What If Bristol Palin Were Black?

An invitation for Thora Institute readers in the D.C. Area

Join Algernon Austin, Julianne Malveaux and Deepak Bhargava in celebrating the launch of the Economic Policy Institute's Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy. This program is directed by Algernon Austin.

Julianne Malveaux, President of Bennett College for Women and author, will introduce the program.

Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director of the Center for Community Change, will discuss the importance of race and ethnicity for community organizing.

Algernon Austin, program director, will briefly discuss the program's agenda and goals and provide highlights from new research on the recent economic experience of African Americans.

An informal reception will follow.

Thursday, September 18, 2008, from 5:30 p.m to 7:00 p.m.
Economic Policy Institute
1333 H Street, NW, East Tower, Suite 300
Washington, DC 20005

Cocktails and assorted refreshments

Please RSVP by Monday, September 15, 2008

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I’ve spent the past week wondering what planet am I on. In the 1990s, the Republican Vice President, Dan Quayle made a point of condemning the out-of-wedlock birth of a fictional television character for setting a bad example. Now we have a candidate for the Vice Presidency with a teenaged daughter with a real out-of-wedlock pregnancy. For social conservatives, I would have expected this development to be a huge affront to their conception of “family values” in a family that could be expected to be a role model for the country. I waited for the blast of outrage. It never came.

From the news reports, social conservatives seem to range from indifferent to celebratory about this out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy. The New York Times reported:
Early reaction among women at the Republican convention to the news about Bristol Palin’s pregnancy was almost uniformly supportive.

“This happens to people in all walks of life,” said Karen Minnis, 54, a state representative from Oregon.

. . . “She comes from a great family and it just shouldn’t be an issue.”

When Pam Younggren, 61, of Fargo, N.D., was told the news of the 17-year-old’s pregnancy, she shrugged. “Well, she wouldn’t be the first one,” she said.

“We can’t control what our daughters do,” she said. “I don’t see it as a problem.”
There were similar reactions in another Times story:
In Alaska and here in the convention halls in St. Paul, some said Ms. Palin’s struggles only made her more human, more like them.

“She’s real, and she’s been there,” said Rachel Paulding, 25, of Hatcher’s Pass, Alaska, near Anchorage. “She has got five kids, and some of them are bound to have problems. That is just normal life.”

And in Minnesota, Kris Bowen, an alternate delegate from Indiana, said she now felt more connected to Ms. Palin. “Now she’s a typical American family,” said Ms. Bowen, the mother of two boys ages 10 and 12. “On an individual level, every single person is thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, that has happened to me or someone I know or I’m afraid it will.’ ”
This does not seem at all like Dan Quayle’s Republican Party.

I’ve also been waiting for Bill Cosby, Juan Williams and Orlando Patterson to “call out” Bristol Palin for her bad behavior. These three have been leading the condemnations of black youth for the past four years. Their favorite topics have been teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births. Cosby has disapproved of the apparent acceptance of out-of-wedlock teen births:
No longer is a person embarrassed because they’re pregnant without a husband. . . . If you knock up that girl, you’re gonna have to run away because it’s going to be too embarrassing for your family. And in the old days, a girl get pregnant, she had to go down South, and then her mother would go down to get her. But mother had the baby. . . . The mother had the baby—in two weeks.(Quoted in Dyson 2005: 141-2)
. Cosby remembers when girls and their families were so embarrassed that mothers would claim their daughter’s baby as their own. Williams thinks Cosby is generally correct in his condemnations of blacks, and he adds that what people need to do is “have children only after you are twenty-one and married” (Williams 2006: 215). Cleary, Bristol Palin did not follow the path outlined by Williams.

Has Cosby, Williams or Patterson “called out” Bristol Palin? Certainly they should have something negative to say. For four years, they’ve had op-eds in national papers and interviews by the major television networks condemning blacks for teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births. So far, I haven’t heard a peep from Cosby and company. I may have missed it, but their previous outbursts were unavoidable.

What’s going on? What’s going on with white social conservatives and the new black public intelligentsia? Where is the outrage?

There are lots of things going on. One is that famed Republican Party unity that allows for top down decision-making that keeps everyone on message. The other is the planned “shotgun marriage” to the young man who had previously said he did not want kids.

A third thing that I think is going on here has to do with race. Because Bristol Palin is white, it is easy for Americans to think of her as a “good girl” who made a mistake. For black girls, it is easy for Americans to think of them as “bad girls.” Period.Quayle’s argument about out-of-wedlock births was that they were the ultimate cause of the 1992 Los Angeles riots—the riots that followed the acquittal of the police officers for beating Rodney King. Clearly, Quayle was really talking about black people and their “bad values.”

When black girls have babies, it is worthy of condemnation. When a white girl gets pregnant out-of-wedlock, it’s an entirely different story. It is simply something that “happens to people in all walks of life.” It “just shouldn’t be an issue.” It no big deal because, “We can’t control what our daughters do.” It’s “just normal life.” It just shows that the Palins are “a typical American family.”

It can’t recall at time when the hypocrisy has been this thick.


Dyson, Michael Eric. 2005. Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? New York: Basic Civitas Books.

Williams, Juan. 2006. Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America—and What We Can Do About It. New York: Crown Publishers.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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