The next section of Chapter 2 of The Way We Never Were is titled, "A Complex Reality: 1950's Poverty, Diversity, and Social Change." Coontz's point during this section is that only white, middle-class U.S. Americans had the privilege of participating in the "traditional" family for which many are nostalgic today.
Coontz cautions against the 1950's as the "good old days": "The reality of these families was far more painful and complex than the situation-comedy reruns or the expurgated memories of the nostalgic would suggest" (p. 29). The increase in the quality of life during this time was directly related to consumer expansion, which itself was only possible for those with economic means to purchase appliances, vacuum cleaners, and ranch homes. Coontz notes that "[a] full 25 percent of Americans, forty to fifty million people, were poor in the mid-1950's, and in the absence of food stamps and housing programs, this poverty was searing" (p. 29). FDR began the "Aid to Dependent Children" program in 1935, so I don't agree with Coontz's statement that there was no social safety net at this time.
Not only is searing poverty overlooked today, but also the overwhelming whiteness of the notion of the 1950's "traditional" family:
[C]ontrary to the all-white lineup on the television networks and the streets of suburbia, the 1950s saw a major transformation in the ethnic composition of America. More Mexican immigrants entered the United States in the two decades after the Second World War than in the entire previous one hundred years. Prior to the war, most blacks and Mexican-Americans lived in rural areas, and three-fourths of blacks lived in the South. By 1960, a majority of blacks resided in the North, and 80 percent of both blacks and Mexican-Americans lived in cities. Postwar Puerto Rican immigration was so massive that by 1960 more Puerto Ricans lived in New York than in San Juan. These minorities were almost entirely excluded from the gains and privileges accorded white middle-class families.
Racism kept black families from making the same moves as white families, namely the quintessential move from the city to the suburbs:
When Harvey Clark tried to move into Cicero, Illinois, in 1951, a mob of 4,000 whites spent four days tearing his apartment apart while police stood by and joked with them. In 1953, the first black family moved into Chicago's Trumbull Park public housing project; neighbors "hurled stones and tomatoes" and trashed stores that sold groceries to the new residents. In Detroit, Life magazine reported in 1957, "10,000 Negroes work at the Ford plant in nearby Dearborn, [but] not one Negro can live in Dearborn itself."
Coontz makes it clear that the romanticized version of the family was based on exclusion. This chapter, especially as it pertains to race, strengthens my thesis in my Critical Race Theory class in law school that the notion of "family values" is a raced idea, from which people of color have been prohibited since slavery.
The raced image of family values prevails today: an ideal "traditional" family consists of a white stay-at-home mother and white working father with 2.5 children, who resides in the suburbs. This family has the economic means to do so, and has never been systematically prevented from moving into the tidy ranch home of their choice. It's troubling when what is viewed as a morally superior way of life has been systematically held from people of color and from all people who lack the economic means.