Jill Bishop
February 20, 1996

The Black Family in America


The prevailing view of the black family in the United States for most of its history has been based on the dominant paradigm of white superiority and black inferiority. In the post World War II era there was a strong consensus for the normative family, and Daniel P. Moynihan reflected this view when he labeled the black family "pathological" and "dysfunctional" because the black families studied did not fit the normative model. Numerous social policies followed the famous 1965 Moynihan Report with the goal of "fixing" and helping the black family, such as Head Start. In the years that followed, not only did statistics change to indicate even greater deterioration of the black family, but statistics on the white family began to match the patterns of the black families of the 1950s. Consequently, recent emphasis of social policy is more on economic factors than racial equality, and affirmative action policies are being challenged with some success. Conflicting views and interpretations abound regarding the structure of the black family, as do the solutions to remedy the ill-defined problems.


The dominant paradigm of black inferiority pervades early myths and even scholarly studies. E. Franklin Frazier, the black historian on whom Moynihan's 1965 report was based, was trained by white scholars at the University of Chicago, such as sociologist Robert Park. Park's studies in the 1940s and 1950s were based on the deficit approach that "assume Blacks are culturally deprived and view differences found between white mainstream Americans and Black Americans as deficits."1 They viewed blacks as a people in the process of assimilation into the mainstream of American society, like other immigrant groups, disregarding both their own racism and the institutionalized racial oppression in which blacks exist in America.

Frazier's The Negro Family in the United States "supplied a model for the study of Blacks which emphasized family disorganization and dysfunction...,"2 describing the black family's present condition of matriarchy, ineffective black males being marginal to the family, casual sex relations, and general dissolution of the black family to be caused by urbanization and the heritage of slavery. Frazier's work was used for the basis of Moynihan's conclusions that identified "Black "matriarchal" mothers as responsible for the "breakdown" and "pathology" of Black families (who, he claimed, were responsible for high rates of illegitimacy, delinquency, and unemployment)."3 Consequently, many of the programs and policies formed were focused on "improving the child-rearing practices of black mothers."4 Head Start, for example, "...designed to correct a perceived maternal deficit, [was then] extended for an entire year [because]......the "disadvantaged black child" entering school is unable to learn because of inadequate mothering"5

In the period following the depression and the hardships of World War II, American policy makers dedicated their efforts to creating a society comprised of strong, happy nuclear families. The normative ideal family was seen as a two-parent nuclear family residing in the suburbs with a breadwinner father and homemaker mother. Nixon's famous Kitchen Debates with Khrushchev in 1959 illustrated the ideal American home where homemaker mother and breadwinner father lived with their children. There was a strong consensus of what comprised the ideal family. This period of "strong domestic ideology [and] pervasive consensus politics..."6 when Americans were striving "to create a family-centered culture"7 set the stage for the Moynihan Report on the black family in America. The poor black family did not fit the current ideology, therefore it was labeled "pathological" and "dysfunctional." As a government publication, the report constituted a level of authority that carried significant weight and lent credibility to the abundant social policies to "fix" the dysfunctional, pathological black family structure that threatened the ideal, normative family structure upon which the future success of American society was believed to depend. Experts blamed the victim. The black family structure, rather than social structure of the U.S., was blamed for its deprivation of the American Dream. Therefore, solution was to deal with the black family rather than segregation and discrimination.


A turning point in social policy impacting the black family occurred with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling by Chief Justice Earl Warren. It overturned the 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson in which a black man was prosecuted for refusing to ride in a "colored" railroad car, thus providing the legal justification for segregation, ruling that as long as facilities were equal they were legally justified. Warren said "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," which effectively struck down state mandated racial segregation in the public schools. At that time there was segregation in schools, seating in theaters and other public places, even for drinking fountains. Desegregation didn't occur immediately, in fact it is still a problem being dealt with today in schools and housing. But all the Jim Crow policies, the systematic practice of segregating and suppressing black people, then became legally unjustified. The Brown case brought the "Equal Justice Under Law" motto that is carved in the marble frieze of the Supreme Court Building closer to reality for black Americans who had been deprived of this basic right since they arrived as unwilling immigrants.

