The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 


Resilience or Pathology?

Reflections on African American Family Dynamics in the Twentieth Century

Ryan C. MacPherson

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 “How does it feel to be a problem?” asked sociologist W.E.B. Dubois in the opening chapter of The Souls of Black Folk (1903). African Americans have faced a perennial struggle with “double consciousness,” he explained, seeing themselves simultaneously from the perspective of their own black communities as well as from the perspective of the dominant white race.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.[1]

DuBois, the first black man to attain a Ph.D. from Harvard University, opened the eyes of white sociologists to the experiences of black men and women and of the families that they formed and the dreams they pursued. His groundbreaking study, The Negro American Family (1908), brought to light many of the challenges that black families faced in, or alongside, white America, for he wrote during the era of Jim Crow.

By some accounts, black families have proven themselves extraordinarily resilient during the century following DuBois’s initial studies: adapting to survive industrialization, urbanization, and institutional racism; at times managing to thrive, even by white middle-class measures of success; and also offering unique approaches to family life that reveal deficiencies in the broader culture’s white middle-class norm. “Resilience,” however, is not the typical one-word summary of the African American family of the twentieth century. “Pathology,” in fact, was the favored watchword among social scientists and public-policy shapers during the postwar period. Although introduced by liberals—most notably, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of the Lyndon Johnson administration—the pathology interpretation  gained long-term traction among conservatives, who by the close of the twentieth century could bemoan not only the disintegration of the African American family but also a trajectory among white families that was heading for the same destination: low levels of marriage, high levels of cohabitation and divorce, low fertility within marriage, and a rising proportion of children being raised by only one biological parent.

To identify both the resilient and the pathological components of African American family life requires, of course, that one enter into a longstanding debate concerning what sorts of behavioral criteria should be assigned to each category. Too often, white middle-class aspirations have served as the assumed norm, without sufficient acknowledgment that white middle-class attainment falls short of that norm and, more significantly, without an adequate differentiation between the white middle class as an American cultural construct and the natural family as a manifestation of transcendent human nature. Although white middle-class standards sometimes approximated the natural family, mainstream American culture left much room for improvement as well. A proverbial trip down Memory Lane, guided by leading social scientists and policy contenders, will reveal why African American families often deviated from white expectations of them, and what lessons each racial group can offer to the other in order that both subcultures may converge toward a common respect for the natural family.

Up from Slavery, and Down Again

DuBois identified “the essential features of Negro slavery in America” as “1. No legal marriage. 2. No legal family. 3. No legal control over children.” In this regime, all children were illegitimate, with one fifth of the slave population in 1860 having “distinct traces of white blood.” Following emancipation, however, African Americans closely approximated family patterns that were typical of whites in many ways. By the turn of the century, about one third of adults from either race were single, slightly more than half were married, less than one percent were divorced, and about one in ten were widowed—with widowhood being slightly more common among blacks than whites (11% vs. 8%), but otherwise the two races hardly differed. Even so, DuBois located, in what today would be considered minor discrepancies, a cause for concern: “The broken families indicated by the abnormal number of widowed and separated, and the late age of marriage, show sexual irregularity and economic pressure.” Even so, he remained optimistic, recognizing that the trend was favorable, for “these things all go to prove not the disintegration of Negro family life, but the distance which integration has gone and yet has to go.”[2] Where deficiencies were to be found, slavery was to blame and, in time, slavery’s legacy could be overcome.

A more recent analysis by Stephanie Coontz concurs. Black families in the late nineteenth century closely approximated the ideals that whites of the twentieth century cherished: between 1855 and 1880, 70% to 90% of black households were headed by two parents, with at least 70% being nuclear households. Writes Coontz, “From Ohio to Pennsylvania to Virginia, local studies confirm that the most common family form among blacks was the two-parent nuclear family.” From 1880 to 1900, however, alternative family forms became more prominent, occasioned by urbanization, as subfamilies began sharing households with other families, for example. It was, in fact, not slavery preceding 1865, but urbanization from 1880 onward, that caused the departure from the emerging white middle-class norm.[3]

Despite the intensification of discrimination in the late 1800s, blacks advanced in other respects. Black literacy rates grew from 30% (1880) to 70% (1910).[4] In Boston, in particular, migrant black families proved extraordinarily successful at maintaining two-parent households and finding stable employment. Spousal abandonment for blacks was in fact lower than for white ethnic immigrants in the same community during the 1880s.[5]

