Tag Archives: black women

Weathering and delayed births, get your norms off my body edition

You can skip down to the new data and analysis — or go straight to my new working paper — if you don’t need the preamble diatribe.

I have complained recently about the edict from above that poor (implying Black) women should delay their births until they are “financially ready” — especially in light of the evidence on their odds of marriage during the childbearing years. And then we saw what seemed like a friendly suggestion that poor women use more birth control lead to some nut on Fox News telling Rebecca Vallas, who spoke up for raising the minimum wage:

A family of three is not supposed to be living on the minimum wage. If you’re making minimum wage you shouldn’t be having children and trying to raise a family on it.

As if minimum wage is just a phase poor people can expect to pass through only briefly, on their way to middle class stability — provided they don’t piss it away by having children they can’t “afford.” This was a wonderful illustration of the point Arline Geronimus makes in this excellent (paywalled) paper from 2003, aptly titled, “Damned if you do: culture, identity, privilege, and teenage childbearing in the United States.” Geronimus has been pointing out for several decades that Black women face increased health risks and other problems when they delay their childbearing, even as White women have the best health outcomes when they delay theirs. This has been termed “the weathering hypothesis.” In that 2003 paper, she explores the cultural dynamic of dominance and subordination that this debate over birth timing entails. Here’s a free passage (where dominant is White and marginal is Black):

In sum, a danger of social inequality is that dominant groups will be motivated to promote their own cultural goals, at least in part, by holding aspects of the behavior of specific marginal groups in public contempt. This is especially true when this behavior is viewed as antithetical or threatening to social control messages aimed at the youth in the dominant group. An acknowledgment that teen childbearing might have benefits for some groups undermines social control messages intended to convince dominant group youth to postpone childbearing by extolling the absolute hazards of early fertility. Moreover, to acknowledge cultural variability in the costs and consequences of early childbearing requires public admission of structural inequality and the benefits members of dominant groups derive from socially excluding others. One cannot explain why the benefits of early childbearing may outweigh the costs for many African Americans without noting that African American youth do not enjoy the same access to advanced education or career security enjoyed by most Americans; that their parents are compelled to be more focused on imperatives of survival and subsistence than on encouraging their children to engage in extended and expensive preparation for the competitive labor market; indeed, that African Americans cannot even take their health or longevity for granted through middle age (Geronimus, 1994; Geronimus et al., 2001). And one cannot explain why these social and health inequalities exist without recognizing that structural barriers to full participation in American society impede the success of marginalized groups (Dressler, 1995; Geronimus, 2000; James, 1994). To acknowledge these circumstances would be to contradict the broader societal ethic that denies the existence of social inequality and is conflicted about cultural diversity. And it would undermine the ability the dominant group currently enjoys to interpret their privilege as earned, the just reward for their exercise of personal responsibility.

But the failure to acknowledge these circumstances results in a disastrous misunderstanding. As a society, we have become caught in an endless loop that rationalizes, perhaps guarantees, the continued marginalization of urban African Americans. In the case at hand, by misunderstanding the motivation, context, and outcomes of early childbearing among African Americans, and by implementing social welfare and public health policies that follow from this misunderstanding, the dominant European American culture reinforces material hardship for and stigmatization of African Americans. Faced with these hardships, early fertility timing will continue to be adaptive practice for African Americans. And, reliably, these fertility and related family “behaviors” will again be unfairly derided as antisocial. And so on.

Whoever said demography isn’t theoretical and political?

A simple illustration

In Geronimus’s classic weathering work, she documented disparities in healthy life expectancy, which is the expectation of healthy, or disability-free, years of life ahead. When a poor 18-year-old Black woman considers whether or not to have a child, she might take into account her expectation of healthy life expectancy — how long can she count on remaining healthy and active? — as well as, and this is crucial, that of her 40-year-old mother, who is expected to help out with the child-rearing (they’re poor, remember). Here’s a simple illustration: the percentage of Black and White mothers (women living in their own households, with their own children) who have a work-limiting disability, by age and education:


Not too many disabilities at age 20, but race and class kick in hard over these parenting years, till by their 50s one-in-five Black mothers with high school education or less has a disability, compared with one-in-twenty White mothers who’ve gone on to more education. That looming health trajectory is enough — Geronimus reasonably argues — to affect women’s decisions on whether or not to have a child (or go through with an accidental pregnancy). But for the group (say, Whites who aren’t that poor) who have a reasonable chance of getting higher education, and making it through their intensive parenting years disability-free, the economic consequence of an early birth weighs much more heavily.