The Brown decision was part of a civil rights movement that reached its peak in the 1960s. Numerous policies and programs were put into place around this time: the Manpower Development and Training Act, the Economic Opportunity Act, and welfare programs such as AFDC, Medicaid, and Head Start, to name a few of the many. Some aimed specifically at improving the economic position of blacks in an attempt to promote racial equality, such as the Equal Opportunity Act, and some were targeted for the economically deprived of any race, which benefitted blacks to a greater extent than most other races due to the proportion of blacks that lived in poverty. Anti-discrimination laws were put into place to combat social policies of both legal and formal discrimination: voting restrictions, prohibition of interracial marriage, segregation in schools and public places, hiring policies, separate housing, law enforcement, sentencing, and inferior education. Subsequent negative trends include subcontracting government jobs to private firms with largely white workforces and the overall shift from industrial manufacturing to information processing.

Where other social policies with racial parameters sought to promote racial equality, affirmative action went a step further and mandated racial inequality in attempt to offset the injustice of racially exclusionary practices and compensate for the historical wrongdoings of institutionalized racism and oppression. Affirmative action is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an independent governmental agency which can initiate legal actions against any federally assisted institution or program. Opponents of affirmative action support decisions based on merit rather than race, claiming that affirmative action is reverse discrimination and unconstitutional according to the 1978 decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In that case, Alan Bakke charged that his denial of admission into medical school was reverse discrimination, and the quota system of providing distinct slots for minorities was found to be unconstitutional.

With a tightening job market for all Americans, the complaints of the reverse discrimination of affirmative action came to a head recently, again in California, when The University of California Board of Regents decided to eliminate race-based affirmative action policies in admissions and hiring, yet still "grant special recognition to prospective students who have suffered disadvantage economically or in term of their social environment." Students around the country (including my daughter in college in California) walked out in protest of the decision as their way to support campus diversity, and they encouraged the regents to rescind their decision. The proposition has passed and is under appeal at this time. Statistics have shown that the elimination of race based affirmative action would impact blacks and hispanics negatively, Asians positively, and whites hardly at all. While many black leaders have fought to keep affirmative action in place, not all blacks see it as a positive: "Our so-called leaders are failing to understand that affirmative action and such programs have stigmatized us as inferior and substandard."8

One black scholar, Robert Staples, sees the solution to black families' problems in increased government entitlements. He describes a "best case scenario for black families" as a full employment policy financed by "a rigidly enforced system of progressive taxation and the reduction of military expenditures... There would be no reason to make the system racially based since blacks would automatically share in the benefits of full economy. ...Another governmental act would be the formulation of a family allowance plan ...set at the level of a "good" standard of living, not the poverty level... [It] would be provided to all American families, reducing the stigma of current welfare programs, and the rigid system of progressive income tax rates would retrieve it from more affluent families. [It] would ...permit families to work out other difficulties in their relationship as best they can ...[without] the scourge of economic pressure."9 Staples' disregard for the rampant inflation that would result from full employment illustrates that he is obviously not an economist.

Scholars continually disagree about the effects of social policy on family instability. Berry says that "Throughout most of this century, welfare regulations prohibited payments to indigent women and children when a husband was present. It is ironic that some black males thus had to desert their families in order to feed them."10 Leashore agrees saying "...AFDC has a history of contributing to father absence and family breakup."11 Yet according to Jewell, "Studies which have attempted to establish a relationship between the effects of welfare on marital stability among Blacks have been unconclusive"12 The best solutions in social policy are obviously not clear, as the ongoing welfare debate shows.


The prevailing views of black families in America experienced a significant shift during the 1960s. Prior to that period most scholars with credentials that had studied the black family limited their studies to lower class families and interpreted the results through the existing paradigm of black inferiority. The 1960s brought many changes to our country in a great many ways. The lives of black Americans did change, and so did the perception of the black family, both in the eyes of mainstream society, as seen in the media, and in the academic community. Many of the recent scholars studying black families are black themselves, though not all, but the present perspective of studying the black family reflects an attempt by most to put it in the context of its unique position in the American experience, including the racial inequalities of discrimination, and acknowledge the differences of black families as normal and functional rather than pathological and dysfunctional, as labelled by the Moynihan Report in 1965.

