Reconsidering the Black Single Mother Argument

A great essay on what is really at the center of hatred directed toward black single mothers, single mothers in general, and other non-nuclear families, by BlackScientist, especially with arguments like this one threatening to break into the media narrative again:

I want to point out that nuclear black families do exist, and have in the past, alongside other family arrangements. Before Moynihan declared in 1965 that the problem with black america was that “nearly one-quarter of negro births are… illegitimate,” and “almost one-fourth of negro families are headed by females,” 74 percent of all black families were maintained by a husband and wife, and 22 percent were headed by women. Interestingly, by 1982, almost two decades after the implementation of policy that followed his report, black families maintained by married couples had dropped down to 55 percent, and single mother households rose to 41 percent.

The principal problem with the argument that intergenerational crime and poverty are due to the prevalence of single black mother households (aside from its sexist undertones) is that it centers blame on the family structure itself — which is queer — as opposed to the state-sponsored hostility that incriminates that family structure and makes it so difficult for single-mother households to survive. The fact of the matter is, through policy, the nation-state systematically discriminates against single-mother households and other queer domesticities that are not husband-wife-child. There are federal and state policies that not only encourage marriage, but also actively discourage other forms of love and commitment by granting multiple economic and legal privileges to married couples.


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20 comments for “Reconsidering the Black Single Mother Argument

  1. Kyra
    January 9, 2009 at 12:18 am

    That was awesome from start to finish and (from what limited perspective I have) very true.

  2. Bianca
    January 9, 2009 at 1:36 am

    Pretty good article. I think a bit more could have been added, but then again it’s not meant to go into a long, drawn out speech like some anti-single mother person would. I think she gets her point across, and I applaud her for it. Nobody should be denied access to things that the “normal” family would have access to.

  3. Ellen
    January 9, 2009 at 4:07 am

    OK, just bookmarked that blog!

    The only thing I would have added would be chosen families. You shouldn’t have to be in a romantic relationship of any kind to get health care, have estate tax benefits from someone you share a household with, or decide which of your best friends can come in your hospital room and turn off the life support system.

    The thing that gives me hope is that the nuclear family really is a dying institution. Now that marriage is about love, and not a patriarchal bargain, we are marrying less and divorcing more. And this is only going to be better for society.

  4. tql
    January 9, 2009 at 9:26 am

    Your comments are giving credence to the conservative talking point that liberals hate marriage. Thanks!
    The problem I have with the article is that in trying to legitimize single mother households, it is tearing down marriage and nuclear families, and I think that is problematic.
    Single mother households, though they are the increasing norm, are not and should not be made to be the ideal. Being a single parent is challenging, and not because “the State” makes it so, but because parenthood was never designed to be a solo endeavor.
    So, instead of using air time trying to legitimize single motherhood, let’s talk about what it takes to build healthy, loving marriages that move beyond patriarchy and into relationships that are mutually supportive and family sustaining.
    But, I think that might be too much to ask for from this crowd.

  5. Andy
    January 9, 2009 at 10:30 am

    Awesome. I hope we can remedy these issues in my lifetime. I don’t want my child to get married like I did, with a little bit of love and a whole lot of need for things like health care, etc.

  6. January 9, 2009 at 11:47 am

    This sort of racism is so prevalent in analysis of single pregnancy. I was so annoyed to see the most recent report on increased teen pregnancy. The PhD who was the author of the report tried SO hard to blame it on the brown girls, even though the numbers didn’t really support it.

  7. thenderson
    January 9, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    I agree with tqi, tearing down marriage and two-parent households is not the way to go. Single parenthood should not be demonized but it also should not be encouraged. I also believe that the same benefits legally married couples get should also be extended to non-traditional households.

  8. debbie
    January 9, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    Where did anyone tear down marriage and two-parent households?
    I noticed that the author specifically said that she wasn’t doing that. Why is criticism of racist heterosexism being classified as anti-marriage/nuclear family?

