Monday, May 9, 2011

Not to be Valorized: "Honoring Young Mamas" and the Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

I hope your Mother's Day was restful and good. In the glow of such holidays we often forget that questions of parenting and family also involve the hard realities of resources, life chances, and opportunity structures. For ultimately, it is in the home where we first begin to learn our roles as citizen and community member.

Family arrangements also come in many different shapes, sizes, and forms. There is the potential for dignity and success in all of them, but potential does not need always equal an outcome realized. Moreover, while we may want to embrace the mantra that "love conquers all," the hard nosed reality is that some family arrangements are more optimal in a given society than are others.

In the black community, and in particular among the ghetto underclasses, the last few decades have witnessed the rise of a troubling norm where the de facto--if not preferred by some--home arrangement is one in which single mothers raise children and the father is not present (nor, is he expected to be). Sadly, in many communities "Baby Daddies" have become cheap substitutes and stand-ins for fathers, men who were traditionally partners, protectors, and role models for manhood. In total, it appears that the marriage markets in many black communities are broken, distorted, and perhaps so badly damaged that they cannot be easily repaired in either the near or long term.

Of course, societies change over time. Arrangements of home are reflections of evolving moral norms and dynamic relationships of political economy (see the rising divorce rates in the United States). However, an acknowledgment of the factors which are leading to a breakdown in the black family is not an exercise in excuse making. Nor is it an exercise in overlooking the socially deleterious outcomes that are more likely to come when subculture becomes the norm and shame has been shown the door.

Some frightening statistics:

1. 72 percent of black and 51 percent of Latinas gave birth to children out of wedlock.

2. Single, female headed households are more likely to be below the poverty line.

3. Children from fatherless homes are 20 times more likely to have behavioral disorders and 20 times more likely to end up in prison.

This is a recipe for social disorganization and veritable States of Nature where a youthocracy of the street pirates becomes the norm, and chaos comes to dominate communities and impugn their standard of living.

While the intentions driving the campaign to honor "young mamas" are well meaning, the reality is that the family arrangements highlighted in their campaign are not be valorized or idealized. Sure, a strong sister can make it, but should she have to in the absence of her partner? Or where many men have abandoned their responsibilities? Is there anything grand about young single mothers, struggling with a lack of resources and support?

And no, said young women--many of whom are suitable as candidates for The Maury Povich Show--is not likely to end up a MacArthur Genius Fellow.

Once more, this is the soft bigotry of low expectations, where some valorize and make noble behavior that they would not accept for their own children or kin. But somehow, it is okay for "those people."


Hank Nasty said...


So how do you get a generation to discard unhelpful behaviors that they consider to be normal if not courageous as you say?

Anonymous said...

you've got your cause and effect wrong here. (2) is the cause of (1). We're seeing the rate of single motherhood jump among whites as their relative affluence falls. I mean, what's the point of keeping a father around if he doesn't have a job anyway? Poverty has to be fixed first. But that would involve a long, hard look at how this country distributes wealth, and that's not a conversation we're going to have any time soon.

Plane Ideas said...

I would like to read a discussion about the causes of this Black family situation rather than a stat narrative..

What created this breakdown and how come we could not address it?

Is this the natural evolution of a society which has a legacy of oppression for a certain bandwidth of people Black folks?

Was this reality unavoidable for a natural outcome of a society which has our racial legacy??

Henri B. said...

I tend to agree with Anonymous 9:40. I think we realize that poor socioeconomic status can do a myriad of damage on a community but we tend to push it aside when it is pitted against race as a fundamental cause.

YES, we have been systematically denied many opportunities to be economically productive which is now translated to a generational learned helplessness but I think we've served as canaries in the mine. Poor education and substance abuse have destroyed lower class white families and they're showing its output down to stupid baby names.

Are the attributions as to why people do what they do absolutely inconsistent across race? Yes. Will making them consistent solve the bigger problems? Maybe but I think it's the long way around.

My opinion borders on separatist but the president has reverified that we'll never get "them" to see us any other way than how they want to see us. We need to figure out how to get our unenlightened brethren to give a shit about themselves.

dr. becky said...

Right after I read this post I read this over at CFC:

I think it is useful to remember that mothering, the work of caring for children, is indeed racialized.

My other point is that the moral panic over "babes having babies" is nothing new. And the stats ARE important here, because the rates have not actually risen that dramatically if you look back - what has changed is that teen mothers are no longer sent away, out of the public eye or forced to marry shotgun-style as they were in the past. But when you slip into the rhetoric of the importance of "intact families" and "out of wedlock" (and along with that comes "bastard") I think this is not so far off some of the late-nineties family values rhetoric on "welfare queens" and "Crack Moms", etc. Marriage is not the solution to the problem - and I agree it is a problem when irresponsibiliy (of some, but not ALL teen parents) is celebrated.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the caution suggested by most of the commentators here. Reading WARN has helped increase my sensitivity and awareness to the "soft bigotry of low expectations," but the risk of going to far the other way is stigmatizing people who find themselves in disastrous social and family conditions.

Since I am interested in larger structural issues of justice and inequalities, I tend to obsessively view these larger upstream, macrosocial factors as prime movers in most of the deleterious conditions black Americans and other disadvantaged groups find themselves. The way it's put by the social scientists is that "social disadvantages cluster," which provides some critical reasons why communities suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous injustices and oppression tend to have less stable or salubrious (measured in terms of health) family and social networks, engage in more risky behaviors (smoking, promiscuity, etc.)

