I’ll spare you the suspense: I think not. Now read on for the rest.
Here’s my position: I’ve never had an abortion. And I don’t think I ever will. I have friends and family who have. I am staunchly pro-choice. I was kind of pro-choice before having children. I am even more so after having children. It’s a responsibility only those who truly want to do it should take on. We don’t support parents in this country. And arguments about all the people who want unwanted kids are BS. Look at how long kids stay in foster care.
So here’s the deal. As I regularly troll the internets for stories about black children and black mothering, I came across this op-ed from Dennis Byrne, a columnist at the Chicago Tribune, commenting on the billboards across the country that try to shame black women into not having abortions. Although he is neither black nor a woman (his words), he thought it his (duty? calling?) prerogative to comment on the “high abortion rate among blacks.” Here’s the gist:
Political correctness and ideological dictates discourage discussion of the culture of some black communities as explanative of violence, ignorance, high rates of abortion and other dysfunctions. But for those communities, culture is described by the growth of a matriarchy, as displayed by the many grandmothers raising their daughters’ children. By the absence of men in child rearing. By men who prey on young women who have never learned what to expect from decent, caring and responsible men. By the collapse of the family and the destruction of men’s and women’s traditional, balanced roles in making children strong enough to resist the challenges of today’s broader culture of irresponsibility, casual sex, substance abuse and other plagues.
In this op-ed, Byrne rehashes an old, but reborn, theory: that there is something intrinsic to black “culture,” independent of any outside factors, that accounts for the disproportionate numbers of abortions in black communities.
This makes my blood boil. One, because as a scholar who studies culture, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
First: on culture. Byrnes defines culture as “the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic or age group.” Um, not quite, homie. Where do these beliefs and behaviors come from? They don’t just spring forth from the middle of the earth, waiting for people to adopt them. Culture is not “created” nor does not exist in a vacuum. Culture is both responsive to and part of shaping structure; many sociologists, such as myself, explain culture as the opposite side of the coin to social structure. The growth of a matriarchy (which is largely a myth, I believe to demonize black women) and the dearth of men available to actually father their children are events, happenings; they are not culture. Nor did not happen outside of the influences of social structure. Many factors colluded to affect that outcome: collapse of manufacturing industry; subsequent high rates of black male unemployment; mass incarceration; felon disenfranchisement; the crack cocaine epidemic.
Culture reflects options available within a given social structure. Yes, people make choices, and they have agency. But agency is not what we think it is as total free will, ability to choose anything and everything. Culture reflects what one BELIEVES to be their options, what one can do with what one is given. So black “culture” can never be defined as one thing, one way of being, one way of behaving. Because we live in a myriad of structural positions, and some of us have options that are not available to others and vice versa. And among the options, some of us choose #1 and others choose #4 and so on.
The “collapse” of the family structure is less to do with any possible independent effects of culture than with the structural effects of class. As I’ve discussed here before, a class structure that allowed for families of any configuration to make a decent living would have more time for child rearing. A school system that did not grossly and blatantly favor wealthier children over less wealthy children would be one in which all women could be educated enough to take care of themselves, and not fall “prey” to vicious and violent men.
If you want to change how people behave, you need to change their options. You need to change what is available to them. You need to change their structural reality.
And two, if the pro-choice side is the “right” side, why should we care about disproportionality?
Making arguments about cultures connection to disproportionality makes clear that true intentions are to get rid of the option to abort altogether. For if you are pro-choice, do you even care about disproportionality? Or rather, should you? If you believe that anytime a woman gets pregnant but for some reason – any reason – does not want to go forward with that pregnancy, she should have the right to choose to end the pregnancy, then every abortion should look the same to you. Regardless of the race of the woman. Disproportionality then appears to be that black women are having more unwanted or mistimed pregnancies, but are also using this option, the option to terminate, more than other women.
This can be interpreted multiple ways, but I’ll offer two that I find the most liberating. First is that black women are more aware of their reproductive rights, are more in tune with what they do and do not want, and are more willing to choose to abort. If you are pro-choice, this doesn’t seem to be a problem – black women are, in not the best language, taking advantage of exactly the right Roe v. Wade stood for – the right to make a decision about your body without anyone else second-guessing you or interfering. Calling these numbers a problem feeds into the idea that black women are not capable, or are somehow ignorant (or culturally deficient), of making this decision for themselves.
Second, this can be interpreted as other women – white, Latino, Asian – are not as gender liberated as black women. Bryne in the article above – as do many men – lament the “matriarchy” in the black community as a disruption of “balanced” gender roles. Who said gender roles had to be balanced? Instead of considering that black women are having too many abortions, maybe women of other races are having too few. In other words, women of other races are less willing to have abortions when they actually would choose to under different structural circumstances. Again, with culture as the flip side of structure, women of other races may feel as though their options (culture) are limited, despite Roe v. Wade, given their structural position.
This is not to say that black women do not experience and live under patriarchy. They absolutely do. But the facts are that black women are less likely to marry than other groups. Not being legally bound to your oppressor is sure to make a difference.
Spoken from a sociologist who studies culture: If you want black women to stop having abortions, if that is your true goal, you need to change their world. You need to make it so that there are no reasons for why a pregnancy would be unwanted or mistimed.
A billboard does not change the world. It just pisses people off.