“His Own People”

“…if you want an inscription to read at dawn and at night-time, and for pleasure or for pain, write up on the walls of your house in letters for the sun to gild and the moon to silver, ‘Whatever happens to oneself happens to another.’”-Oscar Wilde

You have undoubtedly by now heard about Sean Spicer’s comments at a White House briefing earlier today in which he compared the Assad regime to Hitler and seemed to suggest that Assad was way worse. After being asked to clarify his statement that Hitler had not sunk to the level of using chemical weapons he explained:

“He was not using the gas on his own people the same way…”

Spicer later went on CNN to apologize for what he said. “I was obviously trying to make a point about the heinous acts that Assad had made against his own people last week, using chemical weapons and gas. Frankly, I mistakenly made an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, for which there is no comparison. And for that I apologize. It was a mistake to do that.”

I give Spicer some credit for saying “I apologize” rather than saying “mistakes were made” and “I’m sorry if you were offended.” But Spicer did not mis-speak, he mis-thought. The problem with his off-the-cuff response was not the comparison or the wording but the mindset that created it. Hitler did not kill “his people,” Spicer said. In Spicer’s understanding of the Holocaust, the category of “Germans” does not include the category of “Jews.” The Jews lived amongst the Germans, but were different from them. Thus the Germans committed violence against another people, not their own. We are used to this framing. Germans killed Jews. But, in fact, Germans killed Germans. They killed Germans who had a different religion.

Timothy Snyder put it powerfully the Guardian:

Under the rule of Adolf Hitler, German authorities, beginning in 1939, gassed millions of people to death. The first victims were German citizens deemed handicapped and thus “unfit for life.” After Germans with local assistance had shot about a million Jews in Eastern Europe, gassing was added as a second technique of mass murder. Jews were killed by carbon monoxide at Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, and by hydrogen cyanide at Auschwitz.

This matters because when we fail to recognize the fallacy of the frame then we are at risk of behaving in the same way. When we define some group of our neighbors as fundamentally not us it rarely ends well.

A few days ago I recorded my thoughts after watching the film The Normal Heart, a movie that dramatizes the early years of the AIDS crisis as it ravaged New York’s gay community. I wrote about my own shameful lack of action when one of my floor mates cut out the picture of the president of the Gay Lesbian Student Alliance from the student paper and stuck it on the wall with a big red “no” sign over her face and the words “No Lezzies.” I was able to stand aside because I did not see myself as the target. In that moment, I had decided along with the tormentors, to categorize that young woman as different, someone I could disassociate from, rather that as my fellow student and therefore like me.

A few years ago I read a book called Love the Sin by Jakobsen and Pellegrini. The authors took a look at newspaper and magazine headlines and examined who “we” were imagined to be, and who the headline writers imagined were “others.”

For example they took the headline “Is AIDS a threat to the general public?” And noted: “Now if the ‘general public’ includes everyone, this question would be meaningless.”

The gay men who died from AIDS were not separate from the general public, they were part of the general public.

This mindset, that people who have a difference are not part of us, but are simply living amongst us, when carried to its extreme sees those others as the enemy within. It becomes quite easy to blame our social ills on them. When this is allowed to go unchecked, the consequences can be deadly.

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen used the word “eliminationist” to describe this point of view in Hitler’s Willing Executioners. The eliminationists, he argued, believed that “For Germany to be properly ordered, regulated, and for many, safeguarded, Jewishness had to be eliminated from German society. What ‘elimination’– in the sense of successfully ridding Germany of Jewishness–meant, and the manner in which this was to be done, was unclear and hazy to many, and found no consensus during the period of modern German antisemitsm. But the necessity of the elimination of Jewishness was clear to all. It followed from the conception of the Jews as alien invaders of the German body social.”

Eliminationist rhetoric focuses on the enemy within and advocates for the elimination of that group.  In 2009 David Neiwart of the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote a book called The Eliminationists in which he described the “core myth” of such movements as palingenesis or “a Phoenix-like national rebirth.”