Not until the 1950s, after 75 years of parity with whites, did national marriage rates begin to fall for blacks. In 1950, 67% of white women were currently married, as were 64% of black women. By 1998, however, 58% of white women were currently married while only 38% of black women were currently married. Even more dramatically, 41% of black women in 1998 had never been married at all, twice the proportion in 1950 (21%), whereas the proportion of white women who had never been married rose merely from 20% to 22% during the same interval.[6] By the close of the twentieth century, marriage was no longer typical of African American home life, especially when viewed from a child’s perspective. In 1999, 69% of black children were born outside of wedlock, compared to 56% in 1980. Meanwhile, the tendency to marry following conception or birth was in decline.[7] It was as if African Americans were beginning to relive DuBois’s characterization of slavery: “No legal marriage. No legal family.” 

Middle-Class Aspirations and Working-Class Realities

In The Negro Family in the United States (1939), another black sociologist, E. Franklin Frazier, noted that the progress African American families had made during the half century following the Civil War stalled, and even reversed, during the early twentieth century as urbanization and industrialization severely challenged black families. Even so, something unique to the black culture held them together: the presence of grandmothers.

In a chapter entitled “Granny: The Guardian of the Generations,” Frazier recounted how the antebellum Negro grandmother, “Mammy,” was “highly esteemed by both the slaves and the masters.” He explained that “the oldest woman [was] regarded as the head of the family” because marriages, when possible among slaves, were short lived, as was the bond between parent and child, being so often severed by sales to disparate masters. “Thus it has been the grandmother who has held the generations together when fathers and even mothers abandoned their offspring.” Mammy’s role as a midwife reinforced her prominence in the African American lineage, for she literally brought the children into the world. The social prominence of the oldest woman begun in the era of slavery remained strong into the mid-twentieth century. For example, a midwife (usually still the grandmother) attended two out of three African American births in South Carolina in 1930, by which time most white births were assisted by a physician. Like DuBois before him, Frazier based his study upon a mixture of demographic statistics and ethnographic research, resulting in a compelling interweaving of personal anecdotes with broader social patterns. “Continuity in this family,” wrote Frazier when describing a typical case study, “had been maintained through the female line, since the male progenitors had been white for the first two generations and died at an early age during the next two generations.”[8]

The migration of African Americans to northern cities following 1900 did not fundamentally change the centrality of the oldest female in the family; for a significant number of households, while Dad and Mom each sought work away from the home, Grandma remained and gathered the children to herself. Alternatives also existed against the backdrop of this common pattern. Even before the Civil War, when a male slave obtained his freedom, sometimes he managed to purchase also the freedom of his wife and children, thereby becoming recognized as the economic head of that family in a more profound sense than for subsequent generations of would-be breadwinners. Thus, black patriarchy began to develop alongside the more typical trend of black matriarchy.[9]

City life also introduced occupational differentiation within the African American community, allowing a black middle class to emerge as well as a “black industrial proletariat.” The former group Frazier called “Black Puritans,” observing that  “these families have attempted to maintain standards of conduct and to perpetuate traditions of family life that were alien to the majority of the Negro population.”[10] In a later work, Black Bourgeoisie (1955), Frazier suggest that black attempts to assimilate to the white middle class failed. In part, this failure resulted from embracing a “make-believe” world of aspirations in which whites, too, were self-deluded. Moreover, in reaching toward whiteness, African Americans were rejecting the black nationalism of Marcus Garvey and the cultural pride of the Harlem Renaissance. “The black bourgeoisie suffers from ‘nothingness,’” chastised Frazier, “because when Negroes attain middle-class status, their lives generally lose both content and significance.”[11] Despite the challenges of attaining upward mobility and forging a cultural identity, a substantial percentage of black families could be classified by the 1960s, even in an otherwise pessimistic government report, as “a stable middle-class group that is steadily growing stronger and more successful.”[12]

