This post is part of a paper I'm sharing as a result of disturbing, racially-coded rhetoric used by Republican presidential hopefuls.
Although many politicians uphold family values as a cure to social problems and see the decline of family as a moral failure, such discourse privileges the European-American hegemonic definition of family. I've previously defined hegemony, which is a dominant group enforcing its norms against others.
The traditional ideal of family, which many politicians want to impose, is a sole heterosexual married couple and their biological children. Ideally, the husband is the main wage-earner, who earns enough to allow his wife to at least dedicate more time to childrearing, even if she also works.
Welfare policy and its surrounding rhetoric rely on the above definition of family. Traditional "family values" discourse is racialized, even without explicitly using racist language.
The white hegemonic notion of family has been simultaneously held from, used, and imposed onto black families both throughout history and today. This type of family is held out as a cure-all for social problems, and many African-Americans’ failure to conform is viewed by white religious and political conservatives as a moral shortcoming.
Slavery and the historical development of welfare have served up racially-charged, damaging rhetoric. Slavery began the systematic degradation of black families and the distortion of many whites' perceptions of blacks.
The disruptions and distortions began as soon as European-Americans brought African slaves to U.S. soil. Early historians already blamed failure to form families on slaves' alleged character deficiencies.1
(Note there is no singular definition of the antebellum slave family. Whites’ systematic denigration of slave families should not detract from complex family structures in Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, and other West African countries, commonly exploited by slave traders. West African family models were communal and child-centered, and many did not look like "traditional" white U.S. families.)
Slaves were thrown into a system with no concern for family relationships, a system rife with double standards. Family formation was allowed when convenient for slaveowners, but prohibited when considered a threat.
The biological tie of a slave mother and slave father to their child was critical in conferring slave status, yet when white male slaveowners had children with slaves, this familial tie was downplayed. No matter who fathered the child, she would be a slave if born to a slave mother. To preserve white supremacy, slaveowners reinforced the socially-constructed racial caste system by emphasizing a clear demarcation between black and white.
In the antebellum South, some slaveowners encouraged marriage to ensure loyalty, while also portraying themselves as moral, benevolent masters. But, a marriage could be dissolved at the master’s whim, or by a sale of one or both spouses. In fact, a slaveowner’s desire to have his women slaves provide slave offspring would result in forcing women to live with various men at different times. Monogamy—much less marriage—was not many slaveowners’ concern.
Another systematic denigration is that black women were left out of the definition of a “good mother.” Slave mothers were continually forced to perform backbreaking labor, so the era's dominant mindset, which emphasized women as nurturing, stay-at-home mothers, rendered slave mothers aberrant.2
Slaveowners maintained racially-based slavery, but at a cost: relatives were ripped apart, and slaves were often prohibited from establishing families. “Family” was an empty concept, allowed and simultaneously prohibited in paradoxical ways when convenient for whites.
What do the rhetoric and hypocrisy surrounding slave marriage and family have to do with white evangelicals today? This history informs the current "family values" rhetoric. In my next post, I'll share the political rhetoric that reared its ugly head once welfare recipients moved largely from "deserving" white widows, veterans, and Depression-era families with temporary setbacks, to predominantly single mothers of color.
A discussion of this rhetoric can't be done unless we acknowledge the hypocrisy (of many "devout Christian" slaveowners) and systematic degradation of black families as a result of slavery.
1 Damian Alan Pargas, Boundaries and Opportunities: Comparing Slave Family Formation in the Antebellum South, 33 Journal of Family History 316-345, 316 (2008).
2 Adrien Katherine Wing, Laura Weselmann, Transcending Traditional Notions of Mothering: The Need for Critical Race Feminist Praxis, 3 J. Gender Race & Just. 257, 273 (1999).