Today we are once again hearing a lot of talk about alien invaders of the American body social. This is combined with the idea of a national rebirth. We need to tread carefully.

To quote Snyder again, “To recall Hitler as the cartoon supervillain of momentary convenience is to prevent serious consideration of the kinds of politics and policies that made mass killing possible. They begin when authorities invite us to exclude neighbors from the community by associating them with a global threat…The truth is, Hitler did kill his own people. And the killing began with the disowning. It is precisely the stigmatization and murder of the people who were gassed that removed them from the national community to which they believed they belonged. ”

In my article on The Normal Heart, I had originally included one more paragraph about my time at this college. In the end, I cut it out. At the time, it seemed to personal, and I was not sure what point I was making with it. Here is what I left out: Ironically, or perhaps it was divine justice, only a few months later I was discriminated against for being a lesbian. Nothing had actually changed about me, but I had gotten on the wrong side of one of my roommates and she retaliated by spreading false rumors. I did not know that she had been doing this. I only knew that people suddenly seemed to be giving me the cold shoulder. After a few months of this, another roommate confessed that she now realized the other roommate was a pathological liar. She told me what she had heard about me, apologized for believing it and now she wanted to be friends. How could I? If she had been willing to tread me badly when she thought I was gay, how could I accept her friendship simply because she had decided I was not? You may think that you will never find yourself among “the others” but can you be sure of that?

I initially wrote and posted this article last night around midnight and it ended at the previous paragraph. This morning I woke up and read Snyder’s excellent article in The Guardian. He was making the same point I had been, but he articulated something better, I feel, than I did.

As Victor Klemperer, the great student of Nazi language, long ago pointed out, when Nazis spoke of “the people” they always meant “some people.” Mr Spicer has imitated that usage. Some people, our “own people,” are more worthy of life than others.

First the Nazi regime murdered German citizens. Then it murdered others. People who learned to disown neighbors also learned to kill foreigners. And all of the murders were equally wrong. The politics of Nazi killing has two steps: creating the other within, and then killing the other without. It all begins with the nefarious distinction Spicer made without even thinking about it: that murder of others is somehow not as bad as the murder of one’s own.

Whatever happens to oneself happens to another.



“You can’t commit atrocities with enlightened people, you need hatred, blindness and a knee-jerk xenophobia.”-Boualem Sansal, The German Mujahid

The original manuscript of my forthcoming book Oscar’s Ghost was three times as long as my publisher wanted. In order to make it an acceptable length, I had to cut 100,000 words from it, a book’s worth of material. In places, I am sure the tightening was an improvement, but there was also a great deal of material that I regret losing. Much of this fell into the category of cultural and social context. One aspect of the story of that time period was a growing anxiety about the loss of national identities and a fear of enemies within– those who lived as citizens but who could not, or were not allowed to, fully assimilate. The discourse these anxieties produced colored the worldviews and attitudes of everyone who lived through the era and thus are important to understand if you want to contextualize some of the behavior of the book’s main characters.

Oscar Wilde spent his last years in France, and while he was there the nation was gripped in a controversy that was tearing society apart. Everyone had an opinion on The Dreyfus Affair. It created what we might now call “a hyper-partisan environment.”

Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer on the general staff of the French army had been a convenient patsy when it became clear that military secrets had been passed to the German military attache in Paris. The only physical evidence in the case was a memorandum, in French bordereau, found by a woman who emptied the wastebaskets of the German embassy.

Dreyfus was found guilty on the evidence of a handwriting expert and, before a howling mob shouting anti-semitic epithets, exiled to the Devil’s Island penal colony off the coast of French Guiana. He was kept in solitary confinement, manacled to his bed at night. By the time Emile Zola took up his cause in 1898, he was losing his teeth and hair and was unable to speak. But he was not guilty.

In the wake of Zola’s article, J’Accuse, the French public became divided along familiar fault lines. On the right were those who believed the verdict had been just. This group included nationalists, the military and the Catholic church. On the left were the Dreyfusards, mostly Protestant, Socialists, Freemasons and intellectuals. In fact, the word “intellectual” was coined by Georges Clemenceau, the politician who published Zola’s letter, to describe the Dreyfus supporters.

