Category Archives: In the news

Abortion is not a holocaust, and feminism is not about convenience

a photo of a cute pig next to a 16-cell human embryo .

Pig (left) and human.

Quick, disorganized comment on abortion.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who opposes abortion rights, recently wrote in defense of the Kevin Williamson, fired from the Atlantic, for saying this, before he was hired:

Someone challenged my about my views on abortion, saying, “If you really thought it was a crime you would support things like life in prison, no parole, for treating it as a homicide.” And I do support that. In fact, as I wrote, what I have in mind is hanging.

Douthat thinks feminists are just as extreme as this, but even worse because they’re on the wrong side (the side in favor of the baby holocaust).

Douthat is concerned that abortion is “justified with the hazy theology of individualism.” When he says that what he’s insulting is feminism. He’s mocking us for being stupid (hazy) atheists who don’t realize secularism is just another theology (like Chris Smith does). And “individualism” refers to the idea that women have rights. Privilege is congratulating yourself for exposing oppressed people’s struggle for liberation as actually being about their individual self-gratification.

In claiming to make a moral argument, he pits this claim to women’s individualistic convenience against the holocaust:

the distinctive and sometimes awful burdens that pregnancy imposes on women have become an excuse to build a grotesque legal regime in which the most vulnerable human beings can be vacuumed out or dismembered, killed for reasons of eugenics or convenience or any reason at all.

There are no men, no patriarchy, in this telling, and that’s telling. It is important to say, which Douthat won’t, that abortion rights are women’s rights, that women’s rights are not about some decadent “individual” rights but about systemic group oppression perpetrated over millennia, especially by religion (especially by Douthat’s religion, Catholicism).

Douthat wants to take the abortion debate to the moral plane of “the killing of millions of innocents” (his phrase) versus feminist selfish self-indulgence. He is egging on his fellow anti-feminists, pushing them to take this extremist position while decrying the extremism of feminists. Organized anti-feminism doesn’t want to say abortion is really really murder because then women will turn against them, because women aren’t idiots. The mainstream abortion rights movement doesn’t want to say fetuses are human because it makes abortion seem worse, plus for early-term pregnancies it’s really not true. Still, we should argue about abortion as if it’s a decision that matters, not only as if it’s the restriction of the right to make that decision that matters. Unfortunately, Roe v. Wade was not decided on the principle that women can take a fetal life when it’s inside their own body, but on the principle of respecting women’s privacy rights to make personal decisions. This makes it harder to have the real feminist argument. I’m with Douthat that we should have a real moral argument, which he in his sneering at “individualism” actually refuses to engage.

Only religion can say all fetuses are instantly human; any scientific understanding exposes this incontrovertibly as just crazy talk. But abortion rights don’t depend on fetuses not being human at all. If you want to take the argument off the religious turf, you have to acknowledge that there is no moral instant when a fetus becomes human — science can’t locate that transformation more precisely than sometime between conception and birth. For that matter, there is no moral bright line between human and animal as far as suffering and death, that separates a human from a chimpanzee from a pig from a dog. (Many of us are, after all, not fully human ourselves, but part homo neanderthalensis.) There is moralizing, but not morality, in approving the grotesquely cruel slaughter of billions of sentient animals for “convenience or any reason at all,” while labeling women who abort sixteen-cell fetuses as murderers.

Ending life is a serious moral decision, of the kind Douthat and others are comfortable letting men take in many ways, in wars, and corporate decisions, and state policies, and slaughterhouses. Abortion rights mean women deserve that responsibility, too. Abortion rights don’t rest on the inconsequentialness of the decision but on the humanity of women. There is no reason to shy away from that. Catharine MacKinnon, who is aging well on this, wrote in 1983:

My stance is that the abortion choice must be legally available and must be women’s, but not because the fetus is not a form of life. In the usual argument, the abortion decision is made contingent on whether the fetus is a form of life. I cannot follow that. Why should women not make life or death decisions?

That’s my attempt to defend abortion rights without relying on euphemism and evasion or the hazy theology of individualism.