  9. leah
    January 9, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    More and more I think the government should just get out of the business of legitimizing relationships (i.e. legal marriage). Let people form whatever relationships they want. Stay out of it. No forms, no fees, no benefits, etc. etc. Wills and living wills can take care of the rest. (and screw insurance too, that clusterfuck of a discriminatory mess that it is – universal healthcare would eliminate the need for dependent benefits).

  10. leah
    January 9, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    “I’m not trying to say that queer family structures are invariably functional, just as I don’t believe the nuclear family is. I’m also not trying to belittle wife-husband-child (nor “husband”/man on his own, since I’m sure I’ll be accused of that as well). I’m trying to reconsider and rephrase some popular arguments.”

    What about that is tearing down the nuclear family?

  11. tql
    January 9, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    My comment was in response to Ellen’s comment. I had other issues with the piece, which I voiced on that blog

  12. thenderson
    January 9, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    well,i also agree with what leah said, either the government legitimizes all types of relationships/households/families or it legitimizes none

  13. Kristen (The J one)
    January 9, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    “More and more I think the government should just get out of the business of legitimizing relationships (i.e. legal marriage).”

    Yes please. Can we do this instead? Extending benefits like this will always create an underclass of some sort or another. So let’s just stop now. Instead how about saying to everyone:

    Go forth and be happy…just don’t directly harm (non-consenting) others in the process. K? Good.

  14. January 9, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    Your comments are giving credence to the conservative talking point that liberals hate marriage. Thanks!
    The problem I have with the article is that in trying to legitimize single mother households, it is tearing down marriage and nuclear families, and I think that is problematic.

    And what you’re doing is giving credence and support to the conservative method of framing everything as a pure either/or opposition: either you hate marriage, or you support the promotion of marriage in its current form as the exclusive building block of family! No room for more nuance than that!

    Of course nobody wants to COMPLETELY DESTROY OR TAKE AWAY nuclear families or marriages. I don’t think that’s anywhere close to what Ellen meant. Reading that idea into what’s being said is like falling for the silly idea that recognizing gay marriages somehow attacks or eliminates heterosexual marriage. The whole point is that more kinds of families should be recognized, in addition to nuclear families; that nuclear families should not be solely recognized or relied upon as the exclusive “way to be a family,” the one-size-fits-all solution to all ills.

    I don’t think anyone would disagree with your contention that generally speaking, it’s easier to for two people to raise a kid together, sharing the duties and burdens, than it is for one person to do so. But that’s another false dichotomy. Not all single mothers are raising kids all on their lonesome without any support from their biological or chosen families. There are plenty of studies that show that especially in strong communities, other kinds of family structures provide the same kinds of support and sharing of labor that the nuclear family does. Of course, not all single mothers — few, in fact — have all the support that they need. But I get the strong impression from people saying “OMG don’t ENCOURAGE them to be single mothers” that we’re still relying on a certain stereotype of what single motherhood is like — of what it HAS to be like.

    The right-wing contention is that ONLY the nuclear family can really, truly work, and that everything else is inferior. It goes on into policy, oxymoronically, to only provide legal and financial support for that kind of family, even though by their own philosophy other types of families may need more help, not less. Nobody has “proven” that nuclear families are the best; we only have history to look at, and history is full of policies and social stigmas that make things harder for other kinds of families. All those other kinds of families, which are going to go on existing and raising kids and needing social support as well as close family-network support, no matter what.

  15. Ellen
    January 10, 2009 at 12:55 am

    How about valuing all families? If we made it easier for families (of any type) with more humane family leave policies and affordable health care and day care, more families would probably stay together. But conservatives are often afraid of this, because they think if women don’t need marriage to survive, and there aren’t incentives for marriage, then people will stop getting married. And they might be right. Now that marriage is about love, and not about survival, people are choosing cohabitation, staying single, same-sex, and any other family form that they desire. This is a beautiful thing. It does not mean that children don’t get taken care of. Children suffer because of poverty and stigma, not the type of family form they have.