The underlying philosophical question had little to do with the guilt or innocence of Dreyfus, and much more to do with whether to be one nation a people needed to be culturally and socially similar. What was a “real Frenchman?” Religious and sexual difference both threatened social cohesion. In France this meant protestants were suspect. In Anglican England it was Catholics. In both nations Jews and homosexuals were “other.”

Oscar Wilde, perhaps surprisingly, did not take up the Dreyfus cause and instead befriended the real culprit Esterhazy. There were a number of reasons for this, which go beyond the scope of this article. My point is, that this era we are now in, in which fear and “othering” play such prominent roles is not unique.

Panics erupt from time to time like a virus. Societies come down with a kind of sickness, fear of outsiders bubbles to the surface and good people get swept up. Dark impulses, stereotyping, dehumanizing language, separating the superior from the inferior become part of polite discourse.

The fear and anger may be stoked by political actors with something to gain, but what I find more disturbing is not the evil actor. There are surprisingly few of them. It is that so many good, ordinary people go along. They try to associate themselves with the in-group and blame all of the problems of the world on the out-group.

One of my Facebook friends, a nice church-going lady, posted this meme on her wall.


Before I get to the overall message: that white Christians are superior to others, there are a number of facts that need to be dispensed with. To claim that “European Christians built America” you need to overlook a great many things.

Let’s begin with the first European settlers. I am quoting from my book Blame it on the Rain:

The New World was not the vast, sparsely populated wilderness that some history texts would have you believe. In fact, historian William McNeil estimates the indigenous population of the land we now call America was 100 million in 1492– when Columbus sailed the ocean blue– while the European population numbered only 70 million.

The natives of what is now New England were not nomads. They lived in towns and villages. They were farmers and skilled craftspersons and had technology that many historians believe rivaled that of the English. So how were the Europeans able to colonize this “new” continent so rapidly and completely?…

Although the Europeans had a slight technological advantage in the form of steel weapons and guns, it was a secret weapon that allowed them to dominate the Americas, a weapon the Europeans did not even know they possessed—germs.

In the 1600s, before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, British and French fishermen started fishing the New England coast. Occasionally they would come to shore and interact with the natives. These unremarkable encounters would prove deadly. Within three years, a plague had wiped out between 90 and 96 percent of the inhabitants of costal New England. By comparison, the Black Plague killed perhaps 30 percent of the population of Europe. Whole cities lay in waste. There were so many dead that there was no way to bury them all. The disease-ravaged mourners were in no position to fight off European invaders. In fact, one of the reasons the Wampanoags were so warm to the Pilgrims at Plymouth was that their tribe was so weakened by illness that they were afraid of being attacked by neighboring tribes to the West and they sought allies to protect them. European colonization was swift because the settlers, in many cases, simply moved into abandoned Native American villages and farms.

The Mexicans speak Spanish today largely due to this same effect. When the Spanish marched into what is now Mexico City, they found an Aztec population ravaged by smallpox. There were so many bodies that the soldiers had to walk on them. The Spanish were largely immune to the disease…

As the Europeans settled in, they brought even more disease. They settled their farms with domesticated animals that were not native to the region—sheep, goats, cows, pigs. The animals carried streptococcis, ringworm, anthrax and tuberculosis, all of which could be passed on to humans.

Between 1520 and 1918, historians have recorded as many as 93 epidemics among native populations including bubonic plague, measles, influenza, tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhus, cholera and small pox.

The first Europeans on the continent did not need to build anything. They moved into already constructed cities which had been abandoned.

To say that the Europeans “built” America is also to ignore the labor of slaves. The plantation owner may have overseen the operation but the actual hands-on creation of value was done by the laborers, the slaves.

It ignores the fact that Jews are disproportionately prominent in American society. They have built so much of America that even though they represent only 2% of our population, in polls people consistently rank their presence much higher– around 30%.