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A miracle of wrong: Hanna Rosin error reborn in Mark Regnerus book

I’ve been working on my review of Mark Regnerus’s new book, Cheap Sex, in 10-minute power bursts. Here’s one funny thing I noticed: Hanna Rosin’s most prominent error from The End of Men apparently repeated telephone-style by Regnerus.*

In the Atlantic article, which led to her TED Talk and then book (full review), The End of Men, Hanna Rosin’s editor chose two dramatic statements that were wrong to lead with:

rosin-wrong

That year, 2010, women were not the majority of the workforce, and most managers were not women. And they still aren’t. What was true was that for 10 months women outnumbered men in what the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports as the “nonfarm payroll,” from June 2009 to March 2010. In every month before and since, men have been the majority. Here’s that trend, by month:

nonfarmpayroll

The nonfarm payroll number is:

a measure of the number of U.S. workers in the economy that excludes proprietors, private household employees, unpaid volunteers, farm employees, and the unincorporated self-employed. This measure accounts for approximately 80 percent of the workers who contribute to Gross Domestic Product.

It’s not “the workforce,” but it is a good indicator of shocks to the economy — private companies may lay people off immediately, while self-employed people still consider themselves employed even if they’re suddenly losing money.  Anyway, in the BLS’s household survey that asks people if they are working, the Current Population Survey, there were about 10 million more people counted as employed, and men’s majority have never been threatened. This is a reasonably called “the workforce.” Note the time trend here is longer, and it’s annual:

cpsemp

The source of the wrong statement about managers is just Rosin combining managerial and professional specialty jobs into “managers,” which she also did in the TED Talk, which is just wrong. Professionals include a lot of women, like nurses and teachers. The managerial occupations have never been majority-female either. Both are important, but only one fit her narrative.

Anyway, the point of this is that Mark Regnerus picked up this meme — which Rosin popularized but lots of other media repeated — and stated it as current fact in his 2017 book. So powerful (among those not powerfully applying themselves) is the idea of automatic gender progress in one direction, that this is not the kind of thing they think they will ever have to check again. Once women pass a milestone, it’s passed, period. (That’s why Rosin’s full sentence was this: “Earlier this year, for the first time in American history, the balance of the workforce tipped toward women, who now hold a majority of the nation’s jobs.” She was misapplying the clickbait concept of “tipping point” to imply that the change will now continue and accelerate in the same direction.)

This is why Regnerus apparently felt no need to recheck his facts when he wrote, “there are now more women than men in the paid labor force.” He didn’t cite Rosin (or anyone) for this fact, but it appears during a passage sandwiched between parts that cite her book, so I assume that’s what he was borrowing from, and maybe just changed “workforce” to “paid labor force” to sound different or sophisticated.

Anyway, Rosin doesn’t feature prominently in the Regnerus review (you’re welcome), but this was an interesting nugget, because for all their differences, there are some similarities between Regnerus’s fanatical religious anti-feminism and Rosin’s sophisticated postfeminist antifeminism. Both think feminism has gone too far, and both see the rise of women as resulting from a technological change — Rosin from deindustrialization and Regnerus from the Pill. Also, they both use facts not to learn from but to demonstrate things they think they already know.


* To read the whole Regnerus story, follow his tag on the blog, or check out the whole story told in one chapter of my new book, Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible.

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The amazing lack of gender progress in Hollywood, Weinstein and not

With gender and Hollywood in the news because of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, I haven’t seen anyone count up the women who produced his movies. I counted off every tenth movie from his 300 or so producer credits on IMDB, and eyeballed their names (or images) for gender. The result: 23% of 373 producers were women.* (Some have a lot of producers, but if you use movies as the unit of analysis the average is also 23%.)

Here is the breakdown of these 30 movies, by decade:

harveydecades

Weinstein seems to be right in line with the industry on this. (With a range of 5 to 70 producers listed, none had more than 50% female producer teams.) Producer jobs are the most gender integrated of the major behind-the-scenes leadership positions in Hollywood movies, as reported by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. And, like the other major positions, in his movies and in general, there is zero movement toward gender integration in the last two decades.

womenintvfilm

In turn, Hollywood looks a lot like the economy in general, which also shows basically no progress on integrating women into leadership positions over the last two decades. Here is percent female among those employed in managerial occupations (using the IPUMS occ1990 coding scheme for consistency):

wommgrocc

Putting women in top leadership positions is not a panacea for gender inequality. But for the sexual harassment situation I am quite sure it would help a lot. Harvey Weinstein’s sex crimes may or may not have been an open secret in Hollywood, but the lack of women in positions across the industry, and the economy, is plain for all to see — and to act on, if they choose.

