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The breakdown of the African-American family

Is it caused by the residue of slavery, moral deficiencies, or the growth of government?


Acton Institute

The breakdown of the African-American family

Almost three out of four African-American babies today are the children of unmarried parents. Many grow up without much if any involvement by dads. Some observers say the main reason is the residue of slavery. Others criticize current moral deficiencies. Ismael Hernandez, founder and executive director of the Freedom & Virtue Institute, blames neither 19th century evil nor 21st century decline: He looks at the growth of government in the 20th century and the attempt to develop a “Great Society” on collectivist foundations.

Hernandez is a dynamic speaker with a turnaround past: from the Puerto Rican Communist Party to Christ (see my interview from March). His new book, Not Tragically Colored: Freedom, Personhood, and the Renewal of Black America (Acton Institute, 2016), brilliantly shows how the American experiment needs a recreation of the melting pot, which Hernandez calls “inclusive monoculturalism.” The following excerpt gives part of his analysis of African-American families in crisis. —Marvin Olasky

There Is Nothing Wrong with Us!

Faced with marginality in Africa, the brutality of bondage in America, and the oppression of racism after emancipation, blacks held on the best they could to institutions such as the family and the church as their tools for survival. The family was the most nurturing and comforting institution that most slaves ever came into contact with. Even so, the black family as it came out of slavery was not entirely healthy. Scholars such as E. Franklin Frazier, Stanley M. Elkins, Kenneth M. Stamp, and Daniel P. Moynihan have found in “the legacy of slavery” the cause of the present pathologies in black family structure. Moynihan’s The Negro Family in America, based on the conventional academic wisdom of the day, attributed the problems to “centuries of injustice.” He asserted that “a tangle of pathology” in the black family was the result of black victimization: “It was by destroying the Negro family that white America broke the will of the Negro people.”

This dysfunction was certainly due in part to the experience of slavery in this country but that was not the only influence. Other factors must be taken into consideration. One is that slaves were influenced by patterns of family life going back to West Africa, where slavery compromised family stability and polygyny was widespread.

If a slave was captured with the intention of selling him to other African tribes, Arab traders, or European buyers, that person was often treated as an object or commodity—not as a human being. “It is scarcely surprising,” write Myers and Kopytoff, “that most reports emphasize that the ‘trade slave’—the one bought or captured for barter—was the worse treated of all.” Those who came to our shores were already in a social limbo from being marginalized and commoditized in Africa. Belonging to weaker tribes, they lived in a fearful state, always expecting the raid or the trade at any moment.

W. E. B. Du Bois similarly focused on how slavery weakened the black family in The Negro American Family (1908). His research on the black family presents a picture of a damaged but by no means destroyed family with a clear dichotomy between family life among house servants and among the most oppressed segment of field slaves. Du Bois attributed the disorganized black family—“a fortuitous agglomeration of atoms” as he called it—to the crippling effects of slavery. After painstakingly detailing the legal constraints facing the black family in bondage, he refers to the black family of his own time in a hopeful fashion:

The broken families indicated by the abnormal number of widowed and separated, and the late age of marriage, show sexual irregularity and economic pressure. These things all go to prove not the disintegration of Negro family life but the distance which integration has gone and has yet to go. Fifty years ago, “family” statistics of nine-tenths of the Negroes would have been impossible. Twenty-five years ago they would have been far worse than today, and while there is no perceptible change … in the statistics of 1890 and 1900, most of the tendencies are in the right direction, and a healthier home life is in prospect.

Du Bois saw positive signs of improved moral standards among the masses of freedmen: “Of the raising of the sex mores of the Negro by these classes the fact is clear and unequivocal: they have raised them and are raising them. There is more female purity, more male continence, and a healthier home life today than ever before among Negroes in America. The testimony supporting this is overwhelming.” In spite of the devastating attack on the black family from slavery, Du Bois placed the illegitimacy rate among blacks at about 25 percent. If the black family was improving in the years after slavery and then became worse in later decades, then the assertion that the weakness in contemporary African-American family life is entirely due to slavery loses its force.