Meanwhile, many struggling blacks found that urban life fragmented their families and failed to deliver the promised gateway to the middle class. In a chapter of The Negro Family entitled “Fathers on Leave,” Frazier identified “family desertion” as an “inevitable consequence of the urbanization of the Negro population.” As men “drift from city to city in search of work,” family bonds become strained to the breaking point. “Even when whole families have migrated,” wrote Frazier, “the community of interests and bonds of sympathies that created strong family ties in rural communities have often been unable to withstand the disintegrating forces of the city.” In cities, whether northern or southern, “poverty, ignorance, the absence of family traditions and community controls, and finally the sexual exploitation of the subordinate race by the dominant race” jointly resulted in “outlawed motherhood,” that is, illegitimacy. Frazier acknowledged that statistical records were uneven, complicating attempts to compare illegitimacy rates from Reconstruction to the early twentieth century. He also suggested that moral degeneracy was not the leading cause of illegitimacy. Rather, young black females were the victims of intergenerational cycles of community displacement and family disintegration, compounded by poverty and racism. The naiveté of the rural peasant upon arriving in the city also played a significant role. Rapid urbanization since 1900 had shattered rural community mores.[13]

Ultimately, Frazier concluded that sociofamilial stabilization and economic advancement for African Americans would require access to higher status jobs within a hitherto white-dominated system; moreover, any economic achievements attained would then be “transmitted to future generations” through the same fundamental institution that would permit those achievements to be attained in the first place, “the family,” as it assimilated to white middle-class norms.[14]

In An American Dilemma (1944), Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal reinforced Frazier’s main conclusions, detailing “the Negro problem” in 1,300 pages of fine-print analysis. Central to Myrdal’s account was the methodological concept of “cumulation” for explicating a “vicious cycle” by which African Americans had not merely stagnated into a socioeconomic equilibrium of poverty, but were spiraling into continual decline. Poverty in the black community played into white stereotypes that blacks were lazy or irresponsible, which in turn fostered racial discrimination in hiring practices, which in turn barred blacks from higher-paying jobs, which in turn made education for blacks seem like a waste of time while also making family commitments difficult to maintain, all of which reinforced, and indeed worsened, the status quo of poverty and racial subordination. In theory, this cumulative impact of interacting cultural factors could be turned toward the amelioration of the race as well. For this to happen, however, the cycle would have to be broken and then reversed at one or more critical junctures; only then would the vicious cycle become a cycle of improvement.[15]

One astute reader concluded in 1965 that “What Gunnar Myrdal said in An American Dilemma remains true today: ‘America is free to choose whether the Negro shall remain her liability or become her opportunity.’”[16] That reader was Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who took his cue from a chapter in Myrdal’s work entitled “The Negro Community as a Pathological Form of the American Community,” which both DuBois and Frazier had read in draft form with approval.[17] If only blacks could “become assimilated into American culture, to acquire the traits held in esteem by the dominant white Americans,” then the vicious cycle could be broken, advised Myrdal. One point of entry to which Moynihan took special notice was Myrdal’s diagnosis of “family disorganization” among African Americans.[18] 

The Strange Career of the Moynihan Report

“The Moynihan Report is probably the most famous piece of social scientific analysis never [sic] published,” wrote Douglas Massey and Robert Sampson for the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in 2009.[19] They were referring to a private report (marked “For Official Use Only”) that Moynihan prepared for the Lyndon Johnson administration in 1965. Entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” the report concluded by proposing, in boldfaced type: “The policy of the United States is to bring the Negro American to full and equal sharing in the responsibilities and rewards of citizenship. To this end, the programs of the Federal government bearing on this objective shall be designed to have the effect, directly or indirectly, of enhancing the stability and resources of the Negro American family.”[20] More specifically, Moynihan identified underemployment among black males and the corresponding “pathology” of single-female headed black households as the principle causes of an emerging epidemic of poverty among African Americans. He attributed these factors, in turn, to the debilitating effects of slavery. With the problem defined thus, Moynihan urged the federal government to provide education and jobs for black males in order that they may support their families and uplift their communities.

Moynihan also co-wrote the speech that President Johnson delivered at Howard University in June 1965, when introducing his program for affirmative action. Johnson summoned the federal government to ensure “not just freedom but opportunity, not just legal equality, but human ability—not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result.” Contrasting African Americans with other minorities, Johnson explained that the debilitating effects of slavery and the “breakdown of the Negro family structure” were preventing blacks from joining mainstream America; government assistance was necessary.[21]

