Happiness in Slavery

Among the many, many problems with the Iowa FAMiLY Leader pledge that Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum rushed to sign was this line in the preamble.

Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American President.

The FAMiLY Leader is now pulling those words from the pledge (the original version of the pledge survives), limiting the damage. And my policy, generally, is that no one wins when we freak out about meaningless verbiage in a pledge. I’m not a fan of point-and-sputter criticism. It’s just that this sentence is so revealingly stupid, so ideological and cartoonish, that you have to wonder about someone who reads it and says “yes, great point.” Slavery was relatively good for nuclear families? Let’s look at the Moynihan report, which traced the problems of African-American families to the distorting effect of slavery. Let’s take a cursory look at 19th American history.

Because of the high premium placed on male labor, throughout every period of American slavery, black men were the most likely to be parted from their families. For slave owners, who considered the basic family unit to be comprised of mother and child, husbands and fathers could be, and were, easily replaced. Many a slave woman was assigned a new husband by her master. Male children were also frequently taken from slave mothers. The bond between an enslaved mother and daughter was the least likely to be disturbed through sale. Yet this tie was also fragile. Owners could reap large returns by selling pretty girls, especially light-skinned ones, into prostitution or concubinage.

The possibility of separation was an ever-present threat to every member of a slave family. When a master died, his slaves might be indiscriminately distributed among his heirs or sold off to multiple buyers. When a planter’s child was born or married, he or she might receive the gift of a black attendant. Mothers were taken from their own children to nurse the offspring of their masters. And slave children were torn from mothers and brought into the house to be raised alongside the master’s sons and daughters.

We have better statistics on modern black family formation than our statistics on slave transactions, but we can agree on this – black children are someone less likely to be ripped away from their mothers and raised by slave owners these days. Both Bachmann and Santorum had it in their power to scan this and say something like, “hey, if you take out this historical gibberish, I can sign the pledge, but not before.” They didn’t do that. Meanwhile, Gary Johnson, who isn’t competing for any of the FAMiLY Leader’s base, comes out against the whole pledge.

This “pledge” is nothing short of a promise to discriminate against everyone who makes a personal choice that doesn’t fit into a particular definition of “virtue.”

While the Family Leader pledge covers just about every other so-called virtue they can think of, the one that is conspicuously missing is tolerance. In one concise document, they manage to condemn gays, single parents, single individuals, divorcees, Muslims, gays in the military, unmarried couples, women who choose to have abortions, and everyone else who doesn’t fit in a Norman Rockwell painting.