Category Archives: In the news

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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Intermarriage rates relative to diversity

Addendum: Metro-area analysis added at the end.

The Pew Research Center has a new report out on race/ethnic intermarriage, which I recommend, by Gretchen Livingston and Anna Brown. This is mostly a methodological note, which also nods at some other issues.

How do you judge the amount of intermarriage? For example, in the U.S., smaller groups — Asians and American Indians — marry exogamously at higher rates. Is that because they have fewer same-race people to choose from? Or is it because Whites shun them less than they do Blacks, which are also a larger group. To answer this, you can look at the intermarriage rates relative to group size in various ways.

The Pew report gives some detail about different groups marrying each other, but the topline number is the total intermarriage rate:

In 2015, 17% of all U.S. newlyweds had a spouse of a different race or ethnicity, marking more than a fivefold increase since 1967, when 3% of newlyweds were intermarried, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

Here’s one way to assess that topline number, which I’ll do by state just to illustrate the variation in the U.S. (and then I repeat this by metro area below, by popular request).*

The American Community Survey (which I download from IPUMS.org) identified people who married within the previous 12 months, whom I’ll call newlyweds. I use the 2011-2015 combined data file to increase the sample size in small states. I define intermarriage a little differently than Pew does (for convenience, not because it’s better). I call a couple intermarried if they don’t match each other in a five-category scheme: White, Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian, Hispanic. I discard those newlyweds (about 2%) who are are multiracial or specified other race and not Hispanic. I only include different-sex couples.

The Herfindahl index is used by economists to measure market concentration. It looks like this:

H =\sum_{i=1}^N s_i^2

where si is the market share of firm i in the market, and N is the number of firms. It’s the sum of the squared proportions held by each firm (or race/ethnicity). The higher the score, the greater the concentration. In race/ethnic terms, if you subtract the Herfindahl index from 1, you get the probability that two randomly selected people are in a different race/ethnic group, which I call diversity.

Consider Maine. In my analysis of newlyweds in 2011-2015, 4.55% were intermarried as defined above. The diversity calculation for Maine looks like this (ignore the scale):

me

So in Maine two newlyweds have a 5.2% chance of being intermarried if you scramble up the marriage applications, compared with 4.6% who are actually intermarried. (A very important decision here is to use the newlywed population to calculate diversity, instead of the single population or the total population; it’s easy to change that.) Taking the ratio of these, I calculate that Maine is operating at 87% of its intermarriage potential (4.55 / 5.23). Maybe call it a diversity-adjusted intermarriage propensity. So here are all the states (and D.C.), showing diversity and intermarriage. (The diagonal line shows what you’d get if people married at random; the two illegible clusters are DC+NY and WA+KS; click to enlarge.)

State intermarriage

How far each state is off the line is the diversity-adjusted intermarriage propensity (intermarriage divided by diversity). Here is is in map form (using maptile):

DAMP

And here are the same calculations for the top 50 metro areas (in terms of number of newlyweds in the sample). I chose the top 50 by sample size of newlyweds, by which the smallest is Tucson, with a sample of 478. First, the figure (click to enlarge):

State intermarriage

And here’s the list of metro areas, sorted by diversity-adjusted intermarriage propensity:

Diversity-adjusted intermarriage propensity
Birmingham-Hoover, AL .083
Memphis, TN-MS-AR .127
Richmond, VA .133
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA .147
Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, MI .155
Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-D .157
Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN .170
Columbus, OH .188
Baltimore-Columbia-Towson, MD .197
St. Louis, MO-IL .204
Nashville-Davidson–Murfreesboro–Frank .206
Cleveland-Elyria, OH .213
Pittsburgh, PA .215
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX .219
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA .220
Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA .224
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA- .224
New Orleans-Metairie, LA .229
Jacksonville, FL .234
Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX .235
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA .239
Indianapolis-Carmel-Anderson, IN .246
Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI .249
Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, NC-SC .253
Raleigh, NC .264
Cincinnati, OH-KY-IN .266
Providence-Warwick, RI-MA .278
Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI .284
Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL .286
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA .287
Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL .295
Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH .305
Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls, NY .305
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA .311
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, .312
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA .316
Austin-Round Rock, TX .318
Kansas City, MO-KS .342
San Diego-Carlsbad, CA .343
Sacramento–Roseville–Arden-Arcade, CA .345
Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI .345
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA .346
Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ .362
Tucson, AZ .363
Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA .378
San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX .388
Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO .396
Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV .406
Provo-Orem, UT .421
Salt Lake City, UT .473

At a glance no big surprises compared to the state list. Feel free to draw your own conclusions in the comments.

