Kay Hymowitz

is an editor for City Journal

In the almost half-century in which we have gone from George Wallace to Barack Obama, America has another, less hopeful story to tell about racial progress.

In 1965, a young assistant secretary of labor named Daniel Patrick Moynihan stumbled upon data that showed a rise in the number of black single mothers. As he wrote in a now-famous report for the Johnson administration, the growth in illegitimacy, as it was called then, coincided with a decline in black male unemployment. Strangely, black men were joining the labor force more but marrying - and fathering - less.

There were other puzzling facts. In 1950, at the height of the Jim Crow era, 85 percent of black children were born to married parents. Fifteen years later, there seemed to be no reason that that would change. Legal barriers to equality were falling, the black middle class had grown, and the workforce was expanding.

Yet 24 percent of black mothers were bypassing marriage. Moynihan wrote later that he and others had assumed "economic conditions determine social conditions." Now, it seemed, "what everyone knew was evidently not so."

President Lyndon Johnson was deeply shaken by Moynihan's findings. Both men believed fatherlessness undermined the "basic socializing unit." Johnson declared during a commencement address at Howard University: "When the family collapses, it is the children that are usually damaged. When it happens on a massive scale, the community itself is crippled."

Unfortunately, those warnings were as reviled as they were prescient. Civil-rights leaders, worried about reviving racist myths about black promiscuity, objected to what they viewed as blaming the victim. Feminists were inclined to look on "strong black women" raising their children alone as symbols of female autonomy. By the fall of 1965, the Moynihan report and the subject had disappeared.

But the silent treatment was the wrong medicine. Since 1965, the black family has unraveled in ways that have few parallels in human cultures. By 1980, 56 percent of black births were to single mothers. In inner-city neighborhoods, the number was closer to 66 percent. By the 1990s, even as the fertility of American women fell, the majority of black women who did bear children were unmarried.

Today, 70 percent of black children are born to single mothers. In some neighborhoods, two-parent families have vanished. In parts of Philadelphia or Newark, for example, it's common to find children who are not only growing up without their fathers, but who don't know anyone who is.

What has this meant for racial progress? Fifty years after Jim Crow, black households have the lowest median income of any racial or ethnic group. Close to a third of black children are poor, and their chances of moving out of poverty are much lower than those of their white peers.

The fractured black family is not the sole explanation for these gaps, but it is central. Half of black children born to single mothers are poor, but only 12 percent of those born to married parents are. At least three studies have concluded that child poverty would be dramatically lower had marriage rates remained what they were in 1970.

Black married couples have a median household income of $62,000 - more than 80 percent of the white median. Overall, though, black households' median income is only 62 percent of white households'.

The institution of marriage appears to promote ideals of stability, order and fidelity that benefit children and adults alike. Those who pin hopes for black progress on education tend to forget this.

Numerous studies show that children with single mothers are less likely to finish high school and go to college. And Moynihan's disconnect between "economic conditions and social conditions" suggests that even employment increases are not a certain cure.

Through his own example, Obama presents a chance to revive what Johnson called "the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights." Obama's

Dreams From My Father

conveys the toll of fatherlessness, and he has spoken movingly of his determination to ensure a different life for his own children.

But tackling this issue won't be easy. When Obama lamented "fathers ... missing from too many lives and too many homes," Jesse Jackson said he wanted to castrate Obama. Still, painful as the subject is, the alternative is worse: racial inequality as far as the eye can see.

This appeared in the Washington Post.