Recent studies have shown "Black families ...examined from a culture-specific ...perspective ...are providing myth-destroying information. ...Black families encourage the development of the skills, abilities, and behaviors necessary to survive as competent adults in a racially oppressive society. ...In general, Black families are reported to be strong, functional, and flexible. ...They provide a home environment that is culturally different from that of Euro-American families in a number of ways. ...The environment of Black children is described as including not only the special stress of poverty or of discrimination but the ambiguity and marginality of living simultaneously in two worlds--the world of the Black community and the world of mainstream society, a phenomenon unique to Blacks."13

Many studies still view the poor black family and regard that as the definitive black family. These studies show female-headed households, absent black fathers, teen mothers, welfare dependency, and extended kin-networks, all of which have some truth. The most pervasive myth is that that picture holds true for most all black families. The "other" black America, the middle-class blacks who have "made it," have largely been ignored in studies about black families until very recently; their assimilation into mainstream society has rendered them nearly invisible, both as an entity to be studied or acknowledged. This returns to the philosophy professed during the early part of the century by Parks and Franklin that held assimilation of blacks into mainstream society to be inevitable and desirable, and those who have "made it" need little further attention. However, middle and upper class blacks also suffer the trials of racial oppression, even though they have been more successful in achieving the American Dream than the poor black.

One privileged young black woman discussed the experience of growing up as part of the privileged black middle class: "Too often to be black in America is thought to mean that you are part of some pathological underclass. If I'm middle class, others assume that I have narrowly escaped the ghetto. ...Once, I argued with a young man at party in Harlem ...He was outraged by TV's Huxtable family ...because, he said, they were not a true depiction of black family life. But that is my family, I said. ...Poverty was not within the realm of my everyday experience. ...Until this country changes, there will always be black rage. Making it isn't enough. No matter how high you achieve, no matter how much education you attain ...to be black in America is to be Other. ...Being arrogant is the only way you get through dealing with those who assume that you are an incompetent who got that cush job solely because of affirmative action. ...It's a life of having to prove to other blacks that you're "down," while proving to whites that you're just as worthy as they... But I am part of the black experience...and to speak of it is to fly in the face of what this country understands me to be."14

Contrasting views of the black family abound. Some are based on the presence or absence of racism and the still present assumption of black inferiority. Some are based on the view of the black family by many researchers as a monolithic institution, usually poor and urban, excluding consideration of other types of families. Some are based on the contrast of assimilationist versus black nationalist viewpoints.

One topic of controversy is that of interracial marriage. Although as late as 1967 there were still seventeen states prohibiting interracial marriage, in light of decreased segregation and racial discrimination since the 1960s, the natural outcome is seen in statistics reporting a significant increase in interracial marriages. The push for a multi-racial heritage designation on the 2000 census has become a political hot-potato because of the numerous social policies effected by racial designations.

Many view "mixed marriages as signs of racial progress, as indications of the acceptance of blacks on equal terms by whites. At the same time, ...the growing emphasis on racial pride and repudiation of integration as an end in itself [leads] to an absolute rejection of mixed marriages by many blacks."15 Because of the "propensity of middle- and upper-class black males to marry white women, ...white women are a threat to black women. In the near future there aren't going to be enough black men around for [black women] to marry."16 Black women are suffering from a "psychological burden of rejection"17 Other reasons for the shortage of available black men include economic unsuitability (high unemployment rates in black men), high rates of mortality, incarceration, and drug addiction, and preference for other than black women. "...because of the surplus of women, it is a "buyer's market" in the marital arena for Black men."18 Addressing the problem of the dearth of available black males for black women, bookstores are showing titles such as Doubleday's How to Marry a Black Man, and Warner Books' How to Love a Black Man.

Another area of controversy is that of the role of black fathers. Conflicting studies indicate "...paternity was viewed [by black men] as a mark of masculinity and not an adult role to implement."19 producing "black fathers with no impact or influence,"20 These results reflect "...research investigations of parental roles among black men [that] were more concerned with the effects of father absence rather than presence."21 Once again, generalizations were made about the black family based on the monolithic view of the poor, urban black, because other "...investigations [have] failed to acknowledge ...cultural differences in role prescriptions..."22 Consequently, "Historically, the role of black fathers has been controversial."23

Scholars have disagreed on the basis for cultural differences between black and white families, particularly whether the kinship based family is a product of African heritage, slavery, or poverty. The Moynihan Report labelled the black family as pathological because it differed from the nuclear family perceived so strongly as "normal" in the postwar years, but recent scholars see the black family as functional rather than dysfunctional, that is, not pathological (abnormal) in terms of African heritage and kinship networks. Where Frazier's work said that slavery had destroyed African kinship family relations, Blassingame showed that black families did function in slave quarters and strong family ties persisted despite slave trade. Gutman's work showed that slavery did not destroy black families, and the kinship model of the black family comes from African origins. Where earlier studies concluded that "matriarchal families were pathological and detrimental to the personality development of black children,"24 Genovese redefined female matriarchy as gender equality, a contrast to the male domination perceived as normal by whites. Yet whether black females were of equal status or dominating, slavery altered the gender status of black families. In Africa "the family was a strong communal institution stressing the dominance of males, the importance of children, and extended kinship networks."25 But under slavery, "The slaveholders deprived the black man the role of provider... the economic function of slave women was often comparable to that of men. ...always there was an external power greater than the slave husbands."26