For other posts on movies, mostly having to do with gender, follow the movie tag.


* If someone wants to code all of his movies I’ll happily update this. Here’s the list I generated:

Year Men Women Percent Female
The Burning 1981 5 0 0.00
The Pope Must Diet 1991 7 1 0.13
Pulp Fiction 1994 6 1 0.14
Jane Eyre 1996 6 2 0.25
I’m Crazy About Iris Blond 1996 4 1 0.20
Cop Land 1997 8 2 0.20
Wide Awake 1998 6 2 0.25
Talk of Angels 1998 3 3 0.50
In Too Deep 1999 6 1 0.14
About Adam 2000 4 4 0.50
Backstage 2000 7 3 0.30
Mimic 2 2001 5 1 0.17
Heaven 2002 10 5 0.33
Chicago 2002 8 3 0.27
Bad Santa 2003 7 1 0.13
Finding Neverland 2004 6 3 0.33
The Brothers Grimm 2005 11 0 0.00
Scary Movie 4 2006 5 2 0.29
Death Proof 2007 6 4 0.40
The Great Debaters 2007 6 4 0.40
The Meerkats 2008 7 1 0.13
Halloween II 2009 10 1 0.09
The King’s Speech 2010 14 1 0.07
I Don’t Know How She Does It 2011 5 4 0.44
Escape from Planet Earth 2013 13 3 0.19
Lee Daniels’ The Butler 2013 31 10 0.24
Suite Francais 2014 8 4 0.33
Regression 2015 13 2 0.13
Wild Oats 2016 54 16 0.23
The Upside 2017 7 0 0.00
Total 288 85 0.23

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Sociology’s culture of trust, don’t verify

Replication in sociology is a disaster. There basically isn’t any. Accountability is something a select few people opt into; as a result, mostly people with nothing to hide ever have their work verified or replicated. Even when work is easily replicable, such as that using publicly available datasets, there is no common expectation that anyone will do it, and no support for doing it; basically no one funds or publishes replications.

Peer review is good, but it’s not about replicability, because it almost always relies on the competence and good faith of the authors. Reviewers might say, “This looks funny, did you try this or that?” But if the author says, “Yes, I did that,” that’s usually the end of it. Academic sociology, in short, runs on a system of trust. That’s worth exactly what it’s worth. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I thought of this today when I read the book excerpt by Mark Regnerus in the Wall Street Journal. (I haven’t read his new book, Cheap Sex yet, although I called the basic arguments a “big ball of wrong” three years ago when he first published them.) Regnerus opens that essay with a single quote supposedly from an anonymous 24-year-old recent college graduate that absolutely perfectly represents his thesis:

If you know what girls want, then you know you should not give that to them until the proper time. If you do that strategically, then you can really have anything you want…whether it’s a relationship, sex, or whatever. You have the control.

(Regnerus argues men have recently gained control over sex because women have stopped demanding marriage in exchange for it.)

Scholars and readers in sociology don’t normally question whether specific quotes in qualitative research are real or not. We argue over the interpretation, or elements of the research design that might call the interpretation into question (such as the method of selecting respondents or a field site). But if we simply don’t trust the author, what do we do? In the case of Regnerus, we know that he has lied, a lot, about important things related to his research. So how do you read his research in a discipline with no norm of verification or replicability, a discipline naively based on trust? The fake news era is here; we have to address this. Fortunately, every other social discipline already is, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Tackling it

Of course there are complicated issues with different kinds of sociology, especially qualitative work. It’s one of the things people wrestled with in the Contexts forum Syed Ali and I organized for the American Sociological Association on how to do ethnography right.

That forum took place in the wake of all the attention Alice Goffman received for her book, and article, On the Run (my posts on that are under this tag). One person who followed that controversy closely was law professor Steven Lubet, who has written a new book titled, “Interrogating Ethnography: Why Evidence Matters,” which addresses that situation in depth. The book comes out October 20, at a conference at Northwestern University’s law school. I will be one of a number of people commenting on the book and its implications.

inteth

I hope you can come to the event in Chicago.

