Friday, July 8, 2011

On Black Families, Bachmann, and Blackman et al.

So today the big news was that Tea Party leader and candidate for the Republican presidential primary Michele Bachmann signed The Family Leader’s pledge, “The Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence Upon Marriage and Family.” And what I found was a citation fumble so ridiculous that it makes me wish school was still in session so I could show my students…Well, almost wish.

Anyway, the part that triggered the most online controversy was this:

Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, 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.3

Notice the footnote number? Well, not too unsurprisingly, the study put out by the Institute for American Values“The Consequences of Marriage for African Americans: A Comprehensive Literature Review” by Lorraine Blackman, Obie Clayton, Norval Glenn, Linda Malone-Colon, and Alex Roberts – doesn’t support the claim in the pledge. (Really, please show me where it does!)

The study is pretty straightforward and reiterates much of what the public has already heard: Marriage benefits blacks differently than whites. Marriage benefits black men differently than black women. Marriage is important for black kids. Nothing new. It also mentions typical arguments for why black families have failed today, most notably “father absenteeism,” the redefining of male-female relationships, and other structural problems related to a history of slavery, discrimination, and poverty. In other words, slavery is cited as a possible cause for our baby-daddy problems today, not as “the good ol’ days” as some might interpret from the statement in the pledge.

Getting back to the pledge, there’s no support in the study (or anywhere else I’ve looked) for the claim that two-parent households were more common in 1860. It’s true that two-parent and intact families were more common right after emancipation. (The study cites data findings from 1880, 1890, 1900, and 1910 as examples.) Elsewhere, scholars have attributed this to blacks’ desire to reunite with loved ones, enter mutually-consensual relationships, and improve the race by following the nuclear family pattern. But, again, no praise for African American families under the slave system.

The lesson to be learned here? Simple: Don’t misrepresent other people’s research, especially when it’s so politically charged.