It ignores the wave of Chinese immigration in the 1800s. If you didn’t learn about this in school (I did not), I recommend Ken Burns excellent documentary The West. In episode seven it tells the story of this group of non-European, non-Christian settlers. People like Chung Sun, who arrived here “with $600 and dreams of becoming a wealthy tea planter in Southern California.” What the Chinese encountered instead was racism. Although most of the white settlers and prospectors were also recent immigrants they accused the Chinese of taking “their” jobs. There was no such thing as “illegal immigration” in those days. There were no passports, no quotas, and if you could get here you could settle here. This began to change when non-Europeans started to arrive.

“For the first time in the history of the United States, the government decided to exclude a group of immigrants on the basis of race,” said Ronald Takaki in The West, “And it set a precedent … because for the first time you have this new thinking introduced … We can not only determine who could become citizens in this country, but we could determine who could come to this country.”

It also ignores the fact that large swaths of what are now the U.S. were built and inhabited by Hispanic people before Europeans got there.

As for the Christian European settlers, they did not all come to participate in the “American Dream.” There were also those who were forced out of their own countries. Quite a few of my European ancestors, for example, were victims of religious persecution, considered heretics at home. They were refugees.

Some of the Europeans were also convicts. According to The American Historical Review:

In 1769 Dr. Johnson, speaking of Americans, said to a friend, “Sir, they are a race of convicts and ought to be content with anything we may allow them short of hanging.” In the latest edition of Boswell, who chronicled this saying, it is explained by the following footnote: “Convicts were sent to nine of the American settlements. According to one estimate, about 2000 had been sent for many years annually. Dr. Lang, after comparing various estimates, concludes that the number sent might be about 50,000 altogether.”

And did they not bitch? Consider what historian Stephen Budiansky has to say about the first Thanksgiving:

…the colonies were organized and backed by joint-stock companies of wealthy English merchants — and the settlers worked for the company.

The real problem, though, was that the men recruited for Jamestown and Plymouth were expecting quick and easy riches without having to work at all.

Most of the participants of the debacle at Jamestown listed their occupation as “Gentleman,” which was defined at the time as, “Whosoever can live without manual labor.” John Smith kept desperately requesting that the company send men who possessed some actual skills and who were willing to get off their rear ends and work, but to no avail: “When you sende againe I intreat you rather send but thirty Carpenters, husbandmen, Gardiners, fishermen, blacksmiths . . . than a thousand such as we have.” Likewise he advised the Puritans, planning their colony in Massachusetts, “One hundred good labourers better than a thousand such Gallants as were sent to me, that would do nothing but complaine, curse, and despaire, when they saw all things clean contrary to the report in England.”

The “report in England” had promised nothing so much as a get-rich-quick scheme…So here’s an alternative interpretation of the Thanksgiving story:

A bunch of overprivileged toffs, backed by off-shore capitalist speculators, expected to live idly off the work of others (when they weren’t simply plundering treasure off the natives), and nearly starved to death from their own greed and idleness. (In Jamestown, they did starve to death.) Only when they faced up to the fact that they were going to have to work for a living, and threw off their foreign corporate masters, did they begin to prosper. And that is why we celebrate Thanksgiving today. The end.


Did they come to practice sharia law? No, of course not. But the Puritans did not sail to the New World to uphold the Constitution or to keep a separation of church and state. They were at odds with the Church of England and wanted their own land where they could set up their own official religion. They established religious law. Early on in Massachusetts the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and the celebration of Christmas were outlawed. Only members of the Congregational Church were allowed to vote. It was illegal to question church doctrine and church attendance was mandatory.

Christian Europeans came to America for various reasons. They built some things, appropriated others, took credit for still others and dominated other groups with military force. That’s how this nation was built.

Lets go back and talk about the wave of Chinese immigration in the 1800s for a moment. One of the insidious things about defining groups of our neighbors as “not us” is that we become blind to the harm that is done to them. There was no logical reason to call a recent Italian immigrant to California “American” and a recent Chinese immigrant “not American.” If we think of them as our fellow citizens, then any harm to them is harm to the body of our nation. The violence against Chinese immigrants was violence to our residents, even though the violence came at the hands of others of our residents. If we do not count them as us, then we are blinded to their pain, including the harm we do to them in the name of our fear. We recoil from guilt, and look for justifications.