* I put the data, codebook, code, and spreadsheet files on the Open Science Framework here, for both states and metro areas.

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Births to 40-year-olds are less common but a greater share than in 1960

Never before have such a high proportion of all births been to women over 40 — they are now 2.8% of all births in the US. And yet a 40-year-old woman today is one-third less likely to have a baby than she was in 1947.

From 1960 to 1980, birth rates to women over 40* fell, as the Baby Boom ended and people were having fewer children by stopping earlier. Since 1980 birth rates to women over 40 have almost tripled as people started “starting” their families at later ages, but they’re still lower than they were back when total fertility was much higher.

40yrbirths

Sources: Birth rates 1940-1969, 1970-2010, 2011, 2012-2013, 2014-20152016; Percent of births 1960-1980, 1980-2008.

Put another way, a child born to a mother over 40 before 1965 was very likely the youngest of several (or many) siblings. Today they are probably the youngest of 2 or an only child. A crude way to show this is to use the Current Population Survey to look at how many children are present in the households of women ages 40-49 who have a child age 0 (the survey doesn’t record births as events, but the presence of a child age 0 is pretty close). Here is that trend:

sibs40p

In the 1970s about 60 percent of children age 0 had three or more siblings present, and only 1 in 20 was an only child. Now more than a quarter are the only child present and another 30 percent only have one sibling present. (Note this doesn’t show however many siblings no longer live in the household, and I don’t know how that might have changed over the years).

This updates an old post that focused on the health consequences of births to older parents. The point from that post remains: there are fewer children (per woman) being born to 40-plus mothers today than there were in the past, it just looks like there are more because they’re a larger share of all children.

* Note in demography terms, “over 40” means older than “exact age” 40, so it includes people from the moment they turn 40.

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‘Start a family’ started to mean ‘have children’ more recently than you think

Or more recently than I thought, anyway.

It looks like the phrase “start a family” started to mean “have children” (after marriage) sometime in the 1930s, and didn’t catch on till the 1940s or 1950s, which happens to be the most pro-natal period in U.S. history. Here’s the Google ngrams trend for the phrase as percentage of all three-word phrases in American English:

startfamngram

Searching the New York Times, I found the earliest uses applied to fish (1931) and plants (1936).

Twitter reader Daniel Parmer relayed a use from the Boston Globe on 8/9/1937, in which actress Merle Oberon said, “I hope to be married within the next two years and start a family. If not, I shall adopt a baby.”

Next appearance in the NYT was 11/22/1942, in a book review in which a man marries a woman and “brings her home to start a family.” After that it was 1948, in this 5/6/1948 description of those who would become baby boom families, describing a speech by Ewan Clague, the Commissioner of Labor Statistics, who is remembered for introducing statistics on women and families into Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. From NYT:

claguenyt

That NYT reference is interesting because it came shortly after the first use of “start a family” in the JSTOR database that unambiguously refers to having children, in a report published by Clague’s BLS:

Trends of Employment and Labor Turn-Over: Monthly Labor Review, Vol. 63, No. 2 (AUGUST 1946): …Of the 584,000 decline in the number of full-time Federal employees between June 1, 1945 and June 1, 1946, almost 75 percent has been in the women’s group. On June 1, 1946, there were only 60 percent as many women employed full time as on June 1, 1945. Men now constitute 70 percent of the total number of full-time workers, as compared with 61 percent a year previously. Although voluntary quits among women for personal reasons, such as to join a veteran husband or to start a family, have been numerous, information on the relative importance of these reasons as compared with involuntary lay-offs is not available…

It’s interesting that, although this appears to be a pro-natal shift, insisting on children before the definition of family is met, it also may have had a work-and-family implication of leaving the labor force. Maybe it reinforced the naturalness of women dropping out of paid work when they had children, something that was soon to emerge as a key battle ground in the gender revolution.

