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  • Men in the House:Race, Welfare, and the Regulation of Men's Sexuality in the United States, 1961-1972
  • Alison Lefkovitz (bio)

If a man wants to play, then let him pay.

-Ruben K. King, Alabama's Department of Pensions and Security Commissioner

In the late 1960s, Mrs. Katie B. Shaw, the director of Aid to Dependent Children in Greene County, Alabama, reported that her clients "want our help in getting rid of the men who live off their welfare checks. . . . They really do. Many times I tell them, 'You shouldn't go with Mr. Jones or Mr. Washington because he's no good,' and they appreciate it." Mrs. Shaw saw her clients as misguided but ultimately good and herself as their helper and benefactor. The real villains, in her eyes, were boyfriends like Mr. Jones and Mr. Washington, men who took advantage of women on welfare and of the welfare system itself. She was hardly alone in this opinion. In the same report, another Alabama county director, Nan C. Murphy, also accused men of living off their girlfriends' welfare benefits. She explained that "these men who see our recipients just won't work. The feds tell us the unemployment rate in my county is seventy-five percent. Now, you know, if a man wants to work, there's a job for him." Both social workers eventually admitted that the vast majority if not all of the intimate relationships social workers interfered with were those of black men and women. When pressed about her exclusive attention to the boyfriends of black women, Nan Murphy sounded a familiar refrain: "You're from the North and can't really understand our problem." 1 [End Page 594] This deep skepticism about black men on the part of bureaucrats in the Alabama welfare department reveals larger beliefs about masculinity, race, and sex in the second half of the twentieth century. In the 1960s, as many Americans reconsidered the problem of poverty, lawmakers marshaled some long-standing ideas about the need to control black sexuality and increasingly advocated the regulation of the sexual activity of working-class black men as a means by which to reduce women and children's dependence on the welfare system.

Sex and reproduction have been identified as crucial sites of racial struggle ever since the arrival of African slaves on American shores. Slaveholders struggled to determine how to define race when faced with interracial children, engaged in coercive sexual relationships with their slaves, wielded the specter of family separation as a weapon against unruly slaves, and justified slavery in terms of patriarchy. One of the abolitionists' most potent weapons was to criticize the lack of patriarchal power slaves wielded as fathers and husbands. 2 Long after emancipation, the regulation of sex continued to be a source of power over African Americans. Bans on interracial marriage served as an anchor for Jim Crow regimes, the repressive legal system of racial segregation in the southern states; factions of the 1960s racial pride Black Power movement tried to empower black men by establishing their place in the patriarchal order; and government policy targeted and regulated black women for their sexual activity. 3 Many scholars-including Linda Gordon, Premilla Nadasen, Martha Davis, Annelise Orleck, Mimi Abramovitz, Rickie Solinger, Gwendolyn Mink, Marisa Chappell, and others-have shown that black mothers were treated [End Page 595] differently than white mothers when they applied for welfare and other assistance from local, state, and federal governments. Black women were more frequently deprived of welfare, lost custody of their children more often, and were likelier to be forcibly sterilized because of bureaucrats' and politicians' beliefs about black women's irredeemable sexual "deviance." 4

With the striking exception of interracial sex, less attention has been paid to the ways in which government policy and law also targeted black men's sexuality. 5 Nonetheless, a few scholars have shown how politicians attempted to exploit black and white men's sexuality in order to solve the problem of women and children's dependence. After the Civil War, the federal government declared that former slaves who had cohabited should be considered as legally married. If a man had lived with several women, the...