How Conservatives LIke E.W. Jackson Damage Black Families

Terrance Heath

Republicans have a long and peculiar relationship with America’s “peculiar institution.” White conservatives can’t stop talking about it. One minute they declare that African-Americans should “get over slavery,” The next minute, they  suggest that Blacks should be grateful for slavery, as their “ticket to America.” Republicans have alternated between defending and justifying slavery, and  comparing everything they oppose to slavery. (And I do mean everything — from Social Security to health care reform, and everything in between.)

Lately, white conservatives have swung back towards extolling some of  slavery’s “virtues,” instead of defending it outright. I’d hoped, at least, that I wouldn’t hear the same “un-reconstructed” rhetoric from Black conservatives.

I should have known better.

In a speech earlier this week, Black conservative and Virginia’s Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, E.W. Jackson claimed that government social programs have done more harm to Black families than slavery.

The Virginia GOP’s nominee for lieutenant governor, E.W. Jackson, gave a speech Wednesday in which he claimed government social programs have done more harm to the “black family” than slavery. Jackson explained that “programs that began in the sixties” hurt the African-American community because they encouraged people to feel women did not need men “in the home.”

“My great grandparents, Gabriel and Elijah Jackson were slaves and sharecroppers in Orange County, Va. I am a direct descendant of slaves. My grandfather was born there, to a father and a mother who had been slaves. And by the way, their family was more intact than the black family is today and I’m telling you that slavery did not destroy the black family even though it certainly was an attack on the black family,” said Jackson. “It made it difficult, but I’ll tell you that the programs that began in the sixties, the programs that began to tell women that you don’t need a man in the home, the government will take care of you, that began to tell men, you don’t need to be in the home, the government will take care of this woman and take care of these children. That’s when the black family began to deteriorate.”

Jackson’s statement is the same old conservative attempt to blame progressive social policies for the “decline of marriage” and with “Black family” along with it. But the truth is that conservatives economic policies have been devastating  African-Americans, our communities, and our families for decades.

Not that it will matter to Gingrich, Santorum or many other conservatives, but a new Brookings Institute study shows that conservatives have it backwards on economic decline and declining marriage rates.

The Brookings Institute’s Hamilton Project is out with a new study showing a strong correlation between income and marriage. While marriage rates have dropped as a whole over the last few decades, there’s been much a steeper decline in marriage among low-income Americans. Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney suggest that one reason for that drop is that labor-market changes that have altered marriage prospects for those trying to make ends meet, countering conservative claims that social norms and values are responsible for the trend.

Marriage rates among lower-income men and women have declined, but Greenstone and Looney offer different explanations for each gender. Among men, they say, those “that experienced the most adverse economic changes also experienced the largest declines in marriage” between 1970s and the present day.

By contrast, women have made big gains in the labor market over the past few decades. But their greater participation in the workforce–combined with a low-income male population, increasing prison rates for men, high unemployment and diminished earning power–has also kept more women from marrying. As s result, there’s a similar, if less dramatic, correlation between income and marriage among women

… Like Algernon Austin posted back in September, less income means less marriage.

The New York Times recently provided a perfect illustration of the dynamics behind the declining marriage rate in its story on Reading, Pa., the city with the highest poverty rate in the country in 2010. It featured the story of Ashley Kelleher, a waitress at an International House of Pancakes, who has been supporting her three children as well as the father of two of them.

“For the past five years, it has been me paying the bills,” she said. Kelleher said she wants to get married someday, but only to a partner who is financially stable. The man she is with now, however, is not.

Social conservatives have looked everywhere for explanations for the decline of heterosexual marriage, everywhere but the American economy. But the research on this issue clearly shows that financially insecure men are less likely to marry.

We can see the relationship between men’s earnings and marriage in the figure below. The figure shows “less money, less marriage,” to quote the authors of a recent report from Pew Social and Demographic Trends. Although the Pew research shows “no significant differences by education or income in the desire to get married,” the less money a male has, the less likely he will actually marry.

The biggest crisis African-American families face right now is the jobs recession, which has brought Depression-era levels of unemployment to our communities and families, and widened already persistent gaps in employment and income between African-Americans and white Americans.

If anything, conservatives like E. W. Jackson further damage Black families by promoting very  the conservative economic polices that have devastated Black  families, and making it even easier for white conservatives continue to do the same.  It’s much easier for white conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum to play their race cards and blow their dog-whistles if they can point to black conservatives like Jackson doing and saying the same things.

What Jackson calls the “deterioration” of African-Americans could be halted and reversed by reversing the conservative economic policies that led to it in the first place.

A brother generally needs a paycheck before he can afford to “put a ring on it.” A 2006 poll conducted by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University found that “Black men report the same ambitions as most Americans — for career success, a loving marriage, children, respect.” But in this recession black male unemployment has reached depression era levels. Some 8% of us lost our jobs between 2007 and 2009.

You want to promote marriage in African American communities? Start with job creation.