Finally, regardless of your opinion on recent controversies in sociology, if you haven’t read it, I urge you to read (and, if you’re in such a position, require that your students read) “Replication in Social Science,” by Jeremy Freese and David Peterson, in the latest Annual Review of Sociology (SocArXiv preprint; journal version). Freese and Peterson refer to sociology as “the most undisciplined social science,” and they write:

As sociologists, the most striking thing in reviewing recent developments in social science replication is how much all our neighbors seem to be talking and doing about improving replicability. Reading economists, it is hard not to connect their relatively strict replication culture with their sense of importance: shouldn’t a field that has the ear of policy-makers do work that is available for critical inspection by others? The potential for a gloomy circle ensues, in which sociology would be more concerned with replication and transparency if it was more influential, but unwillingness to keep current on these issues prevents it from being more influential. In any case, the integrative and interdisciplinary ambitions of many sociologists are obviously hindered by the field’s inertness on these issues despite the growing sense in nearby disciplines that they are vital to ensuring research integrity.

That paper has some great ideas for easy reforms to start out with. But we need to get the conversation moving. In addition developing replication standards and norms, we need to get the next generation of sociologists some basic training in the (jargon alert!) political economy of scholarly communication and the publishing ecosystem. The individual incentives are weak, but the need for the discipline to act is very strong. If we can at least get sociologists to be vaguely aware of the attention to this issue generated in most other social science disciplines, it would be a great step forward.

Incidentally, Freese will also present on the topic of replication at the O3S: Open Scholarship for the Social Sciences symposium SocArXiv is hosting at the University of Maryland later this month; still time to register!

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Made in America, by immigrants: children

Immigrants make a lot of great things in the USA, like communities and ideas and political organizations. And they also make American children. So for Made in America Week, a quick look at children born in the U.S. whose parents were not. That is, children made in America by immigrants.

For this table I used the American Community Survey, made available by IPUMS, and selected children ages 0-17 who live with two parents. Then I narrowed that group down to those for whom both parents were born in one of the top 20 countries (or regions), from those listed in the birthplace variable (described here), including the USA. The table shows the birthplace of mother and father (same-sex parent couples are excluded). The blue outer band shows the children who have at least one US-born parent. The green diagonal shows the number of children with two parents who immigrated from the same country. For the rest, the colors highlight larger cells, growing darker as cells surpass 1000, 5000, and 10,000. I’ll mention a few below.

You’ll have to click to enlarge:

Children made in America by immigrants

The green cells are the largest in each row and column, except the blue US-born-parent cells. In most cases the green cell is larger than the blue ones — for example, there are 3.5 million U.S. born children who live with two Mexican-born parents, outnumbering the 950,000 who have a Mexican-born father and U.S.-born mother, and 650,000 in the reverse case. But in some cases the green cell is very small, for example England, as there are more than 100,000 children with one England-born and one U.S.-born parent, but only 4,000 who have two England-born parents.

In other cases there are big gender differences reflecting migration and marriage patterns. So there are 10,000 children with a Chinese-born mother and Vietnamese-born father, but only 6,000 of the reverse. Also, in the case of Asia parents, there are more U.S.-born kids with Asian-born mothers and U.S.-born fathers than the reverse, presumably reflecting the greater tendency of Asian women to marry White men (this doesn’t apply to Laos and India).

Anyway, happy Made in America week.

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See you in court, Mr. President (about that Twitter account blocking)

On June 7, I described how President Trump’s Twitter account blocked me, and the argument for why that violates the First Amendment. I can now report that the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University has filed a lawsuit on my behalf demanding that the President unblock us. The other plaintiffs are Trump-blocked Twitter users as well: Rebecca Buckwalter, Holly Figueroa, Eugene Gu, Brandon Neely, Joseph Papp, and Nicholas Pappas (the Knight Institute is also a plaintiff). The announcement is here.

This was the tweet I sent 15 minutes before discovering I was blocked by @realDonaldTrump:

last tweet to trump

Our argument is that the President created in his Twitter stream a “designated public forum,” and he can’t legally exclude people from that based on their political views.