While liberals rallied behind affirmative action, they soon abandoned the Moynihan Report. Part of the problem was that rumors concerning the report leaked to the press, hinting that the Johnson administration was blaming blacks for problems that an increasing proportion of Americans now attributed to white racial oppression. To clear the air, in September 1965 the Government Printing Office issued the full report for sale at 45 cents per copy. However, in the weeks preceding publication, five days of racial riots in the Watts district of Los Angeles—involving 35,000 people in the burning or looting of over 600 buildings—left many Americans concluding that African Americans were not victims, but aggressors.[22]  Although written months before the Watts incident, the Moynihan Report, as a result of pre-publication leaks followed by ill-timed publication, was interpreted by several news reporters “as the government’s explanation for the riots.”[23] By the time the report hit the streets, Moynihan’s rhetoric—“tangle of pathology,” “welfare dependency,” “reversed roles of husband and wife”—played right into the hands of some civil rights advocates who wanted to fault whites for “blaming the victim,” a phrase that journalist William Ryan would coin when addressing the aftermath of the Moynihan Report in 1971.[24]

Ironically, Moynihan was a committed liberal, but liberals abandoned him and conservatives co-opted his message. Like other liberals, Moynihan believed poverty to be a structural problem requiring a structural solution. He supported the Great Society while seeking to steer government efforts toward a provision of stipends to families with children, rather than means-tested, stigma-attracting welfare programs. Failing this, he believed the federal government must at least provide job training and public employment to black males, who in 1964 suffered from twice the unemployment rate of whites. After resigning from the Johnson administration in mid-1965, Moynihan publicly criticized the Office of Economic Opportunity for failing to foster public employment for black males. A few years later, he found himself serving in the Nixon administration, advocating for the Family Assistance Program, which targeted low-income families with children and provided incentives for employment. Unfortunately for Moynihan, feminists on the political left faulted the plan for patriarchal assumptions that belittled black women, while conservatives on the right would not approve an expansion of the welfare system. Consequently, the bill never made it to the Senate floor. Glancing past Moynihan’s concerns about black male unemployment, conservatives in the 1980s fixated instead upon his critique of single motherhood, deploying his statistics for a “family values” agenda that called upon blacks to solve their own problems through more responsible living, coupled with fiscal conservatism that blamed the welfare system for incentivizing out-of-wedlock childbearing.[25]

Lost in the shuffle was a book by Kenneth Clark, the psychologist whose white doll/black doll experiments had provided the foundation for the NAACP’s prevailing argument in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), namely, that segregation inherently precludes equal educational opportunity by sapping minority students of the self-esteem required to perform in the classroom. In Dark Ghetto, published the same year as the Moynihan Report, Clark concluded that “One of the inevitable results of the unemployment and menial job status of urban Negroes is family instability.” For example, he noted that in Harlem one out of five men are separated from their wives within the black community, compared to one out of thirty men in the community at large.[26] Like Moynihan, Clark believed that family stability and gainful employment of black males went hand in hand; the absence of one tended to lead to the absence of the other. However, even Clark’s expert evidence for Brown became suspect by some civil rights activists who took offense at the suggestion that blacks could not perform in school unless whites helped them build their self-esteem.[27] Despite good intentions from both Clark and Moynihan, their consensus about fatherhood and gainful employment could all too easily be read as assigning blame to black communities that failed to live up to white standards.

More recent research into the lives of single mothers reveals a further complication for policymakers who desire to ameliorate the plight of the poor. Women naturally desire to love and to be loved, and even in the absence of a stable male head of household (whether a father or a husband), they discover that they can love their own child, and the child will love them back. As sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas discovered, pregnancy and child-rearing provide fulfillment, whereas marriage provides risk, particularly in the eyes of impoverished minorities. Concluding that it is better to have children outside of marriage than for children to suffer the effects of divorce, poor women tend to commit themselves to a prioritization of childrearing above mate-bonding. The result is a perpetuation of single-motherhood.[28] What Moynihan called a “pathology” these women consider their only hope for fulfillment. Given the low level of wages among black males, and the prevalence of divorce even within the white middle class, the choice of single motherhood has at least the semblance of rationality.

The more the issues of marriage, male employment, racism, and poverty are examined from the perspective of black families themselves, the more one begins to wonder what the best standard for comparison ought to be. Robert Hill, a social researcher for the National Urban League, published The Strengths of Black Families in 1972 to counteract the negative stereotypes stemming from discussions of the Moynihan Report. A revised edition of the book, reinforcing Hill’s initial claims, appeared 25 years later. Hill argued that ethnographic studies of mid- and late-twentieth century African American communities—including low-income blacks in Washington, D.C., the very city in which Moynihan had worked—revealed “many functioning patterns.” Moynihan’s “pathology” talk, suggested Hill, spoke more to the fear whites had of their own socioeconomic decline than to the actual causes of racial inequalities for blacks.[29]