51Gyz4dtWxL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_I have been reading Boualem Sansal’s The German Mujahid. Sansal is an Algerian author and the novel is billed as “The first Arab novel to confront the Holocaust.” It is the story of two brothers born in Algeria to a German father and an Algerian mother. They have lived most of their lives in the projects in France. After their parents are killed in an Islamist massacre, the older brother, now an educated professional goes home and discovers his father’s secret past as an officer in the death camps in Nazi Germany. The older brother Rachel is so overwhelmed by what he learns that he commits suicide and leaves his diary, with the story of his attempts to make sense of it all, to his teenaged brother Malrich. Malrich finds parallels between the Nazi regime and the Islamists who run things in the projects. He becomes determined to find a way to break the cycle. Sansal said he wrote the novel, “to ask what it might mean to take responsibility for ensuring that such crimes are never repeated.”


Rachel is haunted by the question of where responsibility for the crime ends. Is he guilty of his father’s sins? Are we blameless if we accept the benefits of our ancestor’s misdeeds? Do we, for example, look at the fortune inherited from a large plantation once run on slave labor and say, “Europeans built that.”


It is not the question of guilt or blame that haunts me as much as another. Once these forces of fear are unleashed, where do they go?

Identity and Poetry

This poetry performance won the 2015 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational.  In “Lost Voices” Scout Bostley and Darius Simpson change places and speak in the voice of the other.

Michigan Radio reported:

The main message of their performance, Simpson says, is to show the audience that “this is what you look like when you’re speaking for someone.”

…putting this piece together taught them a lot about how to be supportive of people struggling through situations different from their own and that there is inherently a limit to the depth of their own understanding.

…Simpson explains that the two aren’t suggesting that people shouldn’t speak out for one another, but that in doing so there is the danger of losing sight of an individual’s experiences.

Quote of the Day: On “Urban Pioneers”

…the phrase “urban pioneers” is perpetually problematic especially in this city. Let’s all just take a moment to remember the original “pioneers” who came through Detroit…The issue with the idea of pioneers is that historically they are treated as if they discovered something. Detroit has been here. People live here, have lived here, have raised generations of their families in Detroit proper. No amount of cheap studio space is going to allow artists or anyone else to move in and act as if they found something new. And to be very clear, it’s not brave or bold, it’s strategic opportunism.- Casey L. Rocheteau, on the Write House blog.

I read the above article immediately after this one from The Metro Times which points out that Detroit’s latest renaissance has also seen the number of black-owned buildings downtown fall by as much as 75 percent.

Shoplifting vs. Robbing the Store

Do you remember this famous scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard wander through a shop full of novelty items, lampshades and cutlery looking for something to steal for the sheer thrill of it.

Turner Classic Movies has this scene on its web page with the headline “Ever Steal Anything?”

Do you remember the episode of House where the hospital is on lockdown and Dr. Wilson and Dr. “Thirteen” Hadley play truth or dare in the cafeteria? Dr. Hadley dares the uptight Dr. Wilson to steal a dollar from the cash register. He gets caught and has to put it back.

Do you remember in 2002 when Winona Ryder was caught boosting thousands of dollars of jewelry from Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills? She later went on Saturday Night Live to parody her own misdeeds. Time Magazine did a story on the Ryder theft and it reported that store owners turn over only 24% of the perpetrators they catch shoplifting to the police, in spite of the fact that shoplifting in the U.S. costs retailers more than $10 billion a year.

We can all agree that it is illegal and wrong to steal. In practice sometimes we treat it as criminality sometimes as mischief. There is “robbing a store” and then there is “shoplifting.”

What we call it depends a great deal on who is doing the stealing.

racistedit1-thumb-565x423On the left is a badly photoshopped image that went viral. Jarnell Hasson actually carried a sign that read “No mother should have to fear for her son’s life every time he leaves home.”