More recent studies show that the cultural differences between black and white American families is based on their African heritage combined with the reality of racial oppression, past and present. The kinship family deals with poverty by providing "a strategy for meeting the physical emotional needs of black families [by using] a reciprocal network of sharing to counter the lack of economic resources."27 Economic level corresponds significantly but not totally to the degree that black families reflect traditional African values and practices, particularly the kinship based family structure, versus the nuclear family viewed by mainstream (white) society as more normal. Whatever the reason for the differences, "the black family is a functional entity,"28 and not dysfunctional, as Moynihan labeled it. Although "...not all...agree on the degree to which African culture influences the culture of black Americans, they do concur that black Americans' cultural orientation encourages family patterns that are instrumental in combating the oppressive racial conditions of American society."29

Overall, the reasons for conflicting findings between recent researchers on the black family as compared to earlier accounts include that they: "(a) failed to recognize the existence of a black culture and the antecedent African experience and examine social roles in that context; (b) neglected to interview black fathers and observe father-child interactions for demographic differences; (c) observed and investigated black family life using the very poorest families as subjects and generalized the findings to all black families; and (d) used theoretical models limited to Western cultural life-styles."30


The black family of several decades ago has provided a preview of what was to come as white families today have become more like the earlier black families in many ways. "Consider illegitimacy, for example. [In earlier decades] ...an illegitimate birth among blacks brought the family closer together to care for the infant; among whites, it tended to pull the family apart."31 In my own community I have observed several white families brought together in love and joy over the addition of an illegitimate child, and I know that this would not have been the case several years ago.

Present divorce and teenage pregnancy rates in the United States have also now risen to nearly match the rates of blacks in the 1950s. But the indices of family dissolution have also risen in the black community, so that while the white family has crumbled to match the black family of decades ago, the black family has crumbled further yet. Consequently, even those who do not label black families as either pathological or dysfunctional agree that the black family is in crisis today. The problem is similar to the overall American family, though worse, and has the additional facet of the higher level of education and employment for black women than black men. Thus the indices that Moynihan quoted in 1965 indicating that the black family was dissolving were not untrue, and in fact they have increased in the overall American family, though moreso in the black family.

Now, roughly one out of three American babies is born to an unmarried mother in America, the rate is nearly twice that for black babies, and welfare caseloads have skyrocketed. "Faced with such statistics, Democrats and Republicans alike agree that out-of-wedlock births is a pressing problem undermining American society."32 The debate on welfare reform includes suggestions to increase job training programs and child-care assistance, and limit cash assistance to unmarried teen mothers if they live at home and stay in school. The debate continues because so little is known about what works. "Experts still don't understand all the factors behind the trend [of unwed mothers] or how to influence human behavior to reverse it."33

Although the black family crisis is far from over, one piece of good news appeared recently to indicate that one of the most worrisome trends in black families is turning around. "...black families have made significant progress in at least one key area in recent years: Birthrates among unmarried black women--including teenagers--declined in 1993 for the fourth year in a row. ...By contrast, the birthrate among unmarried white women, though far below that of blacks, continues to rise sharply..."34

Where Robert Staples sees the federal government as the vehicle to solving problems in the black community, there appears to be a larger trend with other blacks to find solutions within the black community itself. "Frustration in waiting for whites to choose integration is one reason many black community leaders are de-emphasizing integration as an economic goal in favor of rebuilding stronger all-black communities, said Dempsey Travis, a ...businessman and local historian. ...I think we [blacks] have to reinvest in our own communities. ...We have to be the movers and shakers in our own community. There will always be a black community as long as there's an America. We have to make it what we want it to be."35