Moynihan had assumed the married-with-children nuclear family as normative. Judged by this standard, the emerging trends among the black urban poor portended social disaster. Hill, by contrast, defined families in terms of “the African concept of family.” By this he meant “networks of households related by blood, marriage, or function that provide basic instrumental and expressive functions of the family to those networks.” In other words, the African American family is “equivalent to the ‘extended family,’” with the extended family including also “fictive kin.” Hill differentiated between the European heritage that prioritizes the conjugal bond of the nuclear family and the African heritage that builds families around “consanguineal cores,” including networks of houses for “co-residential extended family.”[30] Other researchers have concurred, including Coontz, who concluded that these alternative family structures constitute “a rich extended kin of community life” rather than “pathological” family disintegration. Black extended families have successfully cared for “elders, paupers, and orphans” by themselves, rather than relying on institutions to do so.[31] To conservative critics who portray poor blacks as being lazily dependent upon welfare handouts, Hill noted that in 1989 fully one half of blacks eligible for public assistance did not claim it. Instead, they relied upon kin networks and personal efforts. In Hill’s interpretation, the decisive factor in overall family health may not so much be the absence of the father, but rather the presence of the grandmother.[32]

Whereas Moynihan assumed a male breadwinner was the ideal head of household, and labeled as problematic the lack of gainfully employed men, Hill emphasized the “flexibility” of black households in exchanging roles between husbands and wives, and also between children and parents: “Mothers often perform many traditional roles of fathers, fathers often assume customary female roles, and children perform some parental functions for younger siblings.” With black households having twice as many non-related persons as white households in the years following the Civil War, blacks relied more heavily on fictive kinship. What may appear to be a weakness by the nuclear family standard could prove a strength, as when the extended kin network cooperated to care for an unwed woman and her baby rather than shun her, as was more typical in communities of white nuclear households.[33]

Rather than denigrating black families as “matriarchal,” Hill portrayed them as “egalitarian.” Hill also challenged the dichotomy between “broken” and “intact” families, arguing that these structural descriptions do not necessarily correlate with functional differences—or at least not with functional disadvantage in the case of so-called “broken” homes. For example, after adjusting for income levels, Hill found that single-female headed households were more likely to send children to college. Surveys revealed that even low-income African American parents of the 1980s had high aspirations for their children to complete college, and that black youth shared their parents’ hope.[34]

Bart Landry, in The New Black Middle Class (1988), similarly found that black families of that generation placed a greater emphasis on education than did whites. He attributed this partly to the expectation that a college degree is a gateway out of the ghetto for racial minorities and partly to the fact that since college diplomas are rarer within the black community, they carry more prestige. In any case, the social conditions that predict that a child will become a middle-class adult vary between blacks and whites. For whites, the three strongest factors have been the father’s class, the father’s education, and the mother’s education; but for blacks, being born into the middle class has not ensured that one remains there, nor has a lower-status birth necessarily precluded advancement. Focusing on the 1950s through the 1980s, Landry found that “among blacks who made it into the middle class[,] less than one-third came from middle-class homes.” The key determinant was not the father’s social status, but rather “the positive impact of black mothers’ economic contribution on their sons’ education.”[35] If, then, the goal is to become middle class, the means need not be government programs that support the male breadwinner, as Moynihan had recommended. This is one lesson whites appear to have learned from blacks, for white female employment caught up with black female employment in the 1980s, as white families endured the hardships of stagnant male wages and began to seek a new model—or what, to African Americans, had long been the traditional model—of working mothers.

By the twenty-first century, the male breadwinner role had been replaced so pervasively by working mothers—whether as heads of households or married to working fathers—that studies on poverty could occasionally ignore what Moynihan thought was of central importance, namely, gainfully employed marital fatherhood. Sasha Abramsky, a freelance journalist and adjunct lecturer at the University of California–Davis, has compiled a revealing series of vignettes that probe the early twenty-first century much like Jacob Riis, in How the Other Half Lives (1890), examined the late nineteenth century. Abramsky’s The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives (2013) demonstrates a widespread and deeply felt poverty into which many Americans have fallen, from which few can climb out, and on the brink of which many others precariously balance. Like Riis a century and a quarter earlier, Abramsky calls upon the upper classes to consider the plight of those less fortunate. When discussing the Moynihan Report, however, Abramsky dodges the elephant in the room—fatherlessness—dismissing Moynihan’s “culture of poverty” as a misidentified list of supposed pathologies, including “dependency, sexual profligacy, lack of ambition, violence, and other dysfunction.” Neglecting to note that Moynihan himself focused on that “other dysfunction,” namely, black fatherlessness and black male unemployment, Abramsky rushes to accuse him of a mischaracterization of African American lives that high-handedly blamed the victim and focused public policy on “changing people’s behavior” rather than meeting their needs.[36] Although he is not the first to accuse Moynihan of taking the wrong approach, Abramsky fails to acknowledge what that approach actually was. Over half of the Moynihan Report was dedicated to the relationship between economic stability and family structure; Abramsky, by contrast, rarely even mentions single motherhood, and his index includes no entries for “marriage,” “divorce,” or “family.”