You want to create jobs in African American communities? Stop giving corporations tax breaks for off-shoring jobs, and bring back manufacturing jobs. The thirty-year slow bleed of manufacturing jobs out of this country hurt African Americans disproportionately. In 1979, almost one in four African American workers had manufacturing jobs. By 2008, fewer than one-in-ten were in manufacturing.

Black men were hit particularly hard, because they were over-represented in those jobs. In many cases, these were  the best jobs black men could get, and often the only “good jobs” that were open to them. I say this as a college educated African American man, and the son of a father who laced up his work boots, put on a hard hat, and carried an industrial strength lunchbox to work every day, because he didn’t work behind a desk.

… If you want more marriages like my parents’ 50-year, “tip-death-do-us-part” marriage, and more men like my father, you’d better start with more jobs like his.

You want to create jobs in African American communities? Stop attacking unions that made those “good jobs” good through collective bargaining, and helped build the black middle class. Stop attacking unions that were in the forefront of the civil rights movement. It’s no coincidence that the decline in manufacturing jobs that impacted many African Americans was paralleled by a decline in African American representation in unions.

…You want to create jobs in African American communities? Stop attacking public employees, like teachers.

…When you attack public workers and eliminate their jobs, you are killing jobs in African American communities; you are attacking the futures and dreams of children such I was, and as my son is.

You want to create jobs in African American communities? Stop attacking regulatory agencies that are mandated to protect our communities, which are overburdened with dangerous pollution. Stop attacking the regulations that keep our communities free of toxins that poison the body and cripple the mind, just so the facilities and corporations that dump their waste in our communities can save a few extra dollars. Stop endangering our health and our children’s future for the sake of your corporate backers’ bottom lines.

… Pontificating about cultural dysfunction in poor communities while doing nothing about the systemic and structural policy decisions that keep those communities poor, merely blames black men and women for not getting married when they don’t have the economic means support the commitment — shifting the narrative, and responsibility, away from conservative policies. It ensures that our communities will continue to suffer, the consequences of those policies.

Jackson’s argument is reminiscent of “The Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence upon MARRIAGE and FAMILY,” written by an Iowa-based Christian organization, and signed by Michelle Bachman during her campaign. The first bullet point of the statement  could have been lifted right out of Jackson’s speech.

“Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American President.”

As I wrote at the time of the controversy around the Bachman statement, slave narratives like those of Sam and Louisa Everett  and John W. Fields make it clear that slave families were subject to forced separations and forced marriages.

As it happens, I am in the middle of reading through the four volume collection of Georgia slave narratives recorded by the Federal Writers’ Project between 1936 and 1938. Though wide ranging and varied, these recollections of former slaves are replete with both subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that slaves had no legal rights or families ties that their owners were bound to recognize.

Again and again, I’ve read the words of formers slaves as they told interviewers that they had no idea where their children, or their brothers and sisters were. I’ve read stories of husbands being sold away from wives, and mothers being sold away form their newborn infants. I’ve read of former slaves recalling that because their parents worked so long and so hard they had little time to look after their own children, that job usually fell to elderly slaves too old for hard labor (and probably too old to sell for a profit). I’ve read of children who experience so little childhood that they never learned ‘how to play,” as they were put to work as soon as they were big enough.

The reason I’m delving in to these narratives is because, like Jackson, I am a descendant of slaves. I took up genealogy during my college years, and discovered not only that my great-great-great grandfather was a slave, but the slave schedule revealed the name of the slaveowner. Further research uncovered the location of the still-standing plantation house, and the existence of a nearby cemetery where the families slaves were buried.

At the time, I had no way of discovering who my great-great-great-great grandparents were, because slaves were not listed as families in the 1850 slave schedule. They were merely listed in descending order by age, and classified by gender. They were chattel, after all. It made no more sense to group them as families, for the purpose of what was essentially an inventory of property than, than it did to group cattle in the same manner.

I returned to my research recently, and was surprised to find that others on my family tree had uncovered what I could not many years ago. My family tree now includes at least four generations of slaves, going back beyond the revolutionary war. It also now includes all the unknowns that were a reality for slave families. In some cases, only a mother is identified, and whether the father is absent brecause he was sold away or couldn’t be identified for other reasons remains unknown. Some branches end abruptly, for the same reasons.

A few years ago, I wrote that the experience of identifying slave ancestors changed my understanding of slavery. That which I knew on an intellectual level, has become more personal. I haven’t yet found the recollections of any of my relatives in the slave narratives. But reading them with the knowledge of my own deep personal connection to that history makes it a lot more real to me. Too real to stand for Jackson’s rank politicizing of it.

It’s bad enough that Jackson comes off as all but defending slavery. But Jackson not only disrespects his ancestors and mine when he uses their lives and our history to make cheap, crass political points, but he does a disservice to their descendants — his brother and sisters, and mine — by using our shared history to perpetuate the very destruction of Black families he claims he wants to stop.


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