COMMENTARY: Anti-gay group decides slave children weren't really better off

All right, all right, so maybe the black family wasn’t better off during slavery. That’s the latest from a religious right organization that meant to attack same-sex marriage.

The conservative pro-family organization called THE FAMiLY LEADER (TFL) last week boldly issued a sweeping 14-point candidate pledge by which office-seekers would declare “a Dependence on MARRIAGE and FAMILY.” Entitled “The Marriage Vow,” the document’s original language included an astonishingly ham-fisted evaluation of black children born out of wedlock, suggesting that life for black children was better in bondage because both parents were more often present then than now: “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.”

Critics had a field day. “A good rule of thumb for empathizing with black Americans is avoiding suggestions that we were better off as property,” blogger Adam Serwer wrote at The American Prospect. Baratunde Thurston, co-founder of Jack & Jill Politics, wrote, “Who in the world thinks bringing up slavery to defend family is a good idea?” Thurston sarcastically pointed out that if one insisted on carrying the tortured logic a bit further, slaves could be seen as beneficiaries of free housing, health care and board, not to mention experiencing zero unemployment, plus plenty of fresh air and exercise.

Even many conservatives, some of whom tend to gush over political pledges, balked at this one. Blogger Mack Rawden, at the website Pop Blend, wrote, “I’ll throw my vote away to a third party before I help anyone who signs this disgusting Marriage Vow. … The Marriage Vow is not only stupid, it’s hateful, illogical and hypocritical. It pretends to defend the rights of some by pissing all over the rights of others.”

Two days after The Marriage Vow’s introduction, and after considerable bad press, the paragraph in question disappeared from the text posted on TFL’s website. What had started out as a public-relations attention-grabber had withered into an earnest, yet still oddly tentative, expression of contrition.

“After careful deliberation and wise insight and input from valued colleagues we deeply respect,” TFL said in a statement, “we agree that the statement referencing children born into slavery can be misconstrued, and such misconstruction can detract from the core message of the Marriage Vow: that ALL of us must work to strengthen and support families and marriages between one woman and one man. We sincerely apologize for any negative feelings this has caused, and have removed the language from the vow.”

That retraction did nothing for critics like Daily Kos blogger “Christian Dem in NC,” who wrote, “A ‘misconstruction’? A ‘misconstruction’? You suggest that even as blacks grew up without freedom or human dignity, they at least had two parents – and you call that just a ‘misconstruction’? Sorry, but as a black myself, I find this ‘apology’ almost as insulting as the original statement.”

In a phone interview, TFL spokeswoman Julie Summa told Politico’s Maggie Haberman: “We came up with the pledge and so we had no idea that people would misconstrue that. It was not meant to be racist or anything. It was just a fact that back in the days of slavery there was usually a husband and a wife … we were not saying at all that things are better for African-American children in slavery days than today.”

There was “usually a husband and wife”? Well, not really. Even where slave mothers and fathers (or slave men who acted as fathers, if, as often happened, the slave owner was a slave child’s biological sire) were on hand to rear their children, it was illegal for slaves to marry.

That’s according to Lorraine Blackman, an associate professor at Indiana University, who co-authored the very 2005 report TFL cited as the source of its data on black families. Speaking to Osha Gray Davidson of Forbes magazine about her team’s report, entitled “The Consequences of Marriage for African Americans,” Blackman criticized TFL’s comparison of black family life then and now. “That’s just wrong. That’s a serious error,” Blackman said. Not only could slaves not legally marry, she noted, but slave parents and children could be separated at the whim of their owner at any time. Indeed, Blackman’s research team found that after Emancipation, blacks all but stampeded to get married, and by 1950, from a starting point of near zero, 80% of all black families were headed by married couples. The precipitous drop-off in black married families – to 34% by 1996 – occurred after that.

It is true, as TFL points out, that more than 70% of black children in America today are born out of wedlock. Furthermore, the 2005 study suggested that improving rates of marriage among blacks would indeed help overall black quality of life, although some of its recommendations for accomplishing that might not appeal to conservatives – such as increasing job training and educational opportunities for black men as well as reviewing punitive drug sentencing policies to reduce incarceration rates, thereby improving the pool of marriageable black men.

The Marriage Vow takes predictable positions such as “faithful monogamy” (including the pledger’s personal vow to remain faithful to his or her spouse and not dally with anyone else’s) and emphatically rejecting same-sex marriage. But its 14 principles set forth rigidly conservative declarations on a range of issues, including abortion (protecting “the innocent fruit of conjugal intimacy”), welfare and tax policy, the national debt, downsizing of government, Islamic Shariah law (“and all other anti-woman, anti-human rights forms of totalitarian control”), gays in the military (referred to as “commingling among attracteds”) and even, subtly, immigration (“Recognition that robust childbearing and reproduction is beneficial to U.S. demographic … health and security,” which sure sounds like code for keeping people who don’t look like “us” from crossing the border).

THE FAMiLY LEADER, based in Des Moines, Iowa, identifies itself as an “associated partner” of Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, the latter designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. (For reasons not addressed on its website, the organization capitalizes all the letters of its name except the “i” – most likely to suggest that the individual is subordinate to the family.) Bob Vander Plaats, TFL’s president, has made three unsuccessful bids to become Iowa’s governor, and was Mike Huckabee’s Iowa campaign chair in 2008. Vander Plaats was instrumental in the campaign to remove three Iowa Supreme Court Judges who ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.

The organization’s primary education division, the Iowa Family Policy Center (IFPC), has received more than $3 million in federal grants since 2004, according to the Iowa Independent. IFPC president Chuck Hurley in March 2010 called homosexual activity “more dangerous for individuals who engage in it than is smoking,” and said legalized same-sex marriage would “lead to dramatically higher rates of HIV and syphilis,” according to the Independent.

To read the Hatewatch blog, click HERE.

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