I had a very nice time at the 21st Annual Symposium on Family Issues at Penn State University, where I presented remarks in response to a paper by Sara McLanahan and Wade Jacobsen. The theme of the symposium was “Diverging Destinies,” or the growing differences in family experiences by social class in the US. The event has lots of time for discussion and debate, and much of that focused on poor people and their families, around contested terms such as choices, parenting, behavior, attitudes, orientation, and so on. I had plenty to agree and disagree with, there were lots of good talks, and it was a good conversation.
Here are two observations.
The first was a moment when Ron Haskins from the Brookings Institution, a long-time member of the welfare policy establishment (his bio describes him as “instrumental in the 1996 overhaul of national welfare policy”), responded to Harvard professor Kathryn Edin’s response to his presentation. She had spent most of her time talking about her new book, Doing the Best I Can: Fathering in the Inner City. For the book, Edin undertook years of ethnographic fieldwork and interviews, and emerged with a very sympathetic yet sobering description of the poor young men she studied, men who want more than anything to be good fathers — according to the contemporary ideals of both economic provision and emotional togetherness — but for many reasons usually can’t meet their own goals.
When they were both on the dais, Haskins said she was “too optimistic” about her subjects, in describing them as eager to do the right thing for their children. “I know these guys!” he said, before describing some anecdotal experiences from his (apparently distant) personal past. It struck me because it seemed profoundly disrespectful of not only her work, but of her kind of research. Of course ethnographers can do bad studies or misinterpret their data. But I would only discount a serious work of ethnography based on my personal experience if that experience were pretty deep. I suspect Haskins wouldn’t have struck that note if her work had been a quantitative demography, but I could be wrong. (Earlier, I had pointed out that welfare reform failed at its stated goal of making poor single mothers get married, and he countered that it had been successful at getting them to work, so “behavior modification does work” — and we should use that program as a model for future work-mandating reforms.)
Anyway, the second observation was about the composition of the speakers. None of our 16 speakers this year was Black. When I grumbled about that on Facebook, someone said he felt the same way last year. That got me to check the previous programs. (Each year the organizers of the symposium produce a book from the papers — you can see previous editions here, where the contributors are all listed.) I had to go back to 2008 to find an African American speaker, according to my reading of their photos and bios (which is not the best way to identify race/ethnicity, obviously, so I maybe wrong). Overall, of the last 114 speakers going back to 2007, I think only one was Black.
I don’t know who decides on the topics or the invitations, or how the event has unfolded over time, so I can’t comment on the process or motivations of those involved. But I think this is not good. The symposium is a substantial endeavor, with grant money from various sources. An invitation to speak there is a line on your CV, it comes with a small honorarium and travel expenses, and it’s a chance to network with other family researchers, grant-makers, and policy people. There also are a lot of students attending the talks. So whatever the reasons, it’s a shame more Black scholars haven’t been there.