The Million Man March that took place in Washington D. C. in late 1995 was organized by Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan to promote unity among black men and encourage them to take responsibility for themselves and their families, to fight drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, and the frequent incarceration of blacks. Farrakhan is an extremist whose history of black racism and bigoted pronouncements has put off many more moderate supporters of his causes. But black journalist Ron Stodghill II attended the Million Man March despite his lack of regard for Farrakhan because "for years we looked to the government to clean up our communities and patch up our families. Without discounting the need for some legislative solutions, the first crucial step is self reliance. At such a crucial juncture, it is simply irresponsible to sit on our hands"36

In my personal acquaintance, 19-year-old college student and professional dancer recently danced for President Clinton, though reluctantly, because he is seen by her as being the cause of the problems in her poor black neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. Like Robert Staples, she focuses on the federal government. Others look within the black community for solutions, such as the creation of Kwanzaa in 1966 by a California Black Studies professor. Kwanzaa is a 7-day non-religious cultural holiday that takes place between Christmas and New Years. It is based on the African harvest celebrations and seven basic principles: family unity, self-determination, working with others, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Initially a black nationalist event, Kwanzaa has spread throughout the mainstream and now has music, books and greeting cards.

The abundance of black caucuses in numerous organizations illustrates the action of blacks to take the problems of black families and the larger black community into their own hands, organizing to express their interest in policies and decisions. Even corporate America is taking an interest in the issue of black fatherhood as seen in the Nike commercial in which a black father supports his son during the trauma of his first haircut, ending with father and son walking out hand in hand.


The view of the black family in America is full of contrasts and contradictions. Do social policies work? Is the kinship family structure functional? Does one picture fit all black families? Are differences between black and white families cultural or economic?

The contrasting effectiveness of social policies can be seen in the widening gap between rich and poor, both in the black community and in mainstream America. Even as America is divided into two parts, black and white, so too is black America divided into two parts by class. There is not one monolithic black family living the black experience, as is put forth so often. The black experience is very different for those living in poverty and for the black middle-class, which is not to say that the middle-class blacks, those who have "made it," do not experience the disadvantages of racism. Even as blacks continue to break through one glass ceiling after another, they continue to live with the dualism described decades ago by the famous black scholar, E. B. DuBois.

Recent social policies are stressing class disadvantages over racial injustices due to the real and perceived decrease of race as a basis for the problems. To whatever extent the two realities intersect, the affirmative action controversy reflects the conflicting views.

During the 1960s the climate of social reform produced numerous programs and policies to help Americans reach the American Dream. Since then some conditions have improved, such as discrimination and segregation, but some have worsened, such as family dissolution and teen pregnancy. As the definition of a "normal" family broadens, perhaps even serial marriages will become more acceptable as divorce loses its stigma. But most all are in agreement that teen pregnancies are unacceptable and a serious problem today in America, however acceptable they may be in other cultures or in other times.

At this time there is agreement that the kinship family structure works, even though it differs from Moynihan's narrow view of a normal family. Studies have shown that the kinship family structure contributes to survival in an oppressive environment. We are finally moving toward "the assumption that black American culture and family patterns possess a degree of cultural integrity that is neither related to nor modeled on white American norms."37 The view of the black American family has shifted from deviant to normal in terms of its unique cultural heritage of African roots, slavery, institutionalized oppression, and racism.

Since white indices of family instability have increased to match the level of black families in the 1950s, the label of "pathological" has been dropped by the still white dominated academic community, government, and media. Those norms that the black family were seen to deviate from are ceasing to describe the definitive norm.

The recent emphasis on "family values" by conservatives generally refers only to the nuclear family, yet our increasingly pluralistic country is adapting its definition of a "normal" family to include the extended family. I have observed this happening in my personal acquaintances in white America.

Adaptations to teen pregnancy by the white community have been similar to the method used by the black family for a long time to deal with its problems: the extended family as the safety net. One of the many proposals for welfare reform supports this by suggesting that support be withheld from teen mothers who do not live with their parent(s).

The black family in America is different from the white family, if not in family structure and extent of poverty, then certainly in the unique experience of racial discrimination. It continues to be a problem -- the problem -- that provides the basis for the rest. Social programs provide some solutions. Self-help programs within the black community provide some solutions. But the ideology of racial oppression is embedded deeply into the American psyche, and it will take time and effort to overcome, and to forgive.

Most of America's present policy makers grew up with the reality of the contradiction of equality as an American ideal and accepted institutional racism. This early experience of growing up in a racist society is impossible to erase. When more of our leaders are people born after the sixties who grew up with the ideology of racism as a heinous injustice rather than an unfortunate reality, then the black family in America will have a real chance for true freedom and justice.

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