ATLANTA - Bill Cosby has his own values crusade going, and it's catching on in much of black America. When Mr. Cosby endorses academic achievement, discipline and parental involvement, he's supporting the traditional values to which many black Americans - in red states or blue - can relate.
You might be surprised to hear this, but there is little controversy over Mr. Cosby's rhetoric. A few fringe academics and left-wing scribes have attacked him, but he has drawn broad support, including from civil rights activists such as NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. Perhaps that's because Mr. Cosby's wisdom is self-evident.
Like so many others, I support Mr. Cosby's crusade. I'd just like to add one small item to his agenda: marriage. I'd like to hear him - in the plain and unadorned language for which he has become known - urging black men and women to get married.
Having been married to Camille for 40 years, he obviously believes in the institution. (The Cosbys are the parents of four daughters; their son, Ennis, was murdered in an apparent carjacking in 1997.) And Mr. Cosby has implicitly supported it in talks around the country - pointing out the detriment of teen pregnancy and urging fathers to get involved in their children's lives.
But I'm not sure that young black men and women are quite getting the message. Over the last few years, many unmarried young black fathers have begun attending parenting seminars to learn the basics of fatherhood. As a result, some are going to PTA meetings, monitoring their kids' report cards and even coaching their children's Little League teams. But too few are getting married to the mother of their children. What is better for kids than a law-abiding, hard-working dad who is present in the home?
The institution of marriage is in trouble throughout the Western world. High rates of divorce and pregnancy outside of marriage have destabilized traditional unions, not just here but in Western Europe, too. Even Japan, long a traditional society, is experiencing divorce creep.
(Many critics of same-sex unions have promoted bans as a way to protect traditional marriage. I understand their worries over the state of heterosexual marriage, but its decline has nothing to do with gays and lesbians. The women's movement, Hollywood's idealized portrayals of marriage and old-fashioned adultery and betrayal have undermined heterosexual marriage, but gay couples have not.)
Among black Americans (whom some civil rights leaders have long described as "canaries in the coal mine") the problem has assumed alarming proportions. Marriage is fast becoming all but obsolete. Using figures from the U.S. Census, the following shows the percentage of men who are married, by age group:
Among white men from 25 to 29 years old, 41 percent are married; from 30 to 34 years old, 59 percent are married; and from 35 to 39 years old, 66 percent are married. Among Hispanic men 25 to 29 years old, 36 percent are married; from 30 to 24, 53 percent are married; and from 35 to 39, 64 percent are married. But the marriage rates among black men drop precipitously: Among ages 25 to 29, 25 percent are married; from 30 to 34, 41 percent are married; and from 35 to 39, 43 percent are married - still less than half.
The high rates of incarceration among black men are certainly a hindrance to marriage. Joblessness is also a factor. But there is something else going on - a certain cultural shift that is harder to articulate: Marriage has simply become devalued.
That's bad news.
Marriage is not only a solid institution for rearing children, it also encourages responsible behavior and civic participation (good reasons for allowing gays and lesbians to marry, too).
Further, as the nation becomes increasingly mobile and young adults move away from their relatives, their spouses become their support system. That value increases as couples age.
The next time Bill Cosby begins reminding black listeners about the need to return to self-respect and self-reliance, he ought to encourage marriage, too. It may be too late to save the institution from the relentless forces of modernism that threaten to crush it, but it's worth a try.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.