Was a child born into slavery in 1860 more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American President? Apparently, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum think so as they are both signatories of a document called The Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence upon Marriage and Family. The message is not to go back to slavery, of course, but to say that if we thought things were bad for marriage then, they are worse now.
However, is there any truth to this claim? The study they cite doesn’t have any figures about the marriage rates or family dynamics of black slaves in 1860. The earliest I could find were figures from 1880. What’s worse is that the study says this:
Ultimately, these problems likely have deep roots in the unique, sometimes traumatic, historical experience of the African American community. Orlando Patterson has eloquently argued that slavery and Jim Crow scarred male-female relations among African Americansin ways that continue to shape current marriages — particularly in the ways that slavery denuded Black men of their proper role as husbands and fathers, fostered promiscuity, and wove violence and domination into the fabric of male-female sexual relations among Blacks (and interracial relationships). This cultural legacy, and the unique sex ratio of African Americans, may help explain why studies suggest that infidelity, domestic violence, and mistrust of the opposite sex are particularly salient problems in the African American world, even after taking into account the effects of economic factors. In Patterson’s words, “The nation as a whole, and Afro-Americans in particular are still paying the ethnocidal price of slavery and the neo-dulotic Jim Crow system.” (p. 45)
There may be good reasons to formulate a document declaring human dependence on marriage as it is a family-producing institution. How we are nurtured in childhood affects how we behave as adults, which makes the quality of marriage an interest to the state. Marriage has been treated far too lightly in our culture today. However, there is no good reason to make the kind of assertion above in its defense. Apart from being associated with a pro-slavery-style narrative that envisages blacks better off under slavery, it is patently false. The causes of marital fracture in the African American community are complex and tragic. To understand them takes a nuanced analysis that is sensitive to historical evidence. Cherry-picking data and making specious inferences to score cheap political points (that have ironically backfired) doesn’t help anyone.
For more on what family life was like for a slave see Putting an Antebellum Myth to Rest.