The Riverfront Times, which had originally published the undoctored photo reported that the man who did the photshopping

…created the image because, “it captured mine, and many others, frustration with this whole situation.”

More than 28,000 people shared the faked photo after…a Maplewood native who’s owned a south-county sign business for almost twenty years, posted it on Facebook with the (very incorrect) description: “You can’t make this up!!!!!”

… [The man who posted the image to Facebook] says he is surprised and saddened by the backlash to the photo he posted because “qualified investigators at all levels of government” concluded that Brown robbed the convenience store before his death.

Before I go on, let me first address the implication of the doctored sign that black people are always stealing from stores. FBI data show that approximately 70 percent of shoplifting arrestees are white. One study published in 2000 by two professors in Minnesota in the Journal of Education for Business found evidence that the typical shoplifter in their state was a white female between the ages of 25 and 50.

So there’s that.

No, Michael Brown was not an innocent.  You must know a teenager or two who is rebellious, troubled, in with the wrong crowd. He’s gotten into fights, dabbled in recreational drugs or underage drinking, stolen on a dare or to look cool for his friends, took his mom’s car out for a spin before he technically had his license, drove while intoxicated. Maybe it was you when you were young.

He is a good kid, he made a mistake…

(I was not even going to mention Ethan Couch, the teen who pled “affluenza” and was sentenced to rehab after killing four people while driving drunk, but I find I cannot help myself.)

When it is you, or your child, or a member of your community do you interpret these things as the actions of a dangerous thug who must be stopped at any cost? How we interpret the crime and the dangerousness of the perpetrator depends to a great extent on whether or not we see him as being “like us.”

An authority figure (a judge or a police officer) looks at a large, African-American teenager and makes a quick calculation. All kinds of mental associations go into that split second judgement. What type of person is this? Is he a good kid? How should I approach him? Is he armed? Should I be afraid? The teenager looks at the authority figure and in a split second he makes a judgement. Am I going to get a fair hearing with him? Is he going to treat me with respect? Is he going to shoot me? Should I be afraid?

Those perceptions are not easily legislated away, but we need to be honest about them and aware of them so we can devise ways for our system to correct for them.

Michael Brown robbed the store.

A person should not have to be innocent of all crime to avoid being shot to death.

Invisible Famine and the Whiteness Project

About a year ago I published a post here called The Invisible Famine in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  It has become one of my most popular posts. The article discusses my thoughts on discovering that most Americans are unaware that there is a famine in the parable of the prodigal son.  When you ask Russians what happens in the tale of the Prodigal Son you get a different result. Russians have strong recent memories of the horrors of the second world war in which thousands died of starvation and exposure. Famine is part of their cultural experience and understanding. This illustration from a blog called The Gospel Project makes it clear:

The American hears the parable like this:
Not many days later, the younger son gathered together all he had and traveled to a distant country, where he squandered his estate in foolish living. After he had spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he had nothing.
The Russian hears the parable like this:
Not many days later, the younger son gathered together all he had and traveled to a distant country, where he squandered his estate in foolish living. After he had spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he had nothing.

My reason for pointing this out, however, is not theological. The point is that human beings find it hard to understand problems with which we are not personally acquainted.  As I wrote in my original article:

I did not remember the famine. Like an optical illusion that reveals the existence of a vision void on the retina, this study made me aware that I have blind spots.  I like to think of myself as an empathetic person, but it is clear that suffering that I have not experienced personally is not fully real to me.   I can read a story and not even notice that it is there.   I can relate to the pain of your divorce, because I’ve had a break up.  I can grieve with you because I have suffered loss, but when you are experiencing a kind of pain that I have not, I might not just be unsympathetic, I might not even notice.  This does not make me exceptionally blase, it makes me human.