Some new analysis

As I was thinking about all this the other day, I went to check on the latest infant mortality statistics, since that’s where Geronimus started this thread — with the observation that White women’s chance of a baby dying decline with age, while Black women’s don’t. And I noticed there is a new Period Linked Birth-Infant Death Data File for 2013. This is a giant database of all the births — with information from their birth certificates — linked to all the infant deaths from the same year. These records have been used for analyzing infant mortality dozens of times, including in pursuit of the weathering hypothesis, but I didn’t see any new analyses of the 2013 files, except the basic report the National Center for Health Statistics put out. The outcome is now a working paper at the Maryland Population Research Center.

The gist of the result is, to me, kind of shocking. Once you control for some basic health, birth, and socioeconomic conditions (plurality, parity, prenatal care, education, health insurance type, and smoking during pregnancy), the risk of infant mortality for Black mothers increases linearly with age: the longer they wait, the greater the risk. For White women the risk follows the familiar (and culturally lionized) U-shape, with the lowest risk in the early 30s. Mexican women (the largest Hispanic group I could include) are somewhere in between, with a sharp rise in risk at older ages, but no real advantage to waiting from 18 to 30.

I’ll show you (and these rates will differ a little from official rates for various technical reasons). First, the unadjusted infant mortality rates by maternal age:

Infant Death Rates, by Maternal Age: White, Black, and Mexican Mothers, U.S., 2013. Infant death rates per 1,000 live births for non-Hispanic white (N = 1,925,847), non-Hispanic black (N = 533,341), and Mexican origin (N = 501,390) mothers. Data source: 2013 Period Linked Birth/Infant Death Public Use File, Centers for Disease Control.

Infant Death Rates, by Maternal Age: White, Black, and Mexican Mothers, U.S., 2013. Infant death rates per 1,000 live births for non-Hispanic white (N = 1,925,847), non-Hispanic black (N = 533,341), and Mexican origin (N = 501,390) mothers. Data source: 2013 Period Linked Birth/Infant Death Public Use File, Centers for Disease Control.

These raw rates show the big health benefit to delay for White women, a smaller benefit for Mexican mothers, and no benefit for Black mothers. But when you control for those factors I mentioned, the infant mortality rates for young Black and Mexican mothers are lower — those are the mothers with low education and bad health care. Controlling for those things sort of simulates the decisions women face: given these things about me, what is the health effect of delay? (Of course, delaying could contribute to improving things, which is also part of the calculus.) Here are the adjusted age patterns:

Adjusted Probability of Infant Death, by Maternal Age: White, Black, and Mexican Mothers, U.S., 2013 Predicted probabilities of infant death generated by Stata margins command, adjusted for plurality, birth order, maternal education, prenatal care, payment source, and cigarette smoking during pregnancy; models estimated separately for white (A), black (B), and Mexican (C) mothers (see Tab. 1). Error bars are 95% confidence intervals. Data source: 2013 Period Linked Birth/Infant Death Public Use File, Centers for Disease Control.

Adjusted Probability of Infant Death, by Maternal Age: White, Black, and Mexican Mothers, U.S., 2013. Predicted probabilities of infant death generated by Stata margins command, adjusted for plurality, birth order, maternal education, prenatal care, payment source, and cigarette smoking during pregnancy; models estimated separately for white (A), black (B), and Mexican (C) mothers (see Tab. 1). Error bars are 95% confidence intervals. (A separate test showed the linear trend for Black women is statistically significant.) Data source: 2013 Period Linked Birth/Infant Death Public Use File, Centers for Disease Control.

My jaw kind of dropped. Infant mortality is mostly a measure of mothers’ health. Early childbearing looks a lot crazier for White women than for Black and Mexican women, and you can see why the messaging around delaying till your “ready” seems so out of tune to the less privileged (and that really means race more than class, in this case). Why wait? If women knew they had higher education, a good job, and decent health care awaiting them throughout their childbearing years, I think the decision tree would look a lot different.

