I was speaking the other day to my friend N. about the story everybody’s talking about around here: the beating of the local family in a gas station, apparently because they were white, and in the “wrong neighborhood” (according to the alleged chief assailant). N. told me that he used to volunteer as a mentor in a tough high school. He worked with black male teenagers. N. is a Christian, and one of the kindest men I know. He used to attend a black inner-city church, and had a heart for these lost boys.

He said, though, that no matter what he tried, he couldn’t get through to the boys he was trying to help. There was a hardness there that would not be penetrated. He said he ended his time with that program in despair, because he felt that nothing he did could reach those boys, locked away in their own anger and fear. He said that the thing he noticed more than anything else was the absence of a father in their lives. The boys had no idea how to relate to male authority, because there had been so little mature male authority in their lives, only the malevolent cartoon version of it, e.g., guns, fighting, sexual conquest. Talking to him, I got the sense that the lack of a father in those kids’ lives wasn’t the only problem they faced, but it was the main one.

I recalled that conversation this morning when I read Ethan Epstein’s City Journal profile of Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who is black. This passage, in particular:

In the hot summer of 2011, Philadelphia was beset by “flash mobs.” Dozens of teenagers, mostly black, would gather suddenly and riot through popular tourist neighborhoods, assaulting pedestrians and robbing stores and people. Other cities experienced flash mobs in 2011, but they presented a particular problem for tourist-dependent Philadelphia, where millions of visitors come every year to see the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and Franklin Court—not to mention the famous corner of Ninth Street and Passyunk Avenue, where Pat’s and Geno’s vie for cheesesteak supremacy.

Mayor Michael Nutter, a black Democrat who had governed the city since 2008, was not pleased. And so, one Sunday that August, he took to the pulpit at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in West Philadelphia and launched into an impassioned, 25-minute speech, punctuated by cheers and applause from the pews. “This nonsense must stop,” he said, his voice rising. “If you want to act like a butthead, your butt is going to get locked up. And if you want to act like an idiot, move. Move out of this city. We don’t want you here any more.” Nutter grew increasingly heated as he blasted the city’s absentee fathers—who, he implied, were responsible for the crimes that their children committed. And he wound up his speech by telling the flash mobbers: “You’ve damaged your own race.”

Leftist critics quickly lit into the mayor. Columbia University political scientist Frederick Harris even used the R-word: “If this discourse was led by Ronald Reagan, for instance, people would call him on his racism, but now that you have a black face to these explanations it gives it legitimacy.”

But Nutter didn’t stop at rhetoric; he threw the weight of the Philadelphia Police Department against the rioters. In mob-afflicted areas, he ramped up police patrols and imposed a weekend curfew of 9 PM for minors. Backing up his tough talk on absentee parents, he increased fines on the parents of kids repeatedly caught breaking curfew, from $300 to $500. Local judges pitched in, sentencing flash mobbers to hefty service terms instead of slapping them on the wrist. Ten first-time offenders who had raided a Macy’s, for example, had to work there for eight weeks, dressing mannequins and greeting shoppers.

It seems to have worked. In the summer of 2012, there were no flash mobs in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Inquirer applauded the city’s “amazing progress,” noting correctly that “sometimes news is what doesn’t happen.” But it isn’t the only news that Michael Nutter has made in Philadelphia. On many counts, he has racked up an impressive record governing America’s fifth-largest city, showing a way forward at a time when so many Democratic-run cities seem resigned to deterioration.

Good for him. But no politician can change a culture in which fathers are absent and marginalized, and in which there is no pressure from within for them to take up the burdens of fatherhood, which include responsibility for the support, care, and raising of the children they father, and the women who bear their children. Ideas have consequences, and the idea that fathers are unnecessary is a particularly destructive one.

UPDATE: Elvisd writes:

I have posted a few times recently on the disfunction that I have seen in twenty years of teaching, mostly in rural, majority black schools and mixed urban schools.

I’ve seen it all, every nightmarish behavior that one can care to mention. I could add to the list some incidents that were frightening, life threatening, or even sickly comical, but will refrain.

I long ago grew cynical about the prognoses and remedies uttered by policy wonks in papers and seminars.

I learned to anticipate the chaotic leadership of incompetent principals and front load the damage control, for the sake of the class.

But nothing was an eye opener as the first day that I had on the job of my first school, the school that would turn out to be as violent as some jails. Class had not begun. We were at the beginning of the typical week of professional development. The opening speaker was a stereotypical Mad Black Woman, who went on a forty minute harangue, complete with pauses for hoots from the pulpit, on the theme of what we need to do for “Bay Bay’s Kids” when they arrive in our classrooms next Monday. She had been sent to us by the state. She kept getting angrier and louder, until her crescendo that brought down the house with a roomful of cheers from the mostly female audience: “…And you better stop telling me this idea that a child needs to have a daddy in his life to turn out right!” That, right there, summed up what I would experience for the next several years, and that is why my home region will not get better any time soon.