Michele Bachmann, one of the leading candidates in the race to become the Republican contender for the U.S. presidency next year, got into a bit of hot water when she appeared to suggest that slavery might have had some benefits for black families.
The controversy began when she signed a "marriage vow" put forward by Christian group The Family Leader, reaffirming the positive values of marriage. While she might have signed the pledge assuming it would enhance what you might call her "motherhood and apple pie" credentials, the preamble to the pledge had this to say:
"Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA's first African-American President."
Despite a clear denunciation of slavery as "disastrous" for black Americans, a number of commentators seemed to interpret it as somehow implying that slavery was beneficial for African-Americans.
The offending passage has since been removed from the pledge -- but is there any truth to the idea that slavery was somehow beneficial or at least not as bad as thought for African Americans?
Surprising as it may seem, one of the arguments made for the preservation of slavery before the American Civil War was that it was in fact beneficial for African Americans.
How could this possibly be? Well, they argued slavery is a way of protecting black people from the vicious world of the free market and from competition with whites in the jobs market. A slave will never have to worry about being unemployed, was the argument.
By extension, slaves never had to worry about being homeless, as they would be given accommodation of one kind or another by their masters.
All this is of course true in its own way, if somewhat distasteful (to say the least). After all one could say the same things about prisoners in a gulag or a death camp.
What about family matters? Is it really true that slaves had a better chance of being brought up by both parents than just one as is startlingly common today, even though they faced the risk of one parent being sold to a new owner, never to be seen again?
Well one would imagine that this is something that could be researched with relative ease, as it is surely a matter of fact one way or another. All that needs to be done is to check the figures for the relevant periods to see if the claim is true or not.
This is where The Family Leader appears to have gone wrong. First of all their controversial statement talks of a child "born in 1860" having a greater chance of being raised by two parents.
Well one fact that is not controversial is that a black child born in 1860 would no longer be a slave by their fifth or sixth birthday, thanks to the Union victory and the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865. Neither would their parents.
Had the Family Leader said a child born in, say, 1840, they might have been on to something. As it is, what they should have said is that newly freed slaves had a better chance of having stable two parent families than African Americans today.
If this were not mistake enough, it seems that the group made a real howler in that, according to Nate Silver of The New York Times, the research used to back up their claim actually covered the years 1880 to 1910, well after the 1860 date and the abolition of slavery in 1865.
It does not appear, from the language used, that the Family Leader or Ms. Bachmann intended to give an endorsement to slavery. Nevertheless, such poor use of facts and language mean that any noble motives behind the pledge have been tarnished if not lost in the mini media storm.
All this of course distracts from the main point, that family breakdown is a very serious problem, especially among African Americans. It may or may not be true that slave children were more likely to be brought up by both parents, but if research really does show that black American families were in better shape 100 years ago, when they still faced severe discrimination, than they are today, then it does not seem like such a bad thing for Ms. Bachmann, or anyone else for that matter to be concerned about it.