Of course, I have often said that delayed marriage is good for women. And delayed childbearing would be — should be — too, as long as it doesn’t put the health of the mother and her children at risk (and squander the healthy rearing years of their grandparents).

Please check out the working paper for more background and references, and details about my analysis.


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Lifetime chance of marrying for Black and White women

I’m going to Princeton next week to give a talk at the Office of Population Research. It’s a world-class population center, with some of the best trainers and trainees in the business, so I figured I’d polish up a little formal demography for them. (I figure if I run through this really fast they won’t have time to figure any mistakes I made.)

The talk is about Black and White marriage markets, which I’ve written about quite a bit, including when I posted the figure below, showing the extremely low number of local same-race, employed, single men per women Black women experience relative to White women — especially when they have less than a BA degree.

This figure was the basis for a video we made for my book, titled “Why are there so many single Black women?” For years I’ve been supporting the strong (“Wilsonian“) case that low marriage rates for Black women are driven by the shortage of “marriageable” men — living, employed, single, free men. I promised last year that Joanna Pepin and I were working on a paper about this, and we still are. So I’ll present some of this at Princeton.

Predictions off

Five years ago I wrote about the famous 2001 paper by Joshua Goldstein and Catherine Kenney, which made lifetime marriage predictions for cohorts through the Baby Boom, the youngest of whom were only 30 in the 1995 data the paper used. That’s gutsy, predicting lifetime marriage at age 30, so there’s no shame that they missed. They were closer for White women. They predicted that 88.6% of White women born 1960-1964 would eventually marry, and by the age 49-53 (in the 2013 American Community Survey) they were at 90.2%, with another 2.3% likely to marry by my estimates (see below). For Black women they missed by more. For the 1960-1964 cohort, they predicted only 63.8% would ever marry, but 71.3% were already married by 2013, and I’m projecting another 7.5% will marry. (I also wrote about a similar prediction, here.) If they actually get to 79%, that will be very different from the prediction.

Their amazing paper has been cited another 100 times since I wrote about it in 2010, but it doesn’t look like anyone has tried to test or extend their predictions.

Mass incarceration

Interestingly, Goldstein and Kenney undershot Black women’s marriage rates even though incarceration rates continued to rise after they wrote — a trend strongly implicated in the Black-White marriage disparity. This issue has increased salience today, with the release of a powerful new piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic (my old job), which exposes the long reach of mass incarceration into Black families in ways that go way beyond the simple statistics about “available” men. The large ripple effects implied by his analysis — drawing from his own reporting and research by Deva Pager, Bruce Western, and Robert Sampson — suggest that any statistical model attempting to identify the impact of incarceration on family structure is likely to miss a lot of the action. That’s because people who’ve been out of prison for years are still affected by it, as are their relationships, their communities — and their children in the next generation.

Some new projections

I should note that some readers unfamiliar with demographic analysis may find parts of what follows morbidly depressing.

To set up the marriage market analysis I’m doing with Joanna — which isn’t ready to show here yet — I’m going to introduce some marriage projections at the talk. These use a different method than Goldstein and Kenney, because I have a different kind of data. This is a lifetable approach, in which I use first-marriage rates at every age to calculate how many women would get married at least once before they die if they lived 2010 over and over again from birth to death. I can do this because, unlike Goldstein and Kenney in 2001, I now have the American Community Survey (ACS), which asks a giant sample of people if they have married in the previous year, and how many times they’ve been married before, so I can calculate a first-marriage rate at every age. To this I add in death rates — making what we call a multiple-decrement life table — so that there are two ways out of the birth cohort: marriage or death. (Give me marriage or give me death.)