Do Fathers Still Matter?

May 17, 2004 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling to desegregate public schools, Brown v. Board of Education. To commemorate that civil rights victory, three thousand well-to-do African Americans assembled in tuxedos and gowns at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The anniversary speaker was black comedian and actor Bill Cosby, who had authored Fatherhood, a witty parenting advice book, with the assistance of Harvard psychiatrist and Cosby Show consultant Alvin F. Poussaint. Departing from his prepared speech[37], Cosby marked the fiftieth anniversary of Brown with a steroid injection of tough love: by neglecting family values and permitting their children to embrace a culture of irresponsibility, the parents of 2004 were wasting what had been earned by their forebears in 1954. High-school dropout rates, prison sentences, unwed teen pregnancy, and a host of other social pathologies had become characteristic of black communities, said Cosby. Why was this occurring? “We can’t blame the white people,” he answered firmly.[38]

Although Cosby’s immediate audience responded with a standing ovation, the Washington Post ran a story revealing that many leaders in the black community, including veterans of the civil rights movement, were appalled that he would stoop so low as to blame the victims of white oppression.[39] Three weeks later, however, Cosby held his ground at the annual convention of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and Citizenship Education Fund. African American youth “think they’re hip. They can’t read; they can’t write. They’re laughing and giggling and they’re going nowhere.” Nowhere, that is, except down a path of self-delusion and violent destruction. “You’ve got to stop beating up your women because you can’t find a job, because you don’t want to get an education,” chastised Cosby.[40] Once again, the immediate audience applauded enthusiastically, while pundits and columnists charged Cosby with racism, elitism, and betrayal of his own heritage. In time, Cosby’s message would be discredited by those who accused him of sexually exploiting women and children,[41] but as grave as his personal faults may be, the message still must be critiqued separately from the messenger.

Juan Williams, himself both a veteran and an historian of the civil rights movement, interprets Cosby’s speeches in 2004 differently than do his critics. Cosby was faulting not poor black folk, but the new generation of black leadership, says Williams. More specifically, political and cultural leaders are failing to exhort the young to pursue marriage, education, and hard work—three cardinal virtues for success in America (and, for that matter, anywhere). Instead of calling crack dealers to account, black leaders have too often urged more lenient sentences for convicted crack users; instead of extolling chastity and thrift, black leaders have too often been silent about the sex, alcohol, and hoodlum lifestyles that populate the black entertainment industry.[42]

Williams’s analysis challenges two prevailing assumptions: that structural inequalities prevent blacks from overcoming poverty through self-discipline; and, more particularly, that marriage entraps rather than frees the poor to lift themselves into the middle class. Williams rejects the first assumption when he writes, “A poisonous message for black people hides in that line of thinking, one that is particularly damaging to the black poor, struggling for education and opportunity: Whites have all the power, you are weak, you can’t make a difference for yourself or your family, and you will always be a victim.” As for the second assumption, Williams counters by citing research from the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for American Values. “If any person, including a black child born in poverty, will go as far as possible in school and show a willingness to work,” summarizes Williams, “he will be rewarded with enough money in his pocket to make it almost certain he will never get caught in poverty. If he also builds on the foundation of a strong marriage before having children, he will be rewarded.” According to Cosby and Williams, the best strategy for intergenerational success requires just four basic steps: “Getting a high school education, not having children until one is twenty-one and married, working hard at any job, and being good parents.”[43]

