As I see it: By Cynthia Tucker
President-elect Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, are members of a minority: They are a black married couple.
Wed 16 years in October, the Obamas conceived their two daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, after the wedding. While traditional couplehood such as the Obamas' is losing popularity in every corner of the country, it has all but disappeared in black America, where more than 70 percent of children are born outside marriage.
In 2006, The Washington Post published an op-ed essay by writer Joy Jones with the provocative headline, "Marriage is for White People." The headline didn't reflect Jones' views; it repeated "what one of my students told me some years back when I taught a career exploration class for sixth-graders at an elementary school in southeast Washington (D.C.).
"I think I'll invite some couples in to talk about being married and rearing children," she told the class." 'Oh, no,' objected one student. 'We're not interested in the part about marriage. Only about how to be good fathers.' And that's when the other boy chimed in ... 'Marriage is for white people.'"
That sixth-grader was likely reflecting his environment, which may not have included many black married couples. While 62 percent of white adults and 60 percent of Latino adults are married, only 41 percent of black adults are.
The Obamas are already burdened by the baggage of cultural expectations, but I'll go ahead and add another sack to their load: Here's hoping their presence on the national stage will erase that sixth-grader's wrongheaded notion. Marriage ought to be an equal-opportunity institution, no matter color, creed or sexual orientation.
"I was really excited when I saw the Obama family on the (TV) screen (on Nov. 4) because I meet so many young African-Americans who, frankly, have never seen an intact family like this," said Leah Ward Sears, chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court and board member of the Institute for American Values, which promotes marriage. "I'm hopeful (the Obamas) will be a brand-new model of what the ideal is, even if many, many of us will fall short of the ideal," she added.
Certainly, there are millions of law-abiding and accomplished adults who grew up in non-traditional households — reared by single moms or single dads or grandparents. It's also true that many non-custodial parents, who are usually fathers, are actively involved in their children's lives, boosting their chances for successful lives. Still, a significant body of research emphasizes that, all other things being equal, children are better off with two loving, responsible parents who are married to each other. Those kids are less likely to engage in drug abuse or risky sexual behavior and more likely to do well in school.
Moreover, fathers are more likely to stay connected with their children if they are married to the kids' mom. "There is a saying in social research: 'A mother is a mother all of your life, but a father is a father only when he has a wife,'" Justice Sears said.
Indeed, research also suggests that marriage is good for adults.
"Compared with unmarried people, married men and women tend to have lower mortality, less risky behavior, more monitoring of health, more compliance with medical regimens, higher sexual frequency, more satisfaction with their sexual lives, more savings and higher wages," according to "Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the United States," a 2002 study sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yet, the institution of marriage is under severe stress. Though the idealized intact family remains a mainstay of popular culture, married couples represent only half of all households in the United States. And the trend toward unmarried parenthood has affected white and brown America, too, a fact highlighted by Sarah Palin's pregnant daughter, Bristol. About 27 percent of white children are now born outside marriage, as are about 42 percent of Latino children.
There isn't much a President Obama can do about that except continue to present his family as an alternative — a very attractive alternative. Who knows? The new, new thing could be marriage.
Cynthia Tucker is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.