The way this works is you start with 100,00 people, and each year some of them die and some of them get married — according to the rates you have measured at one point in time. For example, in my tables, of 100,000 Black women at the start of year 0, only 98.7% make it to age 15, the first year they can be counted as married in the data. By the time you get down to age 30, there are only 67,922 left, as 2,236 have died and 29,843 have married for the first time. And so on down to the bottom. In the last row of the table, when they are all dead, you calculate how many got married before dying.*

The bottom line: 85.3% of White women, and 78.4% of Black women born and stuck in 2010 forever are projected to marry before they die — a surprisingly small gap. The first figure shows you that basic result:

NHBW life tables 2010.xlsx

Note that my projections of 85.3% of White women and 78.4% of Black women ever marrying are lower than, for example, the roughly 96% of White women and 91% of Black that were actually ever-married at age 85+ in 2010 (reported here), for several reasons. First, I count dead people against the ever-married number (additionally, married people live longer, not necessarily because they’re married). Second, today’s 90+ year-olds mostly got married 70 years ago, when times were different; my estimates are a projection of nowadays.

A very interesting age pattern emerges here, which is relevant to the incarceration and “available men” question. If you look back at the figure, notice that the big difference in marriage opens up early — peaking at 28 points by age 33, before narrowing to 7 points at the end.The big difference in marriage is that White women marry earlier. In fact, as the next figure shows, after age 33 Black women are more likely to marry than are White women. I don’t think I knew that. Here are the number marrying at each age:

NHBW life tables 2010.xlsx

Specifically, although White women are twice as likely to marry in their mid-twenties, of our fictional 100,000 women stuck in 2010, just 15.6% of White women, compared with 36.8% of Black women end up marrying after age 33.

The other way of looking at this — and an answer to a common question about marriage rates — is to see the chances of marrying after a given age if you haven’t married yet. This figure shows, for example, that a White women who lives to age 45 without marrying has a 26% chance of someday marrying, compared with a whopping 49% for Black women.

NHBW life tables 2010.xlsx

It is surprising that Black women, with lower cumulative odds of marrying at every age in the cohort, are so much more likely to marry conditional on getting to their 40s without marrying. Maybe you’ve got a better interpretation of this, but this is mine. Black women are not against marriage, and they are not ineligible for marriage in some way (even though most of these single women are already mothers**). Rather, they have not married earlier because they couldn’t find someone to marry. That’s because of all the Black men who are themselves dead, incarcerated or unemployed (or scarred by those experiences in their past) — or married to someone else. So within their respective marriage markets (which remain very segregated), the 45-year-old single White woman is much more likely to be someone that either doesn’t want to marry or can’t marry for some reason, while the 45-year-old single Black woman is more active and eligible in the marriage market. This fits with the errors in the earlier predictions, which failed to pick up on the upward shift in marriage age for Black women — marriage delayed rather than foregone.

What do you think of that interpretation? If you have a better idea I’ll mention you at Princeton next week.

Note: I found so many mistakes as I was doing this that it seems impossible there are any more. Nevertheless, caveat emptor: This analysis hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, so consider it only as reliable the latest economist’s NBER paper you read about on the front page of the every newspaper and website on earth. (And if you’re a journalist feel free to refer to this as a new working paper.)

* Technical notes: I used death rates from 2010 (found here), and marriage rates from the five-year ACS file for 2008-2012 (which has 2010 as its midpoint), from IPUMS.org. I adjusted the death rates because never-married people are more likely to die than average (I told you this was depressing). I had to use a 2007 estimate of mortality by age and marital status for that (found here), which is not that precise because it was in 10-year increments, which I didn’t bother to smooth because they didn’t have much effect anyway. The details of how to do a multiple-decrement lifetable are nicely described (with a lot of math) by Sam Preston here (though if you really want to replicate this, note one of his formulas is missing a negative sign, so plan to spend an extra few days on it). To help, I’m sharing my spreadsheet here, which has the formulas. (Note that survival in the life table doesn’t refer to being alive, it refers to being both alive and never-married.) The mortality and marriage rates are for non-Hispanic women; the never-married adjustment is for all women. For the marriage rates I used all Black and White women regardless of what other races they also specified (very few are multiple-race when you exclude Hispanics).

** In 2010, 63% of never-married Black women who lived in their households had at least own of their own children living with them.


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Vox interview on the Moynihan chilling effect

Jenée Desmond-Harris from Vox.com interviewed me about the Moynihan backlash post. The piece is here. In it she links to this blog, but not to the specific post. If you’re looking for that, it’s here.