I was made aware of the invisible famine again today as I was reading an article about something called The Whiteness Project on a site called About Education. The project consists of white people discussing what it means to be white in the U.S.  The author of the About Education article, Nikki Lisa Cole summed up what she saw in the videos: “Racism does not exist. ‘White privilege’ is a myth. In fact, racial minorities have more privileges than whites. Black people have no one to blame but themselves for their problems.”

White privilege is an invisible famine. Being white means you do not have to deal with racial discrimination.  As the parable demonstrates, people only really see problems that they have personally experienced. White privilege means not having to be aware of white privilege. That makes it a tricky thing.

Let me give you an example from my own life. I was having a conversation once with an African-American friend. She was talking about a place I had lived (I will not say where). She said she had heard people were very racist there.  I started to say, “That was not my experience,” but then it occurred to me that my experience was not a particularly valuable measure of whether people were racist or not.  I would notice, of course, if there were signs for “colored” washrooms. But anything short of that could go on in my community and I would never know because I am white– it would never come up.

The fact that I tuned out the detail of the famine in the Prodigal Son does not mean it did not exist. Likewise, the fact that I can go through life mostly unaware of racism does not mean it does not exist. So what is a conscientious white person to do?

I will conclude with something I wrote in my original post on this topic: “The best I can do, now that I am aware of this fact, is to do my best not to forget it.  I may think I have a seamless image, but I don’t see everything.”

Family Structure is an Economic Challenge, But Not So Fast…

The Bride Ben Hoffman Abramowitz (American, born Brooklyn, New York 1917)

The Bride
Ben Hoffman Abramowitz
(American, born Brooklyn, New York 1917)

Back in the Victorian era, households did not resemble our own. The wealthy aristocrats presided over households which were like small villages, full of live-in servants and workers. The poor, of course, could not afford valets and ladies maids, but farm households, too, were multi-generational communities engaged in a mutual endeavor.

Charles Wheelan, a senior lecturer and policy fellow at the Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College is the author of “The Centrist Manifesto,” which calls for a new political party “of the middle.”  I appreciate his attempt to take a  non-partisan approach to the question of the impact of family structure on the economy in his recent article on U.S. News and World Report.  But I find it has a problem endemic to most articles on the topic– a narrow focus on marriage as the only family structure that could support children’s well-being.

Wheelan’s article references the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. The study shows that “the gap in economic outcomes between single-parent households and those headed by married couples is large and growing.”  Although Wheelan admits “causality is tricky here” ultimately he puts the blame on “the breakdown of the traditional family.” (To make this point, he rather unfortunately relies on Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report titled, “The Negro Family: The Case for Action.”)

In doing so, he fails to recognize the role a culture and policies that consider “traditional marriage” the only legitimate support structure for children might play in creating economic gaps between married and unmarried mothers.

As I have pointed out here before, a new study by Robert Moffit on government spending on social programs show that there has been a marked tendency over the past decades for voters to demand programs that separate the “undeserving” from the “deserving.”   And politicians use language that makes it clear that our social programs will give preference to the “Middle Class” deserving. American voters consider married people to be more deserving of assistance than unmarried people.

The idea here seems to be that women have made an informed choice, in a vaccuum, that they prefer welfare to marriage, as if those were the only two options. If those are seen as the only two choices for women, then it follows you would do all you could to encourage women to get married and stay married rather than to feed at the public trough.

According to the Moffit study I referenced above, aid to the poorest single-parent families in this country dropped 35 percent between 1983 and 2004. During that period, reforms substantially cut assistance to those with incomes below 50 percent of the poverty line, while expanding it to those between 50 percent and 100 percent of the poverty line and to those between 100 percent and 200 percent of the poverty line. As a result, these days “a family of four earning $11,925 a year likely [gets] less aid than a same-sized family earning $47,700.”

So what happens when you increasingly give priority to the married over the unmarried and shift economic aid from the second group to the first?

To quote Wheelan “the gap in economic outcomes between single-parent households and those headed by married couples is large and growing.”

