The Magazine

Shouting the Blues

A color-coded breakdown of the American family.

Aug 30, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 47 • By EVE TUSHNET
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Red Families v. Blue Families

Shouting the Blues

The Kardashian clan (plus Ryan Seacrest)

Jeff Vespa/WireImage

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. 

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