Here’s my part of the story, as told to the Knight communications team:

I’m okay with the fact that the candidate I wanted lost the election. Our family was upset by the outcome, but I approached this like a civics lesson for the children: We told them that this is a democracy, and the next best thing to winning an election is using the democratic process to speak up. It is all of our responsibility to use the tools we have to engage in our democracy.

Social media are among the most effect tools I have to speak out. I have a blog and as a professor I publish academic writings, but Twitter gives me the broadest audience most immediately. For example, I’m delighted when I write a blog post that is read by a few thousand people. But because of my audience on Twitter, I can reach as many as 100,000 people with one of my tweets replying to the president. It’s true that there are some people who use the reply threads on Twitter just to trade insults, which may not be the most productive sort of conversation. But they also allow you to see a range of opinions of people who agree or disagree. Since I’m not a political commentator by profession, and I’m a parent, Twitter is the only way I can connect with that many people with just a few minutes of time every day (it helps that he and I seem to wake up at the same time in the morning so I can reply right away).

Being blocked by Trump diminished my ability to respond and engage in the political process. There has been measurable impact on my ability to be heard. Yes, I can still say what I want to say, but not to those I want to speak to, when I want to say it or in the way that means the most to me. It’s disempowering to be prohibited from speaking. And I’m troubled that the president can create a space on Twitter — where there are millions of people — that he can manipulate to give the impression that more people agree with him than actually do.

The complaint specifies:

Defendants’ blocking of Professor Cohen from the @realDonaldTrump account
prevents or impedes him from viewing the President’s tweets; from replying to these tweets; from viewing the comment threads associated with these tweets; and from participating in the comment threads.

If I complained about random citizens blocking me on Twitter, you could call me a whiner or a snowflake. But the President is not a random citizen, he is a public official — even, yes, my president — and complaining about him blocking me from his official public forum is not a personal beef, it’s a Constitutional obligation. That’s why we have a Constitution, and the court system to enforce it.

Here is the Knight Institute’s original letter demanding that he unblock his critics, sent prior to filing the suit. Attorney Alex Abdo has responded to some objections to their approach in this post. Here are the stories of the plaintiffs.

I’m happy to talk more about this, in coordination with the legal team. Wish us luck!

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Teaching Black family history in sociology, student resistance edition

There is an amazing story from a family sociology class at the University of Tennessee. I don’t know the whole chronology of the reports, but I read pieces from As It Happens, BET, the local news. The gist of it is that there was an ambiguous quiz question about Black slave families, and when a Black student named Kayla Renee Parker complained, it led to her making a rebuttal presentation to the class, and then the White instructor, Judy Morelock, going on an abusive, racist social media rant and getting fired.

Before the details, my conclusions:

  • Good test questions are important, and as a teacher it’s OK to admit you’re wrong or there is ambiguity.
  • Two things are true: Black families were devastated by slavery and as a generalization most Black children under slavery lived with both parents.
  • There is a line, but not a straight line, between Black families under slavery and those under today’s system of racial domination.
  • Students who do research, honestly engage the material, and bring passionate or political arguments to class should have their courage and commitment encouraged, not punished.
  • Some White people who say they are against racism, and maybe even are against racism, are also racist and hate students.
  • Social media is public, so expect consequences.

The story, and then my approach, follows.

The quiz

Here is the question at issue:

Historical research on African-American families during slavery shows that:

A) Family ties weren’t important in African cultures where the slaves ancestors originated; consequently, family bonds were never strong among slaves.

B) Two-parent families were extremely rare during the slave period.

C) Black family bonds were destroyed by the abuses of slave owners, who regularly sold off family members to other slave owners.

D) Most slave families were headed by two parents.

Parker chose C, but Morelock said the correct answer is D. In a back and forth that Parker put on her Facebook page, she pointed out that the textbook talked about “disruption of families through sale of family members,” and Morelock countered that “bonds were maintained among family members who were geographically separated” referring to people passing information between plantations. These are long-running and unsettled issues in the historical scholarship. If you revise answer C to read “bonds were often destroyed” then it is obviously true. If you take a legalistic approach you could say, “family bonds were destroyed” means all bonds, so C is incorrect. This is not a good argument for a teacher to have. Correct the ambiguity, figure out how to handle the points, take it as a teaching opportunity, and move on.

