While I’ve been mesmerized along with the rest of the country by Charlie Sheen’s kooky public rantings, it’s former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee whose off-the-wall soundbites are really grabbing my attention.
The Republican 2012 presidential hopeful has made several controversial comments in recent days that threaten to outdo even the “bi-winning-est” Sheen quotes. And unlike Charlie Sheen, Huckabee is actively seeking public office (no Charlie, that is not an invitation), so his views hold somewhat more serious repercussions for the lives of American citizens, especially poor people and minorities.
First, Huckabee made “birther”-like comments, incorrectly stating that President Obama grew up in Kenya, then saying he meant Indonesia (he actually grew up in predominately in Hawaii), and making ignorant assumptions about the potential effects of a childhood spent abroad on Obama’s patriotism and his ability to relate to the “average American”.
WATCH MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY DISCUSS BIAS AGAINST SINGLE MOMS ON ‘THE LAST WORD’:
“One thing that I do know is his having grown up in Kenya, his view of the Brits, for example, (is) very different than the average American,” said Huckabee on Monday at the New York radio station WOR. “Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings and, you know, our communities were filled with Rotary Clubs, not madrassas.” [Emphasis mine.]
As if these comments about Obama’s upbringing weren’t ignorant enough, later in the same interview, Huckabee issued a worrisome condemnation of single mothers:
One of the things that’s troubling is that people see a Natalie Portman or some other Hollywood starlet who boasts of, ‘Hey look, you know, we’re having children, we’re not married, but we’re having these children, and they’re doing just fine.’ But there aren’t really a lot of single moms out there who are making millions of dollars every year for being in a movie. And I think it gives a distorted image that yes, not everybody hires nannies, and caretakers, and nurses. Most single moms are very poor, uneducated, can’t get a job, and if it weren’t for government assistance, their kids would be starving to death and never have health care. And that’s the story that we’re not seeing, and it’s unfortunate that we glorify and glamorize the idea of out of children wedlock.
This is the portion of Huckabee’s statement has been widely reported, and it’s offensive for a variety of reasons, most pressingly that it’s factually incorrect. As Melissa Harris-Perry, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, recently pointed out, data from a 2009 report on unmarried parents show that 80 percent of custodial single mothers are gainfully employed and fewer than 10 percent are recipients of Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). And the rates of poverty among single parents do not approach the “most” which Huckabee claims. Beyond presenting bad data, Huckabee’s claims falsely demonize women who have the audacity to raise children on their own, casting moral judgment on a diverse and vibrant group of women without even so much of a nod to their largely positive social contributions— or their male counterparts. By perpetuating the myth that single mothers and their supporters are out to attack the nuclear family model by “glorfying” and “glamorizing” their reproductive choices, Huckabee is recalling an era in which the political scapegoating of a fictitious category of American women known as so-called “welfare queens” was not only tolerated, but acceptable. It was bad enough back then, but it’s 2011 now, and there should be no room for this kind of thinly veiled misogyny in modern political rhetoric.
As if this all weren’t bad enough, Huckabee waited until the end of his rant to identify the real target of his attack: minorities, and more specifically, poor minority women. Though the racial elements of the rest of his misguided diatribe have received considerably less attention, Huckabee in fact went on to say:
You know, right now, 75 percent of black kids in this country are born out of wedlock. 61 percent of Hispanic kids — across the board, 41 percent of all live births in America are out of wedlock births. And the cost of that is simply staggering.[Emphasis mine.]
Now I’m not one to get unnecessarily worked up about someone else’s ignorance. If a random Joe Schmoe were making comments like these, it would hardly be newsworthy. But Huckabee’s views matter because of his considerable political clout: he is currently the most popular GOP presidential prospect among the Republican base, according to a recent Gallup poll. It’s clear that something about his message is resonating with Republican will-be voters. The scope of his influence is even more troubling considering how false and misleading his statement about black motherhood is. Let’s take a look at the facts.
While most experts agree that among blacks nationally, about 69 percent of black babies are born out of wedlock, as Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor for The Atlantic, points out that the data also shows that unmarried black women are having less, not more, kids then they were having 40 years ago.
How can it be true that unmarried black women are having less kids, and yet the number of black babies born out of wedlock is at 70 percent? Coates explains: Birth rates for married black women have declined, so much so that they’re actually lower than those of married white women. As a result, the proportion of births to unmarried black women remains high.
Which means that the “illegitimacy” figure of 70 percent has more to do with the choice by married black women to have less children than it does with the behavior of single black women.
Lower birth rates? Black women exercising autonomy in deciding when and how to have children? It’s hard not to wonder if these real facts about minority motherhood in America would resonate quite so strongly with Huckabee’s socially conservative base, especially given recent GOP attacks on policies and investments that would preserve this choice for minority and non-minority women alike.
But one thing is certain. By casting single mothers with one giant, disrespectful net, and targeting minorities in particular, Huckabee is playing with fire. The nation has changed a lot since Newt Gingrich launched his attacks on “welfare queens” in the ‘90s, and the “real America” I know is significantly more hostile to such race-baiting and false attacks.
Today, in 2011, single women are a voting block to be courted, not dissed. If the GOP wants to have a chance at Obama in 2012, someone should send their candidates the memo: stop making statements that betray your anti-intellectual, anti-single mother worldview. Either that, or just change your worldview. Your call.