One of the more puzzling aspects of Obama’s win has been the extent to which people have argued that the symbolism of his presidency will remove some huge psychic encumbrance from the souls of black people and compel Negroes to “do better.” (At that Princeton lecture shani-o and I went to, a white guy asked Michael Nutter if Obama’s prominence would mean an improvement in the sholastic performance of black boys.)
Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution makes another argument along these lines, by positing that the Obamas could make marriage a more attractive option for black people.
In 2006, The Washington Post published an op-ed essay by writer Joy Jones with the provocative headline “Marriage Is for White People.” The headline didn’t reflect Jones’ views; it repeated “what one of my students told me some years back when I taught a career exploration class for sixth-graders at an elementary school in southeast Washington.
“I think I’ll invite some couples in to talk about being married and rearing children,” she told the class. ” ‘Oh, no,’ objected one student. ‘We’re not interested in the part about marriage. Only about how to be good fathers.’ And that’s when the other boy chimed in … ‘Marriage is for white people.’ “
That sixth-grader was likely reflecting his environment, which may not have included many black married couples. While 62 percent of white adults and 60 percent of Latino adults are married, only 41 percent of black adults are.
The Obamas are already burdened by the baggage of cultural expectations, but I’ll go ahead and add another sack to their load: Here’s hoping their presence on the national stage will erase that sixth-grader’s wrongheaded notion. Marriage is an equal-opportunity institution, no matter color, creed or sexual orientation.
“I was really excited when I saw the Obama family on the [TV] screen [on Nov. 4] because I meet so many young African-Americans who, frankly, have never seen an intact family like this,” said Leah Ward Sears, chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court and a board member of the Institute for American Values, which promotes marriage. “I’m hopeful [the Obamas] will be a brand-new model of what the ideal is, even if many, many of us will fall short of the ideal,” she added.
Leaving aside for a second that sixth-graders probably make for shitty cultural barometers, there’s not a lot of evidence that black people are dramatically more likely than other groups to not want to be married. Tucker goes on to list some of the benefits of married life — more sex, higher wages, better monitoring of health, etc. — but those and similar benefits have been trumpeted over and over, and people still aren’t jumping the broom. That probably means those benefits are not, by themselves, compelling enough to make people choose marriage, so people need to come up with better arguments in its favor.
Barring that, the folks making this argument seem to conveniently ignore that the decision to marry (or not) is made using some complicated personal calculus. And it’s probably safe to say that there are likely structural reasons for such low rates of marriage among a population that is still generally so churched and socially conservative.
The Obamas were not the beginning, of course; the Huxtables were (and are still) championed as the ideal black family template in a lot of circles. The logic in this idea is pretty flimsy, as Ta-Nehisi points out in his Time essay.
The belief in Obama as a force for moral reform rests on another shaky pillar — the idea that people should get their values from what they see on television. This goes for entertainers and Presidents.
More or less. If constant exposure to an idea via TV does result in a dramatic paradigm shift, there’s no reason to think it happens absent a lot of other factors, or that it’s even close to the biggest one.