July 23, 2011

THE WAR ON MARRIAGE DIDN'T START WITH GAYS:

A Semi-Defense of the Infamous Slavery Passage in the 'Marriage Vow' Pledge (John McWhorter, July 13, 2011, New Republic)

Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum may have a number of things to be embarrassed about. However, supporting an observation that there were more two-parent black families during slavery than there are today is not one of them.

This observation was found in "The Marriage Vow," a conservative pledge produced by The Family Leader, a Christian group. It was signed, notably, by Bachmann and Santorum. "Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families," the pledge said, "yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA's first African-American President." The Family Leader removed the passage after a public outcry. But, while the comparison to slavery might seem crude--and the full pledge, generally speaking, is bigoted and wrongheaded--there was an important truth in the now-erased sentence. It is a truth about the oft-forgotten toughness of black families during slavery and in the difficult decades after emancipation.


IT ONCE WAS fashionable to suppose that slavery had made the conventional family difficult to sustain because of spouses so often being sold away from one another and children being separated from their parents. A natural conclusion was that, after slavery, the old patterns persisted, especially given how difficult conditions continued to be for black people, and that this was an understandable precursor to the fatherless norm in inner-city black communities after the 1960s. There is, indeed, sociological literature showing that it was hardly unknown for black people to be raised by single mothers during slavery and afterward. In fact, over the last 150 years, there have always been proportionately more single-parent black homes than white ones.

However, as classic work by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman has shown, despite the horrors of slavery, overall, during the pre-emancipation era, about two-thirds of enslaved families had two parents--far more than today. More recent revisionist work has stressed that, while forced separations were always an important part of the picture, the two-thirds figure remained dominant (Wilma Dunaway is especially handy on this). And this tendency continued into the Jim Crow era, contrary to a false sense one might have of daily life in a black ghetto of the 1930s and '40s--think Richard Wright's 12 Million Black Voices or Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land. Namely, it is wrong to suppose that, amid the misery of those neighborhoods, all but a sliver of children grew up without a dad. That is a modern phenomenon, whose current extent--fewer than one in three black children are raised by two parents--would shock even the poorest black folk 100 or even 50 years ago.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 23, 2011 8:10 AM
  
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