    One of the main arguments of the post, and the arguments to Moynihan, are that black single mothers are not the cause of our social problems. What Moynihan called “a tangle of pathology” is not actually a cause of poverty but it IS poverty. He confused an indicator with a cause. So we segregate people into concentrated poverty, and then blame them for the adaptations to their environment.

    It sucks to raise children totally on your own. Which is why our society should be more family friendly. If we really valued families in this society, we would stop pretending that the traditional male breadwinner, female housewife family really exists anymore. Work policies necessitate you leave your private life at home, and assume you have a wife at home to handle the details. This is unrealistic, and it is hurting both men and women.

    The idea that anyone encourages single motherhood is ridiculous. One of the main reasons that many young mothers go ahead with a pregnancy, or keep a baby, is because they don’t have any incentive not to. When you live in Moynihan’s tangle of pathology, there is no college or fantastic career in the future to encourage you to delay parenting. And because black men have been so disenfranchised, and there are more service jobs open to black women, many black women are the breadwinners and the caretakers. This makes marriage less necessary. These are symptoms of poverty, not causes of poverty. And no culture of poverty encouraged it. Segregation and discrimination encouraged it.

    The funny thing is, is that I was very much talking about myself. I have a chosen family that will inherit my house. I will probably never get on someone else’s health insurance. I don’t think I should have to pay higher taxes. And I want my chosen family to decide what to do with me if I am ever brain dead. What does that have to do with children? What does that have to do with single motherhood. I don’t have kids. Don’t plan on having any.

  16. Ellen
    January 10, 2009 at 1:20 am

    I just want to add that I do not think being black and being poor are synonymous. The majority of black people are not poor. Unfortunately, the majority of poor people are black and or female. And the majority of people stigmatized for being single mothers are black. Moynihan’s “culture of poverty” was about poverty and race.

    One interesting thing is that single fathers do not sink into poverty the way single mothers do. They are often applauded, while single mothers are blamed for all social ills.

  17. Dark-horse
    January 10, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    “More and more I think the government should just get out of the business of legitimizing relationships (i.e. legal marriage). Let people form whatever relationships they want. Stay out of it. No forms, no fees, no benefits, etc. etc. Wills and living wills can take care of the rest. (and screw insurance too, that clusterfuck of a discriminatory mess that it is – universal healthcare would eliminate the need for dependent benefits).”

    One episode of ‘Judge Judy” shows that just breaking all the rules of family/marital law would not result in happy go round sociaty. Various examples from countries where polygamy is legal also points to the problem of the complexity of human relations that HAVE TO be somewhat governed (if not for the sake of children only).

    Coming from a European country with a socialized healthcare system I can tell you that married or not, once you use free benefits you become a big part of GOVERNMENT-regulated machine that will monitor all your comings and goings.

  18. Ellen
    January 10, 2009 at 11:05 pm

    Yeah, using Judge Judy as evidence doesn’t really help your argument.

    Hmmm, I am glad that you have a universal health system you can take for granted. Coming from the U.S, I am part of PRIVATE CORPORATION-profit making machine that monitors all my comings and goings, distorts science, and costs me a shit ton of money.

  19. Kristen (The J one)
    January 11, 2009 at 1:57 am

    “if not for the sake of children only”

    Spoken like someone who has never lived with two parents who HATED each other but purportedly stayed together for the child. It’s a miserable, stressful and neurosis-inducing childhood. Take it from at least one person who survived the ordeal…marriage isn’t the solution.

  20. Michael White
    January 11, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    One thing that the current social services program encourages (yes the government actively encourages single parents) is that getting or being married can result in all loss of benefits. In NYS, a friend of mine who got divorced (quite rightly) was to get remarried she would lose hey health care for her children and day care for her 3 children (which costs more than her gross income). Two incomes would put her above the maximum income for benefits (which is quite low). Remaining single, even if she wanted to get married (which she does, eventually) is financially her only choice. Oh and she is not a welfare mom, she works full time, but cannot provide healthcare or childcare for her children, and she has no health care.

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