In his seminal research on the black family, Herbert Guttmann defends the idea that the problems in the black family structure as he perceived in the mid-1970s had no serious causal relationship with slavery or Jim Crow. Guttmann found that during slavery, and for decades after emancipation, the black family structure was not “fatherless matrifocal” but father-present, double-headed, and kin-related. Throughout the times of slavery and afterward, a father was present in most black families, ranging from 82 to 86 percent in rural areas and 69 to 74 percent in urban areas. The primary reason for the absence of fathers was not abandonment but death. Although the enslaved father was constrained by the ignominy of his condition, he sought to be a good father and often jeopardized his own well-being for the sake of his family. If after centuries of African bondage and instability, over two hundred years of chattel slavery, and many direct attacks against the black family black children were mostly still living in two-parent homes, then what we have is a remarkably resilient family system. To expect the black family to have exhibited the same integrity as white families at the time would be naïve.

The adaptive capacity of blacks by which they prevented destruction of their family structure points not toward pathology but toward resilience. However, again, we cannot simply deny the effects of contrary forces affecting the black family. After rejecting the more assertive views coming from Guttmann, James Q. Wilson analyzes single-parent homes as “a bit more normal among black than white Americans. By normal I do not mean widely accepted or generally endorsed; I mean instead that they will involve people who are less different from other members of their race or ethnicity.” The record of such problems, as Guttmann says, “is not evidence that the black family crumbled or that a ‘pathological’ culture thrived.” The assertion that the experience of slavery weakened the black family is correct, but its influence cannot be presented as binding in the absolute. Theories based on a weakened and pathological black family do not “misperceive the oppressive nature of enslavement but underestimate the adaptive capacities of the enslaved and those born to them and to their children.”

It is also mistaken to minimize the importance of evidence of familial disintegration. We should not rationalize the dissolution of the family as a strategy of adaptation, as writers such as Andrew Billingsley do:

The traditional two-parent, or simple, nuclear family which arose at the height of the industrial era has given way dramatically in relative ways to various alternative family structures. … It means … that families are doing what they always do. They are adapting as best they can to the pressures exerted upon them from their society in their gallant struggle to meet the physical, emotional, moral, and intellectual needs of their members.

Are we to believe that in a few decades the traditional black family “adapted” to the point of radical transformation after centuries of resistance to oppressive social conditions? Black families that are falling apart, that have increased out-of-wedlock births by teen girls, that have fathers who abandon their children, and that have single mothers who struggle to survive are signs of devastation, not adaptation.

Most Sociologists Get It Wrong

As Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn observes, radical sociologists and other behavioral scientists who immersed themselves in the 1960s countercultural movement began to dominate the professions in the decades following, examining black reality with an overemphasis on the internal states of persons seen as emotionally oppressed. In place of the goal of colorblindness, the radicals advocated color-consciousness.

Theodor Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality had momentous influence on views that racism was a pathological condition of a repressive society. The Black Panther Movement and other radical groups were viewed by many in the field as epitomizing a quest for identity. Influenced by Adorno, Erik Erickson, and the radicalism of the 1960s, behavioral scientists rejected the description of pathology among blacks, preferring to see black reality as resisting white oppression in a quest to forge a positive black image as a useful therapeutic model. A balanced and realistic consideration of the realities of black life gave way to the binary of oppression-resistance. Blacks were victims of great oppression and were resisting such impulses by any means available to them. Therapy was not needed for behaviors that were part of resisting white oppression.