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Getting serious about promoting marriage to end poverty

This expands on some practice-what-you-preach criticism of conservative marriage promotion, with some numbers. I’m not endorsing the approach described here — I’m saying marriage promoters should adopt this if they are serious about promoting marriage to reduce poverty.

At Demos, Matt Bruenig wrote:

After rigging the institutions to capture the majority of the national income and basically all of the national wealth, segregating themselves residentially, intermarrying almost solely in their rich enclaves, and even sealing off their schools from being accessed by the unwashed masses, these rich social conservatives turn around and implore others to marry people that they wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, people they can’t even bring themselves to make even the most minimal of community with.

In response, Sandy Darity tweeted: “I proposed that a marriage antipoverty strategy should have rich white men marry poor black women.” I don’t want to put the onus for ending poverty just on pro-marriage pundits. Instead — as Darity suggests — we should think in terms of broader policy.

Whose norms?

Marriage promotion is mostly about convincing (educating, coaching) poor people to marry other poor people. That follows from the “culture matters” perspective on marriage decline advocated by some social scientists as an explanation for declining marriage rates. For example, in a New Yorker profile of Orlando Patterson, Kelefa Sanneh writes:

[William Julius] Wilson argued that declining professional prospects made some black men less marriageable. Patterson thinks that declining marriage rates had more to do with the increased availability of contraception and abortion, which eroded cultural norms that had once compelled men to marry the women they impregnated.

Whether the proximate cause is men’s reduced economic prospects or changing norms, the fact is that if poor people changed their attitudes (norms, culture) about marriage — if they put more priority on the importance of marriage and worried less about the economic qualities of the match — there would be more marriage and, they say they believe, less poverty, inequality, violence, and abuse).

An obvious problem with this whole enterprise is that the marriage boosters assume the next marriage they generate through marriage promotion will be as economically beneficial to the participants as the average existing marriage observed in the population. But if one of the reasons for non-marriage is poor economic status, then it follows that the next marriage generated will on average be much less beneficial economically than the average marriage (I expanded on this here). So the plan to reduce poverty by promoting marriage among the poor is running uphill. Or, it would be running uphill if it was running at all, but of course (ridiculous research shenanigans notwithstanding) their billion dollars spent has yet to generate a marriage, so this is really all very generous speculation.

If they really wanted to change “the culture”

For several decades, marriage promoters have been complaining that “the culture” isn’t pro-marriage enough. The latest version of this, from David Blankenhorn and colleagues, seeks to “restore a marriage culture among the less privileged.” But, although it’s true that poor people (especially poor Black people) have seen a faster drop in marriage rates, that’s not where the biggest anti-poverty gains are to be had. If you really want marriage to reduce poverty, and you really think policy can change “the culture” to make more marriages, then what you really need is (as Darity said) some rich (mostly) White men to marry some poor (disproportionately) Black women.

Why not? Is it really more far-fetched to imagine you could change rich White men’s attitudes toward poor Black women than it is to suppose you could “restore a marriage culture” among the poor? Why? Maybe one reason policies to increase marriage among the poor haven’t work is because the economic benefits aren’t great enough. If you were the kind of person that goes in for this sort of policy (which, again I am not), you’d have to assume poor people would be more receptive to the idea of marrying rich people — that’s one important premise of Wilson and Patterson’s perspective. So the problem is rich people don’t want to marry them.

How difficult can this be? Just to put some numbers to the idea, I did the following simple exercise. Take all the poor single mothers — specifically, non-married women living in their own households with their own children, with family incomes that put them below the federal poverty line — and match them up with rich single men.

How many rich single men do you need? With this definition, I get 3.5 million poor single mothers. I started with the richest single man, and went down the income ladder till I had enough to solve the single-mother poverty problem. It turns out you only have to go down to $80,000 per year in income. Here’s the matching, with the race/ethnicity of the two groups shown:

rich men marry poor women.xlsxIf the problem is that poor women are too economically choosy to marry the poor men in their lives, then we could easily lift these 3.5 million single mothers — and the 7.1 million children in their families — out of poverty simply by changing the anti-marriage views of these selfish, rich, single men. Of course, we’d have to reduce racist attitudes also, but not entirely — only a third of the non-Black rich single men would need to open their minds to the possibility of marrying a Black woman. You would have to be creative with the incentives for these men, including consciousness-raising and parenting classes, as well as, for example, Starbucks gift cards and subscriptions to the Economist.

