Did I mention that they’re brown?

Shakesville tipped me to yet another article about single mothers that handles the race and ethnicity issue badly. The CNN article shows a beautiful picture of a pretty-enough-to-be-an-actress white woman with her dream wedding (which included her 10 month old child – gasp!) in the same idyllic intro with two of the mass media’s favorite single moms: Angelina Jolie and Bristol Palin. If you bother to click through to the second photo, you see a much less flattering picture of a black mother and her baby, whose boyfriend of five years and the father of the child is nowhere to be seen, although he is still involved, according to the article.

Experts wring their hands over the loss of stigma associated with so called “out-of-wedlock” birth. Brown, of the The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, says “I wish people spent as much time planning when to get pregnant, with whom, under what circumstances as they do planning their next vacation.” Yes, 50% of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, regardless of the marital status of the participants. Is there any mention of what planning a pregnancy would entail? No, of course not.

Then, the article links to a breakdown of births to single mothers based on race and age. On the one hand, this information is significant when looking at the big picture of single parenting, since certain groups don’t seem to have a stigma associated with single parenting. The article horribly mishandles the statistics on these groups, saying, “While 28 percent of white women gave birth out of wedlock in 2007, nearly 72 percent of black women and more than 51 percent of Latinas did.”

Umm, no. Nearly 72% of black women weren’t even pregnant in 2007. This may seem like a minor detail to the author, but her denominator is wrong. Nearly 72% of women who GAVE BIRTH in the United States in 2007 who were identified as black were also identified as unmarried. Big difference than all black women. Anyone who is writing for CNN on epidemiological issues should know the importance of the correct denominator, which is key to discussing public health numbers.

My biggest question is, why is there so much focus on the racial and ethnic breakdown of the mothers in this particular article? Why is there no mention of contraception? If there was some analysis that was pertinent to the current statistics that had something to do with race or ethnicity, I would be interested. However, as the preliminary data from the National Center for Health Statistics suggests, the latest increases occurred over all racial and ethnic groups. So, while it is true that black women are much more likely in general to become single mothers, it has absolutely nothing to do with the most recent increase. A 20% increase in the ratio of births attributed to the unmarried in the past five or so years is a big deal, statistically. It apparently crosses all racial and ethnic lines, and is independent of age. So, why does this article, and others on similar topics, spend so much time (with interactive graphs!) on the racial and ethnic breakdown of the single mothers? It seems to be easier to point at the brown people than to wonder what is changing with everybody, regardless of brown-ness.

So, any discussion of abstinence only education, increasing contraception costs, loss of employer-paid insurance, refusal of insurance to cover contraception, the stigmatization of contraception by the religious right, decreased availability of abortion, increasing obstacles for minors to have access to abortion or other factors which may have actually had an influence on these new record breaking numbers are completely swept under the rug. The graphs and a few paragraphs tell us what we apparently already know – for generations, black culture in America has not emphasized the importance of marriage in parenting – and that racial disparity becomes the scapegoat of an article on the latest increase in single parenting, when it is nothing new and hardly relevant to the increase.

Any discussion of why children of single parents have higher rates of poverty or high school drop out rates is absent. Is it because their parents are unmarried? Or, as I am going to assume, are the 40% of babies born to single mothers more likely to face hardships if the single mother in question has darker skin, less income, less resources, and is younger? Where is this racial and ethnic analysis or the poor outcomes? Maybe the single parenting issue is simply a confounder of a greater societal problem. Maybe poor, brown, and ethnically disadvantaged children do worse, period. I don’t think Bristol Palin’s child is going to face the same problems as a child born to a teenager who isn’t white, rich, and the daughter of a governor.

The beautiful woman at the top of the page who had her dream wedding with her white now-husband and white child probably won’t have as bad outcomes as some of the teen mothers in the same article. Why was she chosen as the poster child for this article? Was it, as it seems to me, that her wedding photo was a stark contrast to the photo of the proud single black mother? If 72% of black women who gave birth last year were single and that is such an important point, why isn’t a black woman at the top of this article as the main photo? Is this white woman’s wedding on an organic farm 10 months after the birth of her first child really news worthy? Or is it just easier to gossip about her, Bristol and Angelina and how we wished a stronger stigma made them more shameful, lest they end up like those browner women who already just don’t seem to care if they are married?

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One response to “Did I mention that they’re brown?

  1. Pingback: Weekly News Round-Up « Women’s Health News

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