Many scholars remain committed to blaming a racist society that rejects the development of strong black men through consistently denigrating media depictions and enforced marginalization. Patricia Dixon states: “It is difficult to gauge the status of African American fatherhood. However, considering African American male marginalization in the economic sector, the tenuous status of American manhood, and the adaptive strategies that African American males use to attain masculinity, it is not surprising that there are so many absent fathers.” Theories of oppression are formulated, and entire university departments are focused on investigating every possible externalist explanation. The capacity of blacks as persons to transcend antecedent factors is forgotten in a sea of excuses. The possibility that negative cultural patterns influence behavior is minimized and at times rejected as racist.

The moral cost of trying to protect blacks from being blamed is to make them objects of our affection instead of recognizing them as centers of subjectivity. As philosopher Lloyd Weinreb puts it, “An attribution of responsibility requires that we regard a person as duly constituted, that is, as having with respect to the conduct in question the attributes that are rightfully his and not merely the effects of circumstances beyond his control.” What truly infantilizes blacks is the condescension of scholars always ready to give them a pass by devising ever-changing externalist excuses for bad behavior.

The social pattern of out-of-wedlock births—70 percent by 1994—with its devastating socioeconomic implications for the black community is, I contend, not primarily a legacy of slavery and racism but a disease that thrives in a culture promoted by collectivist policies—the changing values of American civil society previously detailed in this book. By portraying our present family problems as a legacy of slavery and perennial racism, we can relinquish responsibility for the crisis and place it in the hands of whites or in the hands of the state. This attitude supports increased demands for government intervention and feeds the myth that racism is the only explanation for our present situation.

Cultures that successfully resist evil do so by adapting while retaining certain basic values. However, cultures can and do change, at times for the worse, when certain core values are abandoned. Daniel Patrick Moynihan stated clearly fifty years ago that the culture of the inner city was dangerous. Although I have taken issue with Moynihan’s implication that slavery was largely to blame for black familial dysfunction in the 1960s, he was entirely correct in pointing to family breakdown as the source of other social and economic problems. The reaction against the Moynihan Report signaled a refusal by liberals, radical intellectuals, and civil rights leaders to honestly deal with two important truths: first, cultural life determines economic reality, not the other way around; and second, “ghetto families were at risk of raising generations of children unable to seize the opportunity that the civil rights movement had opened up for them.” Those who denounced Moynihan refused to look within the community itself to begin to grapple with reality.

We are now confronted with the real possibility of the extinction of the husband-father stable male presence, substituted by the boyfriend-father intermittent presence. This prospect is tragic for our entire country but especially for black America. The relationship of the boyfriend with the mother is often sporadic and unstable. Many of these relationships are established with young mothers with very young children fathered by men who have no desire for permanence in the relationship. These young black men usually have offspring with several mothers and pay minimal attention to the children. Resentment, anger, and humiliation are common feelings between boyfriends and girlfriends in these situations and among the children against both parents. “As a result, the boyfriend-father frequently becomes a violent guy, using his fists or a weapon to grab for something—ultimately, perhaps, a sense of control and self-respect—that his situation renders almost inherently unattainable.”

The family has lost the fundamental idea of morality and virtue: to love your neighbor. It is only in love that we can ever find the answer to the problems of the family. We learn to love. If we do not train our children to love, they will instead pursue primarily the satisfaction of appetites, a poor substitute for real love. We cannot love if we are not loved, and we cannot train if we were not trained—a deadly cycle that prevents the realization of basic human formation: “The human child is talked into talking and loved into loving.”

The breakdown we see in the black family today is a microcosm of the entire society. Many black families, especially but not exclusively those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, are “families in perpetual crisis.” This crisis is an ongoing experience of frustration, despair, and disillusionment. As Richard Kagan and Shirley Schlosberg tell us, “Living in a crisis-oriented family is like riding a roller coaster 24 hours a day: terrifying, energizing, and addicting.” The grief process has been blocked in these families by deep personal hurts, unfulfilled dreams of meaningful relationships, traumatic and repeated experiences of loss, and incessant victim-focused propaganda about the roots of their condition. It is as easy to blame “my man” (or “that bitch”) for all my troubles as it is to blame “the man” (or “Whitey”) for the problems of the black community as a whole. In fact, both attitudes are two sides of the same coin of victimhood. Denial and rage are the escape valves and diversion tactics that protect the crisis-oriented family from facing real change; the same responses also feed the insatiable need to point the finger at society in general and whites in particular for every conceivable social problem.

