Red Families v. Blue Families
Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture
by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone
Oxford, 304 pp., $29.95
In 1998, Fugees frontwoman and single mother Lauryn Hill scored a hit with her hip-hop ode to her son Zion, in which she described how the people around her had pressured her to abort him: “They said, ‘Lauryn baby, use your head’ / But instead I chose to use my heart. / Now the joy of my world is in Zion!”
Hill’s voice won’t be found in Naomi Cahn’s and June Carbone’s deeply flawed, intermittently important book. In fact, Red Families v. Blue Families contains virtually no voices representing alternatives to the elite lifestyle of contraception, college (and probably postgraduate) education, and late childbearing. The book is replete with numbers, but because it incorporates very little qualitative research—in which the voices behind the numbers might get a chance to explain themselves—it’s impossible to gauge the accuracy of Cahn/Carbone’s analyses of the reasons behind the American class-based marriage gap.
Judging by my admittedly limited experience, Red Families offers a sanitized picture of elite family life—ignoring the degree to which shame, and abortion in response to shame, shapes elite young women’s choices—and a distorted picture of underclass and lower middle-class family life, explaining class-based differences in out-of-wedlock childbearing and pregnancy as a result of lack of access to contraception, which is one of the very few explanations I think I’ve literally never heard from any lower-income woman.
Although Cahn/Carbone clearly want to offer solutions to the multiple and conflicting crises in American family structures, solutions which respect and can be accommodated by a wide variety of different communities and world views, they are ultimately unable to articulate or understand any alternative to what they’ve (somewhat crudely) decided to call the blue family model.
“Blue families,” a term which they acknowledge has highly limited relevance to racial minorities who often follow “red family” models while voting Democratic, delay childbearing at least until the late twenties, often well into the thirty-
something years. They contracept consistently and effectively, get pricey educations, and have abortion to back them up when even the most controlled birth control fails. (The abortion rates of blue states are higher than those of red states, though that difference does not fully explain the fact that out-of-wedlock childbirth rates are lower in prototypical blue states. If red staters contracepted as effectively as blue staters, and all other factors were held equal as of course they never are, the red states would still have more unwed mothers and fatherless children.) Although they can afford a lot of kids, the blue staters have very few: two, maybe one. Cahn/Carbone characterize this as privileging “investment” in children, quality over quantity.
Red families preach abstinence until marriage but practice divorce and unwed childbearing. They don’t abort their children, but neither do they marry for life. They marry early and divorce much more than their blue state counterparts. They’re also poorer, for the most part, and their income levels are pretty obviously both cause and symptom of their fractious family structure.
There are many good points to this analysis. Cahn/Carbone note how completely “abstinence until marriage” has been discarded at all levels of American society. It is not possible to address the needs of American families without first acknowledging that almost no one actually lives the way that, for example, the Roman Catholic Church thinks we should.
In their final and best chapter, Cahn/Carbone also offer a passionate call for a radical restructuring in how our economy accommodates parents and parents-to-be. The unionized factory jobs which stereotypically supported a breadwinner-homemaker family, where the spouses married right after high school, have been replaced by service- and-information-economy jobs which require highly specialized education and licensing: fields like cosmetology and medical-information processing. This volatile economy requires a much more flexible structure in which work, family, and education can interweave.
Red Families is frustratingly vague on how this interweaving and flexibility could actually work—and the authors have a depressingly unimaginative tendency to answer every question with “Let the government do it,” as if the regulatory state has been the expert advocate for the needs and interests of the poor—but the book’s willingness to call the basic structure of the American economy into question is deeply necessary. Cahn/Carbone point out the places where our economic and governmental structures have not caught up with the needs of contemporary American couples and their children.
But the many good things in Red Families are obscured by the authors’ relentless, unsubtle framing of every question from within a blue-family mindset so deeply internalized that perhaps the authors themselves don’t realize what they’re doing. They don’t want to come across as if they’re telling Mississippians to abort more kids so they write this sentence, which opens the sixth chapter: “Contraception is the indispensable element of the blue family paradigm; abortion, in contrast, is the regrettable but necessary fallback.” If you can tell the difference between “indispensable” and “necessary,” you are a subtler thinker than I am.
And while they don’t want to come across as if they’re telling Alabamans what to value, they fail to articulate a worldview in which early childbearing is an accomplishment, a form of contributing to society, and abortion is a tragedy rather than a solution. Coerced and regretted abortions are entirely absent from their discussion, and again, no actual low-income men and women get a chance to describe their reasoning, and their hopes and fears and loves.
Meanwhile, the authors waste time and page count on simplistic psychologizing of traditionalists vs. modernists and conservatives vs. liberals, in which the righties lack the “flexible” morality, attuned to “context,” of their lefty counterparts. I wonder whether self-proclaimed conservatives or liberals are most likely to be nuanced and attuned to context on the issues of torture, the death penalty, and spanking? These pop science descriptions of why people disagree with us are often comforting but rarely illuminating.
Class is the intersection of economic status and culture. It doesn’t describe merely income level or purchasing power or “net worth.” Cahn/Carbone are trying—genuinely, poignantly trying—to offer solutions to our country’s family crises which respect the diversity of our beliefs. But they consistently view poor or nonelite Americans as simply elite Americans without the resources to act on the values they obviously share with the authors. And so they ignore the most important fact about class: It changes the definition of words. “Responsibility,” a Red Families motif, is always used to mean postponing childbearing—and not, as it means to many nonelite women, accepting early childbearing and rejecting abortion.
There’s a telling aside in the final chapter. Cahn/Carbone describe the 2008 Republican platform on work/family integration and add a sardonic parenthetical remark: “So long as [new regulations have] no negative impact on productivity.” This might be the book’s sole acknowledgment—and it’s a dismissive one—that there may be trade-offs in life. For the rest, we are meant to believe that not merely in the long term, but even in the short, a massive expansion of government regulation and a campaign to get “red staters” to embrace the Pill, will have no adverse consequences. We are asked to believe that there is no tension between the economic and the spiritual. In Red Families the rich man always passes through the needle’s eye.
Our family structures are shaped largely by economic pressures—but also, and importantly, by what we find beautiful. How do we recognize love? How do we corral desire, honoring some forms of its expression and restricting others? Our marriage traditions, along with our extended kinship networks, used to offer models beautiful enough to inspire sacrifice. An approach which focuses solely on the economics of sex and procreation can do some good, but—as Red Families unfortunately proves—it can’t comprehend the full range of human motives.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington.