC member, rebuked Donalds on the House floor. Jeffries called the comments “factually inaccurate” and “outlandish, outrageous, and out-of-pocket.” He highlighted the lynchings, sexual assaults, and denial of voting rights Black Americans faced during Jim Crow, saying:

“How dare you make such an ignorant observation? You better check yourself before you wreck yourself” (Washington Examiner).

Biden Campaign and Public Response

The Biden campaign quickly addressed Donalds’ remarks. Spokesperson Sarafina Chitika accused Trump and his allies of wanting to “take America back to Jim Crow.” Chitika argued Black voters would reject Trump’s “racist agenda” in the upcoming election (New York Times).

Donalds posted a video in response to the backlash, clarifying his comments. He insisted he never claimed Black people were better off under Jim Crow but that Black families were more united then. Donalds blamed Democratic welfare policies for the breakdown of the Black family (Washington Post).

Criticism of Historical Distortion

Critics argue that Donalds’ attempt to paint a positive picture of Black life during Jim Crow is deeply misguided and offensive. The Jim Crow period, lasting from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 until the mid-1960s, involved legalized racial segregation, discrimination, and violence against Black Americans (CNN). Connecting the decline of the Black family to desegregation and expanded civil rights ignores the severe hardships and injustices faced by Black communities. As Democratic leaders and the CBC pointed out, Donalds’ comments distort and whitewash this painful history for political gain.

Jeffries also highlighted the horrors of the Jim Crow era, stating:

“Lynchings, violence, and systemic racism were rampant. Any suggestion otherwise is a gross misrepresentation of history” (Washington Post).

The Breakdown of the Black Family: A Racist Dog Whistle

Historical Context of the “Breakdown” Narrative

The notion of the “breakdown of the Black family” has been a racist dog whistle in American politics for decades. This narrative ignores the complex historical, economic, and policy factors that have impacted Black families.

The Moynihan Report and Its Controversy

In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan released a controversial report titled “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action.” Moynihan argued that the “deterioration” of the Black family, marked by increasing single motherhood, was a key driver of Black poverty. This report sparked outrage from civil rights leaders who felt it blamed Black families while ignoring the impacts of racism and economic disadvantage (BlackPast).

“The Moynihan Report’s diagnosis of the Black family crisis as a pathological culture rather than the product of structural racism, sparked intense debate and criticism” (BlackPast).

Conservative Use of the Narrative

Since then, conservatives have frequently invoked the “breakdown” of Black families and the rise in single parenthood to argue against welfare programs. They often blame Black poverty on family structure and cultural failings, rather than acknowledging systemic racism (Institute for Family Studies).

For example, in 2015, pundit Bill O’Reilly claimed, “The reason there is so much violence and chaos in the Black precincts is the disintegration of the African-American family.” This exemplifies using the issue as a dog whistle to perpetuate stereotypes (Reason).

The Real Drivers of Family Structure Changes

In reality, research shows that the share of Black children living with single parents was relatively low before the 1960s. Economic changes like deindustrialization and mass incarceration policies, which removed many Black men from their communities, have driven changes in family structure (Child Trends).

“The real drivers behind the changing family structure among Black Americans are economic shifts and mass incarceration, not cultural deficiencies” (Institute for Family Studies).

Policymakers also directly discouraged marriage and broke up Black families. Welfare policies contained “man-in-the-house” rules that denied benefits to women if a man was present until the 1960s (CBPP).

The Impact of Systemic Racism and Misguided Policies

Family structure has changed substantially, but evidence suggests this is largely a symptom of systemic racism and misguided policies, not the cause of Black disadvantage. Continuing to blame “family breakdown” is a way to avoid grappling with the complex realities of racism (City Journal).

The Misuse of the Narrative

The “breakdown of the Black family” narrative has long been a racially-coded way to blame Black communities for their struggles. This avoids discussions of structural racism, discrimination in employment and housing, generational poverty, and policies that have actively harmed Black families. While family structure is important, it must be understood in its full historical and policy context, not used as a dog whistle.

The Impact on Black Voter Outreach

This controversy comes as Trump, with Donalds as a key surrogate, attempts to gain support from Black voters ahead of the 2024 election. While Trump has made some inroads, Biden maintains a significant advantage, with one recent poll showing 74% of Black voters backing the incumbent president (NBC News).

Critics argue that insensitive remarks like Donalds’ will not help Republicans win over Black voters and reflect deeper issues within the party regarding race and discrimination. Many feel Donalds owes an apology for his hurtful distortion of Black American history.

About the author

Darius Spearman has been a professor of Black Studies at San Diego City College since 2007. He has authored several books, including Between The Color Lines: A History of African Americans on the California Frontier Through 1890. You can visit Darius online at africanelements.org.