Now, no one thinks you can socially engineer — through shame or tax incentives — the marital behavior of entire populations, so this strategy couldn’t be expected to completely eliminate the problem of single mothers and their children living in poverty. But it couldn’t be less effective than the marriage promoters have achieved with the last billion dollars they spent.


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Especially if they’re Black: A shortage of men for poor women to marry

One thing a lot of liberals and conservatives can agree on: not talking about race.

[If you don’t have time for the text, just skip to the figure.]

Liberals are happy when conservatives talk about inequality, which they’re doing a lot more these days. And when they debate marriage as a way to “cure” poverty, neither talks about race. For example, Annie Lowrey writes in the the NYT Magazine:

With Democrats and Republicans pitted against one another in a vicious election-year battle over how to alleviate poverty, marriage is the policy solution du jour.

First, Lowrie makes the now universal mistake in interpreting the famous Chetty et al. result:

In a new study, the economist Raj Chetty and his co-authors found that, in terms of income mobility, nothing matters more for a low-income child than the family structures she sees in her community — not neighborhood segregation, school quality or a host of other factors.

Traditionally in America, when you say “a host of other factors,” that includes race. But the Chetty et al. paper is nearly unique in its avoidance of race, partly because race isn’t specified in tax records. So “nothing matters more” is at best untested, and at worst completely wrong, since race isn’t in the model. (My argument on this is here).

To those of us old enough to remember, or have read stuff from, the 1980s, not including race in this conversation is bizarre. Of course, it is not crazy to talk about poverty as an issue. In that article, Kristi Williams is right when she says:

It isn’t that having a lasting and successful marriage is a cure for living in poverty. Living in poverty is a barrier to having a lasting and successful marriage.

But the article doesn’t address the hard demographic reality that the things that make marriage less available or attractive to poor women — Lowrey lists “globalization, the decline of labor unions, technological change and other tidal economic forces” — have done it much more for Black women, even among the poor. In addition to even worse job prospects, for Black men you need to add incarceration, mortality, and intermarriage rates much higher for men than for women.

Here’s a simple way to see this. Adapting the old formula from William Julius Wilson, I counted up the number of employed, non-married men per non-married woman (employed or not) in the age range 25-34, separately for Blacks and Whites, and by education, for the 50 biggest metropolitan areas (one not shown because of data shortage, one outlier excluded). With intermarriage rates so low for Black women, and the tendency not to marry men without jobs, this is a reasonable approximation of the marriage market for Black women, though it understates the number of men available to White women.

This is the result:


Dots in the green areas show relative surpluses of men. Dots under the red line show better markets for White women than for Black women. It takes a minute to figure out. If your jaw dropped, you got it. With or without college degrees Black women face a shortage of “mariageable” men in every single market except five (Portland OR, Minneapolis, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Providence, which was the outlier not shown). For college graduates Black women are under 75 men per 100 women in all but two markets, non-graduates are under 75 in 40 out of 48.

White women’s market is better than Black women’s in all but six (those five plus Sacramento). In most cases White women graduates have a surplus of men from which to choose.

Poverty is one thing. Race is another. They overlap, but on some questions they can’t be combined. Marriage is one of those issues. So, when you talk about the shortage of men to marry, I recommend remembering race.

Note: After I made this graph, Joanna Pepin and I decided to write a paper together on this. That is still in the pipeline, and I was going to save this for when it’s ready. But there will be plenty more.


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Correction: Black and White marriage pools

Correcting an old figure.

For several years I have been using a figure that shows the disparity in marriage pools for Black versus White women. I’ve used it here and here, and who knows where else (certainly in class). As I was updating it with the latest data I realized I had two of the rows in my – wait for it – Excel spreadsheet reversed, so the ratio for White women was wrong. The old one showed unmarried White women with a surplus of available employed men, compared with a large deficit for Black women. The corrected figure merely shows Black women with a much larger deficit.

So here is it corrected (and I corrected it on the old pages as well).


