The Shame Game

Last Wednesday, a blogger named Christelyn Karazin debuted an online campaign to highlight an issue she'd been kicking around for awhile: 72 percent of African American children are born out of wedlock. She, along with 100 other bloggers, would write about out-of-wedlock births in an effort she dubbed "No Wedding, No Womb" to raise awareness about low marriage rates in the black community.

Karazin seemed to miss the fact that she was behind the curve. A slew of news stories over the past several months have speculated over the cause of low marriage rates among black women (they are low and have been dropping, and they're especially low for women who are highly educated). The Washington Post suggested black women date interracially. The hew and cry led PostBourgie, where I also contribute, to joke, "Black Women Should Just Quit Life."

Karazin's effort got her a segment on National Public Radio's Tell Me More, where she told her own story about being pregnant, at 24, and dating a professional black man who did not want to get married just because of the child. She is now happily married to a man who happens to be white, and has three other children.

Like most stories about the African American community picked up by the national media, this is a story about something that's "wrong." Certainly, there are real social problems plaguing the African American community. Black women are more likely to experience an unplanned pregnancy (69 percent of pregnancies are unintended). In addition to being more likely to be born to a single mother, black children are more likely to experience poverty, do poorly in school, drop out of school, and later be incarcerated when they reach young adulthood. The high rates of incarceration among black men might have something to do with the shrinking dating pool, and certainly children of incarcerated parents have to struggle much harder than those with both parents at home. All of these issues by themselves are of concern. The problem is uniting them under the solution of marriage.

Studies routinely show that children who live with married parents do better than those who don't, even when controlling for income. Many of the reasons for this are obvious: The state confers economic benefits to married couples in the form of tax breaks, and households are more economically stable when anchored by two adults with earning power. But whether these studies show causation and not just correlation is the question. Are married couples more stable, or do more stable people get married? "Marriage is important. But 'get married' should not be our sole message to Americans. We should spend less time promoting marriage and more time supporting stable caregiving in children's lives," said sociologist Andrew Cherlin, author of the book The Marriage-Go-Round.

Regardless, the bloggers associated with "No Wedding, No Womb" aren't focused on the outcomes for children. The campaign is instead telling black women how they should act sexually. Reducing women to their childbearing capacity is right there in the title: Wombs are blocked off until matrimony. Karazin highlighted a post from a participating blogger, Sophia Angeli Nelson, who writes, "There was a time not too long ago that having a baby without a father and [without] being married brought great shame and embarrassment to families. That time no longer exists." That's not an inspiring message on how to solve the problems women and children face. That's sex shaming and moral policing.

Another blogger highlighted by Karazin, Soulful1, says he's been with his wife for 30 years. In his post, he tells women that "giving it up every Saturday night" isn't going to make them wife-material and says curbing sexual activity out of wedlock is the responsibility of women: "No one can be better at that than the keeper of the vagina castle, the black woman."

Danielle Belton, who blogs as the Black Snob, offers a slightly more tempered take in a post titled "Parents, Children Need to Dream a Bigger Dream" but ultimately offers the same message: Women must be protected from sex outside of marriage: " I had urges like other teens, but I didn't act on them. I knew the consequences. And as fun as sex sounded, I knew it came with responsibilities and a price to pay if I messed up." She acknowledges the privilege of her middle-class upbringing. For her, college was always a realistic and attainable goal. But she doesn't seem to see how she fits into an older tradition of middle-class people shaming the poor as if the poor had the same wealth of life choices before them. And poor women are, by and large, much more likely to become single mothers.

Blaming individuals for the plight of the entire black community goes back at least as far as W.E.B. Dubois who spoke of the "The Talented Tenth," the idea that model blacks would represent the race as a whole and lift them up. It is at the heart of Bill Cosby's rants about young black criminals stealing pound cake as a sign of the moral turpitude of the black community. Obsessing over the family lives of black men and women is a constant in the black political and cultural sphere, as Candice Jenkins documents in her book Private Lives, Proper Relations. Since perceptions of black sexuality are fed by and feed into racism -- and have been used as a tool of oppression, especially against black men -- the antidote, particularly for middle-class blacks, she writes, was the adoption of as many bourgeois norms as possible. As if that would just make racism melt away.

The idea of a representative black family to inspire all blacks to "shape up" is now centered on the Obamas, and it's no accident that many point to their marriage as a model for black families. What's missing from that, of course, is that the Obamas are wealthy professionals. Not many American men and women graduate from law school, write best-selling autobiographies, and become first lady and president of the United States. As one of the other PostBourgie writers noted over the weekend, treating out-of-wedlock birth as a "black issue" ignores the fact that it's probably best described as a class issue. The idea that Barack Obama is an inspiration for black families is inherently racist, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in Time magazine two years ago: "It rests on the notion that the black community, more than other communities, is characterized by a bunch of hapless layabouts who spend their days ticking off reparations demands and shaking their fist at the white man."

There are ways we can talk about promoting better outcomes for children and easier lives for families without resorting to moralizing on marriage -- or the sexuality of women. Expanded access to health care, health education, and pregnancy prevention is a start. Free child care, better early education, and safer housing would make parenthood, single or not, less financially devastating for poor families. President Obama's proposed 2011 budget shifts money from Bush-era programs designed to promote marriage among lower-income families to ones that offer relationship services and fatherhood classes, encouraging fathers to become more active in their roles as parents without telling them they have to be husbands.

Blaming social ills on single motherhood ignores a crucial fact laid out in the book Promises I Can Keep, by anthropologist and sociologist duo Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas: Many poor women often actively seek to become mothers whether their lives are economically stable or not. It's a threshold into adulthood anyone can cross, unlike middle-class markers of adulthood like educational attainment. Without college and a career, it makes little sense to delay parenthood. And black women are more likely to be poor and less likely to graduate high school, and they finish college at much lower rates than their white counterparts. Belton was able to postpone childbearing to live out her dream because she had parents who worked hard to make her dream a realistic one. But we can't tell women to dream bigger without acknowledging the role socioeconomic forces and race play in shaping opportunities for them. Empowering women isn't the same thing as excoriating them.

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