Single mothers and heroic aunts and grandmothers, exhausted and lonely, are often victims of a painful reality of loss and despair. Yes, there are many heroines out there raising children on their own, but the broken family cannot be the ideal or the norm. Where it is, morality suffers. Children are born to attach, an essential condition to developing a conscience, to developing as moral beings. Scientist Barbara Stillwell writes, “[m]oralization is a process whereby a value-driven sense of oughtness emerges with specific human behavioral systems, namely the systems governing attachment, emotional regulation, cognitive processing, and volition.” As the child broadens his network of connectedness to the extended society, new factors will have formative influence on his character and his conscience. A child who cannot attach at home will not attach in the larger society.

Children in perpetual loss soon become adults in perpetual grief. Sometimes they become adults primed to lash out at others. The intrusion of death into the life of a child is a painful experience that may, however, bring with it the opportunity for the closing of a chapter. There are traditions, ceremonies, rituals, and even children’s games providing true opportunities to grieve and move on. In black America, abandonment of children by their fathers condemns black children to a long and profound state of grief. There is no ritualistic remedy for abandonment—no memories to cherish, no rites to close a chapter. We only get an open wound, always fresh, always hurting.

One of the outcomes is youth violence. David Blankenhorn describes the connection to fatherlessness:

When this process of male identity does not succeed—when the boy cannot separate from the mother, cannot become the son of his father—one main result, in clinical terms, is rage. Rage against the mother, against women, against society. It is a deeply misogynistic rage, vividly expressed, for example, in contemporary rap music with titles such as “Beat that Bitch with a Bat.”

This dangerous course helps the individual evade the challenge of confronting reality and facing difficult human existence. It offers an escape valve into a pseudo-existence where self-pity and self-righteousness merge into confusion and anger. Instead of focusing on the opportunities and risks inherent in taking responsibility, crisis-oriented families “act out” the pain and inner void that are built on too many disappointments by hurting people and blaming “the system.” Outsiders play the role of “enabler,” “hero,” and “scapegoat.” These roles are often played by government officials and agencies of the welfare state. As Kagan and Schlosberg observe, “Professionals caught up in ‘enabling’ roles often miss the context of a family’s behavior and their own roles in an ongoing cycle of crises.”

In fact, at times, “helpers” become so involved in the turmoil of a crisis-oriented family that they become part of the cycle, taking sides and fighting with other “helpers” engaged in the dynamic. Family therapist Evan Imber-Black recounts a case where a single-parent family and other family members were engaged in a dispute, and professionals became involved. “Each side then began to enlist outside helpers, characterizing the other side as bad, intractable, unworkable, and so on. Mistrust among the helpers ran extremely high, replicating the pattern in the family.”

These professionals cannot help but serve as enablers due to the fact that the welfare state is an enabling system, and their professional training has primed them to become enablers. As authority and decision-making is moved from the individual and from whatever remnant of community is still present in the family system to the state, it momentarily becomes the hero. It is extremely tempting for the agents of collectivized state compassion to offer excuses for bad behavior and provide all sorts of tangible benefits so as to stabilize the family.

A family in crisis cannot support free individuals. Only leaving the plantation of dependency on state action will allow such families to break free from their slavery. Only a free and healthy family can teach children about trust and love, about intimacy and connectedness, and about how to thrive as free persons.

From Not Tragically Colored: Freedom, Personhood, and the Renewal of Black America by Ismael Hernandez. Published by the Acton Institute. © 2016. Reprinted with permission.

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