In fact, there appears to have been one good outcome, which was Parker making a very good presentation to the class (video in the As It Happens story). If that was the end of it, we never would have heard. Maybe it’s good that it wasn’t the end of it, though, because when Morelock’s Facebook posts came out we might agree it’s just as well that the incident led to her being fired. The posts are in the BET story, and include Morelock calling Parker (thought not naming her), “ignorant simple-minded,” and threatening to ruin her reputation after the end of the semester, specifically saying, “I will post her name, her picture, and her bio on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Linkedin. Count on it.” Wow. (She also says Parker was spreading “venomous rumors” about her, which I don’t see reported.)

Many teachers complain about their students on Facebook. If you have reasonable complaints, don’t compromise their identities, don’t reveal or advocate unprofessional or vindictive behavior, and don’t be really racist, I think this is ethically defensible. It’s like a teaching workshop, or talking about your job in the staff lounge. But it’s risky and if you screw up you can get fired (which might or might not be a good thing).

The key thing is always, “If there was a hidden camera here or someone hacked my account, would I be able to defend my behavior?” If the answer is yes, you might still be taking a risk to talk about students, but at least you can live with yourself.

Anyway, as far as what I see in the classroom video and Facebook post of her email exchange, I have nothing but kudos for Parker although I might argue with her a little, too. If she did bad things elsewhere, she shouldn’t have.

Classroom exchange

In Parker’s presentation, she quotes Frederick Douglass saying it was “common custom” where he was born “to part children from their mothers from a very early age.” This is good evidence in favor of Answer C. Obviously experiences varied dramatically across the slave system and over time. Throwing down over a generalization like “most” is not really worth it.

She added, “We continue to see those impacts today and that’s why I believe that family bonds were destroyed.” She says Morelock told her she can’t teach by anecdotes, and she countered that we have to pay attention to the stories of real people affected. This is a really good argument to have, in theory.

Parker recommends The New Jim Crow, and Slavery by Another Name, and she says of the present “it’s by a different name, it’s still slavery in itself. … Slavery is still continuing to destroy the Black family” because of the “prison industrial complex.” She cites an article by Rose Brewer, “Black Families Imperiled by Growth of Nation’s Prisons Industrial Complex.”

Finally Parker says Morelock recommended some books, one of which was a 1998 edition of Minority Families in the United States, by Ronald Taylor, which she said was good but should be more current.

It’s really an excellent presentation. If you care about educating students, this would make you happy (again, not knowing what else may have happened off camera). At the end Parker takes questions, and Morelock pipes up, saying in part (my transcript):

I don’t have a lot of recent books, because the publishers just don’t send us books the way they used to. And I’ve been using [Andrew] Cherlin [Public and Private Families] for many, many years, the book you have in this course. He says the same thing, and that book is in its seventh edition. If there had been additional sociological research since he wrote that book I would think that it would appear in it, but it doesn’t. So I have to go by what my discipline shows, and I understand no matter how much I revere and respect a historical figure like Frederick Douglass, who was absolutely one of the bravest, most articulate persons of his generation, and highly respected, I still have to go with what has been done systematically, the kind of systematic methods that did not exist at that time, when sociology was still in its infancy. So, in the 70s, you know, the research that was done, with historical documents, on Black families demonstrated that people forged bonds, this is written by sociologist Ronald Taylor, he also happens to be African American, I don’t think he would try to minimize the effects of slavery, which I never ever ever would myself, and he talks about studies here [she quotes Taylor on the strong bonds in Black families, and how they maintained them even when they were separated] … Nonetheless, as I said, no one has to accept the sociological point of view. All students in my class, as is always the case, are free to make up their own minds, in fact I encourage it, and I always encourage you to do as Kayla did, do more research, find out more information about a topic, and come to your own conclusions.