Source: American Community Survey data from IPUMS. Note: Whites are single-race and exclude Latinos; Blacks are alone or in combination with other races.

Family Inequality regrets the error.


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Intersectionality interrupted

When I was in college a lot of people were reading Black Feminist Thought, by the sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, which came out in 1990 (it’s now pushing 11,000 citations in Google Scholar, and Prof. Collins is a colleague in my department). That book helped popularize intersectionality, from the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal scholar.

Thinking about and acting on intersecting inequalities was a big issue in the 1990s. It motivated me to do my only research on social movements (the women’s suffrage movement), as well as my dissertation, which included an article on the intersection of race, class and gender in U.S. labor markets (related to work my advisor Reeve Vanneman and colleagues were doing back then).



Anyways, long story short: I was interested to see that the latest edition of the journal Signs (paywalled) is devoted to intersectionality, or the critical analysis of how different kinds of inequality and identity occur simultaneously. I haven’t kept up with the theoretical side of this work, which has drifted away from the statistical modeling vein we were mining.

First I read the essay by Catharine MacKinnon, whose work I’ve been teaching for years in courses on gender, theory, and inequality. Since I last paid attention, she did a lot of work on women and international law, and in the essay here she discusses rape and genocide in the Balkan wars. Just as she once asked some feminists (paraphrasing), “if rape is about violence and not sex, why doesn’t he just hit her?”, she now asks (paraphrasing), “if genocide is about wiping people out, why do they commit mass rape against women instead of just killing them?” Thanks in part to her legal and theoretical work, the idea of genocide as a national, racial or ethnic crime is linked to sex-based atrocities such as forced prostitution and impregnation.

Although it’s hard to read, I am a sucker for MacKinnon’s wordplay (and always hear her phrase, “Man fucks woman; subject verb object,” when I talk about subjects and objects). So I was drawn in by her introduction to intersectionality as a method, which included, “Talking about thinking about the way one thinks is complicated, in that one is doing what one is talking about doing at the same time one is talking about doing it.”

For example, as we think about how we think, she wants us to avoid confusing the products of inequality for their causes. She writes,

No question about it, categories and stereotypes and classifications are authentic instruments of inequality. And they are static and hard to move. But they are the ossified outcomes of the dynamic intersection of multiple hierarchies, not the dynamic that creates them. They are there, but they are not the reason they are there.

Anyway, I recommend the essay, which, in addition to rape and genocide, also discusses the conundrums of intersecting inequality in U.S. law, where race and gender discrimination each are illegal, but discrimination by race-and-gender simultaneously is somehow sometimes left out.

That last point draws heavily off the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, who, along with Sumi Cho and Leslie McCall, guest-edited the special issue.


And here, after recommending the issue and praising its authors, I offer a criticism: intersectionality has a writing situation. Everyone in academia has their jargon. But in this area there is a common aesthetic preference for extra words and clauses — including long words and clauses — that is a real barrier to entry for those who don’t spend a lot of their time reading it.

Here is the opening paragraph of the introductory essay, by the guest editors:

As intersectionality has emerged in a number of discursive spaces, the projects and debates that have accompanied its travel have converged into a burgeoning field of intersectional studies. This field can be usefully framed as representing three loosely defined sets of engagements: the first consisting of applications of an intersectional framework or investigations of intersectional dynamics, the second consisting of discursive debates about the scope and content of intersectionality as a theoretical and methodological paradigm, and the third consisting of political interventions employing an intersectional lens.

That’s 86 words. I think not much would be lost cutting it down to 42 words, like this:

In the growing field of intersectional studies, we identify three categories of work. First, there are applications of the intersectional framework and studies of intersecting inequalities. Second, there are debates about intersectionality itself as a paradigm. And third, there are intersectional politics.

That’s just an example chosen for convenience — there are worse and better passages in the various essays, and I don’t want to belabor it. I suspect that to many outsiders this problem seems obvious, but I don’t know how these writers see it. I think academics should try to say what they want to say as clearly and directly as possible. If this principle were directly weighed against the loss of nuance — and aesthetic satisfaction — it might entail, I hope the balance would tip in the direction of readability.


Filed under Me @ work, Research reports