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In September 2003 the Brookings Institution released the report, Work and Marriage: The Way to End Poverty and Welfare. The first specious premise of the report is that advocates of the poor have spent too much time demanding increases in public assistance funding instead of demanding increases in employment. It is news to me that activists have not asked for full employment. It has been a constant rallying point for progressives for decades.
The title of the report also gives away its second premise, that the poor need to get married more often. We could have dispensed with the Great Society programs, the War on Poverty and years of debate about how to help the poor. More trips to the altar would have been enough.
In keeping with the simplistic nature of their work the authors make the case that there are enough men to go around in order for this oh so simple plan to work. But there is just one hitch, and that is the propensity of black men to die young or go to jail. We have ruined the author’s argument that there are enough men for every woman, which is apparently the magic bullet that supersedes any and all social or economic problems that cause poverty in our nation.
“With a few exceptions, we find no shortage of unmarried men for these women to marry. The major exception is within the African-American population where there is a shortage of potential mates in some age and education categories. This shortage may be the result of the large number of young minority men who are incarcerated or dead or it may reflect the difficulty the Census Bureau has in finding and interviewing minority men in lower-income communities.”
The dead and incarcerated are hard to find? These think tanks will certainly make you think. As I pondered the problem of well intentioned but useless studies I made a discovery that caused me to retract some of my criticism. The Brookings Institution at least acknowledged that serious problems make family formation difficult in the black community. Of course they neglect to tell us how to keep young black men from being incarcerated or killed prematurely but they recognize the problems exist. Thank goodness for small favors.
On September 17th a group including prominent conservatives such as Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum held a press conference on the subject of family life. Santorum recently made comments comparing homosexuality with bigamy, polygamy and incest. Some of those in attendance would not ordinarily be associated with Santorum and the right wing. Walter Fauntroy was one of those people. Fauntroy is an ordained minister and former Washington, D.C. delegate to the House of Representatives. He was also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Rev. Fauntroy has joined forces with Santorum and other social conservatives on the issue of gay marriage.
Fauntroy has become a spokesperson for a group called Alliance for Marriage. Thanks to the foresight of the Alliance for Marriage and the wisdom of President Bush, October 12th through the 18th has been declared Marriage Protection Week. I had no idea that marriage needed to be defended but apparently it does and so like school lunches, small business and volunteerism it needs its own week as well.
According to the Alliance, not only is marriage under assault, but the assault has worsened because some gay people want to get married. As you will see on the Alliance web site, we need a constitutional amendment to prevent gay marriage and we need awards, lots of awards. If we just had more award ceremonies celebrating marriage, then the black family unit would be in great shape.
My parents recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. It was a wonderful affirmation of their life together and the blessings we have shared as a family. However, I was under the impression that the stresses unique to black life and the struggles that all couples face worked against their commitment to maintain a strong family unit. It did not occur to me that their long life together was ever in jeopardy because of gay people.
Conservatives have looked long and hard to find issues that would make their ideology attractive to black people. I never believed that these efforts to include blacks were ever more than window dressing used to legitimize right wing causes. The Alliance for Marriage is no exception. Its website is quite illuminating. It never passes up an opportunity to show smiling black families or to mention that Fauntroy is “former D.C. coordinator for the March on Washington for Martin Luther King.” Those are impressive credentials to be sure. I do wonder however, if conservatives ever embrace connections with Dr. King under any other circumstance.
I found it interesting that this effort features black families so prominently. Conservative opposition to gay rights efforts is well known. Why do they need black faces in the picture? Once again we see the twisted mind of American racism at work. The mistreatment of black Americans is accepted as the worst example of injustice in our country. The struggle of every aggrieved group is compared to that of black people. If black people can be placed in the forefront of efforts to prevent gay marriage then obviously it isn’t the civil rights issue its supporters claim it to be.
The social changes and subsequent challenges that began in the 1960s are still being dealt with today. Unfortunately our Puritan heritage prevents us from confronting these changes in any meaningful way. It often causes us to disavow things we enjoy, things like divorce. We are quite happy to dispense with the social pressures that kept unhappy couples together, but believe we shouldn’t feel that way. So we keep divorcing but feel guilty about it. The result is Marriage Protection Week. Those Puritans have a lot to answer for.
So here we are with high divorce rates, increasing numbers of single parent families, and gay people coming out of the closet. All of these trends are difficult for us to confront for a variety of reasons. It is not easy to accept homosexuality or divorce if one’s religious tradition condemns them. Unfortunately the response to this discomfort is to extol traditions many of us have already rejected because they no longer work in our lives.
The issue of gay rights is one that has been particularly troublesome for black Americans. We are less likely to accept even the existence of homosexuality. We now have the phenomenon of men who regularly have sex with other men but don’t think of themselves as being gay. That incredible degree of denial is partly responsible for disproportionately high rates of HIV and the perpetuation of attitudes in our community that are extremely harmful to us all.
The Brookings Institution study and many others before it clearly show the benefits of stable two-parent families. I will give the conservatives a nod and admit that many people resist acknowledging these benefits because to do so seems retrograde and well, too conservative. I hope that the Alliance for Marriage also addresses the fact that while marriage increases family income, the effect is far less pronounced for black families. Are the prominent blacks chosen for the Alliance web site going to talk about how institutional racism causes economic and social problems that contribute to the weakening of the black family? I look forward to that press conference and I hope that Senator Santorum is in attendance.
This is the second Freedom Rider column written by Margaret Kimberley. It will appear weekly in . Ms. Kimberley is a freelance writer living in New York City. She can be reached via e-Mail at [email protected]. You can read more of Ms. Kimberley's writings at http://freedomrider.blogspot.com/