Monday, February 27, 2006


What's a family, anyway?

In yesterday’s NY Times Magazine, Christopher Caldwell wrote an interesting piece about a debate in a Virginia suburb about what constitutes a “family.” The real issue, of course, isn’t about families, it’s about class, race, and social status.
Manassas has seen a rapid influx of immigrants over the last decade. As in suburbs and smaller cities elsewhere, this has created quality-of-life complaints. Sometimes the outrage is over the jornaleros who gather at Home Depots to solicit daywork. Elsewhere, the gripe concerns overcrowding. One 23-year-old Mexican told The Palm Beach Post a couple of years ago that he, too, thought 10 unrelated workers living in a two-bedroom apartment was too much. "Eight people — three in each bedroom and two in the living room — that should be the maximum," he said. This is the problem in Manassas.
Manassas citizens were fed up with immigrants crowding into single-family homes with extended families. Cousins, grandparents, uncles, and nieces were settling together as a “family” in a space designed by affluent suburbanites to house the nuclear family: mother, father, 2.5 kids, and a dog. Parking spots disappear, trash piles, the neighborhood fills with strange faces of a disturbingly darker hue. Property value plummets. In order to halt the influx of immigrants, the folks of Manassas decided to define what constitutes a “family,” a definition that would exclude the multi-generational hordes. Now, only “immediate” relations were family: uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, and nephews were not. The irony of re-defining the family is not lost on Caldwell:
For decades, the family has been at the center of America's culture wars. Often, the quarrelers break into predictable camps. The traditionalist side takes the family for something natural, self-evident and unchanging, with certain absolute rights that no government can violate. The reformist side holds that the family is a "social construct" that is destined to change as individuals make choices and governments pass laws that reflect new mores. But look now. The traditionalists are hoist with their own petard. When the real desiderata of American life — convenient parking and garbage-free sidewalks — are at stake, Joe Sixpack is as willing to meddle with the traditional family as are Heather's Two Mommies.
This particular law was abandoned after the ACLU tilted against the new law and “cast its foes as un-American.” After all, “sheltering distant relatives in various kinds of trouble — the laid-off, the dropped-out, the pregnant — is what American (extended) families have always been for.”
Whether we think the purpose of families is producing babies, fostering love, tending the aged or protecting chastity, they have one thing in common. They are organized to address concrete problems, not to dispense utopian malarkey. Governments can kick problems down the road in a way that families cannot — whether the problem is a husband drinking his wages away or housing prices that have lost their apparent logical relation to hourly pay. The immigrants in Manassas are behaving like families in this sense. They are adapting their city's "single-family" housing stock to the realities of the labor market — with an indifference to government say-so that used to be called Yankee ingenuity.
The article underscores the hollowness of most right-wing cultural rhetoric. In this case, "family values" is shown to have nothing to do with "family" or "values"; instead it was a keyword to promote a particular type of family, notably white suburbanites. Morality is less important than appearance in this rhetoric; trash, parking spots, and noise mean more than functioning familial relationships.
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