Of course, even in the face of devastating social oppression, people often maintain some kind of agency. It is possible to make better or worse choices even given the immense power of macrosocial factors; but that very power is what makes it highly unlikely that across the population of oppressed communities, significant numbers of people will be able to do so.

So on the one hand, I understand and accept the need to avoid the soft bigotry of low expectations. On the other, it seems somewhat difficult to expect, in the aggregate, oppressed communities to make "better" life decisions, engage in less risky behaviors, inhabit more positive social networks, when the larger society in which these communities live has done so GD much to erode their social capital and cast them into the abyss.

Plane Ideas said...


Please keep hope alive ...

chaunceydevega said...

@Hank. There is an argument that these behaviors are not actually disadvantageous to from the participants' points of view. They get social prestige, a network of other young women who are also pregnant at the same time to support each other, and a sense of belonging. The problem is that none of this subcultural capital is portable nor does it have currency in "normal" society.

@Anon. True. The arrows go both ways. But, I have no expectations of the sperm donors hanging around. Thus we need to talk to the women about why they are laying with them.

@Tanya. Thanks for the link. Got something coming on poor white folks soon. We don't talk about white poverty because it doesn't fit the national narrative

@Dr. Becky. Hmmm....That is a tough one. Marriage is important--and I say this not as a normative claim but as an empirical one--because of how as a single variable it over-determines so many other outcomes. We can be careful of our language, and try to be "inclusive" but do we want to play the false equivalence game?

On the language of bastards. I am all for it. You know I believe in a return to a culture of shame. Something went wrong when it was lost. So yes, we are raising a generation of bastards. Now, what they become is a different question.

@Thrasher. Structures. Structures. Structures. Personal Behavior. Personal Behavior. Personal Behavior.

I feel you. But we have to historicize this too. Blacks folks went through hell and back to keep their families intact during and after slavery. Much of this breakdown is recent (meaning mid 20th century). Now it is taken as a norm. We need the elder gods to chime in, but the young brothers and sisters need to step up. But as Chris Rock joked what do you do in a community where grandma is 30 years old?

@Daniel. Damn you your science! Just kidding. How do you parse structural, macro level explanations with human choice and agency? Sure, there are structural explanations but how do we balance that with the tension between systems level analysis and the importance of methodological individualism?

Or stated differently, I am from the ghetto, but the ghetto doesn't live in me.

CNu said...


Surely you don't pretend to be a sui generis ghettonerd?


Without my family and extended family staying on me every day and every step of the way, I would surely have become a denizen of yo boy Cobbski's Sherwood Forest!

The Hostile Negress said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Hostile Negress said...

There are two things I will never understand about the denizens of La Ghetto:

1) What about socioeconomic disadvantage is conducive to hypersexuality


2) Why the broke consistantly involve themselves in an activity (producing multiple children/children at a young age) that is known to make them broker

I have puzzled for years over why anyone who is living in poverty would turn to sex as an outlet - as someone who recently lost a LOT of income, I can say definitively that fuckin' is the LAST thing on my mind. I can also say that ANY activity that involves cutting the now smaller loaf of my bread is unequivocably OUT.OF.THE.QUESTION.

I've factored in the notion that perhaps these folks believe their poverty will be forever anyway, so why not have some kids - AKA poverty as baseline norm. But to me, and this could just be my shadiness, THAT'S EVEN MORE INCENTIVE NOT TO ADD ANY MORE PEOPLE TO THE MIX. Not until I have a second paycheck!

Perhaps sex is the only outlet/source of joy for these folks? But again, if someone is suffering from that type of ongoing depression (raises hand!) fuckin' should again be the last thing on their mind.

I don't know. This all makes my head hurt.

Hank Nasty said...

@chaunceydevega: so maybe the goal is to help these young men/women understand that while that behavior may be "normal" among their peers it works to their detriment in that it prevents them from realizing their full potential in a world full of positive possibilities. Its one thing to make bad choices when you don't know you can do better, but once you do know you might be inspired to reach higher.

CNu said...

Perhaps sex is the only outlet/source of joy for these folks? But again, if someone is suffering from that type of ongoing depression (raises hand!) fuckin' should again be the last thing on their mind.

In a perpetually contracting knowledge-based economy - those without significant natural talents further compounded by a genuine lack of the love of learning and valuation of expertise are simply doomed.

After a certain age, the mold is set and the die are cast and there's really little prospect of going back...,

It will get better, but not before it gets much, much worse and not before the onset of swift and brutal "adapt or die" type changes sweep all across this society.

Anonymous said...

"And no, said young women--many of whom are suitable as candidates for The Maury Povich Show--is not likely to end up a MacArthur Genius Fellow."

wow thats a pretty revealing statement. I was going to say some shit about how maybe some women are single mothers b/c of how frighteningly common the experiences of domestic violence/sexual assault are or about the mass incarceration of minority men or the lack of access to or education about contraceptives and abortions. Addtionally I like how every single mother is apparently a straight person in this scenario.

Maybe if single mothers and especially teenaged single mothers were not constantly demeaned and isolated from such "respectable" people such as yrself, and could expect compassion and material aid from others (instead of a bunch of shade and bootstraps crap) then perhaps their children might not end up in some lordoftheflies scenario.

I guess I might be jumping down yr throat a little bit, but I'm a little tired of seeing a bunch of words about single motherhood and so few of them coming from single mothers.