Note: Rose Malinowski Weingartner, a student in my graduate seminar last year, wrote a paper about this concept, which helped me think about this.

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Prince Charles and Princess Diana height situation explained

(With media updates)

They were the same height. More or less.

The most incredibly popular tweet of my life was this:

Many people, assuming I was making some kind of argument about sexism, complained that the tweet was a mountain towering over a molehill, that rules of photographic composition, philatelia, ergonomics, or royal succession somehow required the stamp to be composed this way. In response, I composed the new most incredibly popular tweet of my life:

By then it hit the international press, which apparently has had the same decimation of the reportorial workforce that we’ve had here, so they write articles about tweets where the only background information provided is from other tweets in the thread. So we got:

The last one had this awesome graphic:

stampmistake

The Italian service of Huffington Post even produced the definitive video record of the tweet. Anyways.

Actual facts

The actual facts are that we don’t know exactly how tall they were. Like with popular athletes, the biometric data we have about royalty should be considered suspiciously. At the time of their wedding, in July 1981, everyone saw that they were of similar height, and saw the stamp depicting his head above hers. In response, Buckingham Palace put out a statement announcing that he was an inch taller than her. It was reported in the Stamps column of the New York Times on July 26 like this:

stamp2

To me that seems like a Trumpian lie. “You say I was caught lying, but because of this other untruth my original lie is in essence true.” Making a taller person look even taller seems less egregious than reversing the height advantage. But I don’t know for sure.

The funny thing about resurrecting a 36-year-old scandal is it seems that, among those interested, half nod knowingly and say, “That always annoyed me!” and the other half say, “mind blown.” It’s not just memories, of course the milieu has changed; anger at “masculinity so fragile” that it requires trick photographs has replaced the routine acceptance of trick photography in the service of propriety. And of course the legacy of Diana as unhappy wife to unfaithful creep — and virtual saint — has changed the tone.

Anyway, I’m in the category of people who’ve been talking about this for years:

  • I first raised it in 2010, using the picture of the stamp and others as an example of the taller-man norm: “But the rigid adherence to this norm results in a daily, intimate interaction among almost all couples that reinforces the bigger-stronger/smaller-weaker gender dichotomy.”
  • In 2011, on Sociological Images, Lisa Wade said of the photos: “This effort to make Charles appear taller is a social commitment to the idea that men are taller and women shorter. When our own bodies, and our chosen mates, don’t follow this rule, sometimes we’ll go to great lengths to preserve the illusion.”
  • In 2013 I returned to the issue, this time with data showing that U.S. men and women sort themselves into couples that exacerbate the existing difference in average height between them.

height6

Finally, I included the stamp picture and the data analysis in my textbook, The Family, writing:

The taller husband conjures up images of the protective, dominant man (“Let me reach that for you”) with a nurturing, supportive wife (“Can I fix you a sandwich?”). To choose a high-profile example, such an image was apparent in many official photos of Britain’s Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Although Charles was actually 1 inch taller than Diana, he often looked shorter than her in candid pictures. But when they posed for portraits, he usually stood on a box or step, as in the picture for the stamp commemorating their royal wedding (Currie 1981). The idea of women as the weaker sex corresponds to the pattern of male domination in modern society, as symbolized by the muscular male athlete and the taller husband.

The reference there is to a news article that uncritically accepted the official heights reported by the authorities. People like to use Google and Wikipedia to find and debate the “official” heights, and to find photos that show them side by side. There may be no true answer.
candd2

This who line of criticism eventually led me to the issue of actual fantasy, in the form of sexual dimorphism in animation. That’s a whole nother tag.

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