Aside from the giant red flag of calling Frederick Douglass “articulate,” this is a reasonable argument. Although it’s sad that Morelock doesn’t keep up with the literature, and her reliance on authority rather than reason and analysis is bad, the truth is her facts are pretty current. Even though she’s racist, it’s not her take on the history that makes her racist. The prison industrial complex is important but it’s not the same thing as slavery breaking up families, it’s a different but related thing. (Incidentally, Cherlin has a good newer book about working class families that addresses some of this; my review is here.)

It’s not surprising we’ve been arguing about this for a century or so. It’s complicated. Here is the trend, back to 1880, in the proportion of Black children ages 0-14 living with married parents. There are issues with the data and measurement, but this basic pattern holds: the share of Black children living with two married parents increased after the end of slavery, and fell a lot more later:

black children married parents 1880-2015

Of course, some students would also get mad if you said, “slavery destroyed all Black families,” which isn’t true either. I don’t agree with the first part of the BET headline, “Professor Denies Slavery Destroyed Black Families And Threatens Student Who Called Her Out,” but because the second part is true I have no interest in defending her.

My version

Anyone who teaches this material should wrestle with this. Here’s what I have in the first edition of my book, in the history chapter (there is much more current material in the subsequent chapter on race and ethnicity). I would be happy to hear your response to this:

Families Enslaved

African families had gone through their own transitions, of course, of a particularly devastating nature. From the arrival of the first slaves in Jamestown in 1619 until the mid-1800s, Africans were forcibly removed from their homelands in western and central Africa and subjected to the unspeakable horrors of the Middle Passage aboard slave ships, slave auctions, and ultimately the hardships of plantation labor in the American South (as well as in the Caribbean and South America). Because they were thrown together from diverse backgrounds, and because their own languages and customs were suppressed by slavery, we do not know how much of slave family life was a reflection of African traditions and how much was an adaptation to their conditions and treatment in America (Taylor 2000).

But there is no doubt that family life was one of the victims of the slave system. The histories that have come down to us feature heart-wrenching stories of family separation, including diaries that tell of children literally ripped from their mothers’ arms by slave traders, mothers taking poison to prevent themselves from being sold, and parents enduring barbaric whippings as punishment for trying to keep their families together (Lerner 1973). In fact, most slaves only had a given name with no family name, which made the formation and recognition of family lineages difficult or impossible (Frazier 1930). Slave marriage and parenthood were not legally recognized by the states, and separation was a constant threat. Any joy in having children was tempered by the recognition that those children were the property of the slave owner and could be sold or transferred away forever.

Nevertheless, most slaves lived in families for some or all of their lives. Most married (if not legally) and had children in young adulthood, and most children lived with both parents. This was especially the case on larger plantations rather than small farms, because slaves could carve out some protection for community life if they were in larger groups, and husbands and wives were more likely to remain together (Coles 2006). Even if they had families, however, African Americans for the most part were excluded from the emerging modern family practices described in the next section until after slavery ended.

Relevant references:

Coles, Roberta L. Race and Family: A Structural Approach. 2006. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Frazier, E. Franklin. 1930. “The Negro Slave Family.” The Journal of Negro History 15(2):198–259.

Lerner, Gerda. 1973. Black Women in White America: A Documentary History. New York: Vintage Books.

Taylor, Ronald L. 2000. “Diversity within African American Families.” In Handbook of Family Diversity, edited by David H. Demo, Katherine R. Allen, and Mark A. Fine, pp. 232–251. New York: Oxford University Press.

And in our teaching materials, we address it this way, with a multiple choice question:

Most African American slave children lived with: A. grandparents. B. unrelated adults.  C. one parent. D. both parents [D is correct].

And an essay question:

Describe the impact of slavery on the family structure of African Americans throughout U.S. history.

Answer guide: Students should address the lost customs and languages of diverse Africans brought as slaves. Social scientists are often unsure which of the resulting cultural features of African American family life are held over from African traditions and which are adaptations to slavery. Family lineage was difficult or impossible to trace. Separation of parents and children was common. After the Civil War, African American families were legally recognized, and some were reunited. Emerging African American families were more egalitarian in gender roles and had strong extended family and kinship networks.

This story has good lessons about a number of things that scare people who teach family sociology (and lots of other people, too): being wrong, being called racist, and getting fired for saying something on Facebook. Good chance to reflect on teaching, which is hard, but also great.

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