You can perform a test as to whether it is marriage itself or economic policies that create the wealth gap by looking to other countries. It turns out that family composition in the US is not that much different from family compositions in Northern Europe, but they don’t have anywhere near the rates of child poverty we have. In case you were wondering, More than one in five American children fall below a relative poverty line, which UNICEF defines as living in a household that earns less than half of the national median. The United States ranks 34th of the 35 countries surveyed, above only Romania and below virtually all of Europe plus Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

Our attempts up to this point to encourage “traditional marriage,” therefore, do not seem to be solving the problem.

“Having a child out of wedlock is like dropping out of high school,” Wheelan wrote. This is true for women, but not for men. Men’s standard of living is actually improved by remaining unmarried. After a divorce, a man’s standard of living generally rises while the woman’s falls. So therefore these policies do not encourage marriage in general, they penalize and stigmatize female non-marriage while failing to address male non-marriage.

The question of the pay gap between men and women is a more urgent one for single women, and helps to explain differences in voting patterns between single and married women. If a man and a woman are married, and their money is pooled, it is not as important which one is making more. When a woman is reliant on her income alone she is already at an economic disadvantage as compared to an unmarried man even before you take into account the fact that she is most likely going to be the primary care giver of her children. (For more on the pay gap see my post Is Masculinity Unnatural.) So addressing the pay gap could be one technique for keeping children out of poverty.

The only real reference to fathers in the Wheelan article is a line that suggests African-American men are present but their relationships are “not durable.” “Family structure,” Wheelan says, “exacerbates racial gaps.” There are a lot of inferences here about cause and effect.

First off, notice that the U.S. News and World Report story is illustrated with a picture of a Hispanic mother and her child, not a white woman and her child. This re-enforces the idea that poverty is primarily a minority problem. In fact, the majority of the poor are white. Studies have shown that the more poverty is equated with minorities the more the problem is assumed to belong to “others” and the less inclined people feel to support “them.”  In fact, 40 percent of Americans will fall beneath the poverty line at some point in their lives, but most do not stay there long. Although the number of people beneath the poverty line and on public assistance remains fairly stable, the individuals who make up those groups are not. One person falls into poverty and another rises out of it.  Contrary to the popular image, the average poor single mother is white and suburban and she remains in poverty for a few years at the most.

When speaking about the durability of African-American families, it seems like a monumental oversight not to mention the structure of the criminal justice system and how disproportionately it impacts the lives of Black families. From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people. Today, the US is 5% of the World population and has 25% of world prisoners. African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population.  If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.

The causes for this are surely many, and it is an entire discussion itself. But without this information, there is the impression that Black men are mysteriously uninterested in being part of a family. Being married to a prisoner is probably not a huge improvement over being single when it comes to economic well-being and so encouraging marriage, in itself, is not likely to solve the problem of child poverty in this population.

When we talk about single mothers, we tend to use the language of personal choice responsibility. A single mother is assumed to have made a personal choice to be promiscuous, irresponsible or lazy as opposed to being unmarried because, say, her spouse died, (the military, incidentally, is disproportionately minority and working class),  she is gay and excluded from marriage in her state, her spouse was abusive, or her spouse went to prison, or she wanted to marry but was jilted or otherwise romantically unlucky.

Salon, today, ran an article arguing for a change in our tax and welfare priorities. That may be part of the solution, and is worth discussing, but it is not the point I am making here. Nor am I arguing against “traditional marriage.”  It is a great system that has worked well for many people, but it should not be the only tool in our belt.

In other cultures you might see great involvement of members of the extended family or the larger community in the care and well-being of children. We actively discourage this. We talk about adult children living in the same household as the older generation as if one of the parties was selfishly dependent on the other. (Rather than mutually supporting, as we talk about marriage.) We would consider platonic friends with children who lived together and shared household duties to be a bit strange, perhaps immature, and a bit suspect.

We can’t help children by stigmatizing the mothers they depend on. It exacerbates the very problems we are trying to solve. Focusing solely on marriage reduces the sphere of responsibility for children to two individuals. We limit discussion of how different support systems could operate and how our social institutions could be re-designed to better accommodate diverse types of families. Expanding the sphere of responsibility for families could create a firmer social foundation.