Although “being good parents” happens best when Dad and Mom remain married to one another, some researchers have suggested that the cloud of single parenthood may have a silver lining after all. National health statistics reveal that “absent fathers” sometimes participate in their children’s lives far more than their statistical category would suggest. Although about one in three men (whether black or white) have children living with them, black men are three times more likely than white men to live apart from their minor children (24% vs. 8%). Even so, these “absent fathers” participate in the lives of their children more than that statistical categorization suggests—especially in the case of blacks. In fact, black fathers living apart from children under age five are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to play with those children on a daily basis (17% vs. 7%). Similarly, black fathers living apart from school-aged children are twice as likely as white “absent fathers” to assist their children daily with their homework (10% vs. 5%) and they are three times as likely to do so several times per week (16% vs. 5%). Whereas only 30% of white fathers ever assist children who live apart with their homework, nearly half of black fathers offer assistance at least occasionally. The higher levels of fatherly participation among blacks also can be seen when the father shares the same home with children: 41% of black fathers help children in their home with homework on a daily basis, compared to only 28% of coresidential white fathers.[44]

The same patterns appeared in earlier research, both quantitative and qualitative. Kathryn Edin and colleagues discovered that “while the conventional wisdom might assume that unmarried fathers are uninvolved because they are eager to evade responsibility for pregnancy, our results suggest a very different story.” Across all races, ongoing involvement of nonresidential, unmarried fathers is “relatively high” compared to the “hit-and-run” stereotype of abandonment. African American fathers are more likely than whites or Hispanics to continue a romantic relationship, even if not cohabiting with or marrying the child’s mother, and consequently are also more likely to maintain close ties with the children. “I am glad I have four children,” explained one black father, “regardless [of whether] I’m with their mother.” A close examination of 165 nonresidential fathers revealed that, aside from episodes of drug addiction or incarceration, their lifestyles include “almost continuous intensive fatherhood.” That being said, Edin’s team “concur[red] with Moynihan” that “it is unlikely that many children in this situation will receive the same level of emotional or financial investment enjoyed by those who live stably with both their biological mothers and fathers.”[45]

Families of the Twenty-first Century

A century ago, DuBois announced that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line”[46]; subsequent history has fulfilled that expectation. Now, in a new century characterized, positively, by equality before the law for blacks and whites and, negatively, by a decline in marital childrearing for both races, a new prediction may be in order: The problem of the twenty-first century will be the problem of the marriage line. To what extent that problem may be safely ignored, or to what extent the word “marriage” may be safely redefined, will soon be revealed. The experiences of African Americans, meanwhile, provide several helpful hints.

First, it is worth recognizing that Moynihan was both right and wrong. He correctly learned from Frazier and Myrdal that fatherhood matters, and he prudently advised that one of the most effective tools of liberal reform would be for the federal government to provide an economic stimulus for the training and employment of men. That way, communities can be rebuilt from the family up after first rebuilding families from the father down. On the other hand, Moynihan also got the story wrong. He blamed the problems of the mid-twentieth century on slavery, failing to appreciate the progress that African American families had made, despite slavery, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His focus on the nuclear family also was too narrow, for in stigmatizing single females he neglected to recognize that though unmarried, they were not necessarily alone; extended kin networks provided for black families a far more effective safety net than contemporary white families found in their own kin.

That being said, Moynihan’s critics also have only a partial grasp of the truth. Extended kin has been a great strength, but it also can be a great weakness, for when kin networks are overemphasized, fatherhood appears expendable. As a recent study by the National Fatherhood Initiative concludes, “The large proportion of mothers, who think that mothers or other males can adequately substitute for absent or uninvolved fathers, is cause for concern.”[47] As the “New Research” section of The Family in America routinely demonstrates, children almost always fare best when raised by both biological parents united in a lifelong marriage. Moreover, surely there is some truth to the conservative argument that the proportion of children born out of wedlock has increased as a result of welfare programs that discourage marital procreation. Even so, liberals also are correct when they point out that the welfare-illegitimacy correlation does not indicate a straightforward causation. For one thing, the rising proportion of out-of-wedlock births has resulted partly from the fact that although birthrates have declined for unmarried black women, the birthrate among married black women has declined even more steeply.[48] This fact should bring to mind an issue introduced at the beginning of this article: what is the appropriate standard for measuring family health? Perhaps the declining fertility of marriages should concern conservatives as much as the perpetuation of non-marital childrearing.

How, then, can families be flexible, without stretching so far as to fracture the marriage bond? Conversely, how can marriages remain intact, without becoming so focused on the nuclear family as to isolate themselves from kin communities? Reflecting upon the experiences of African Americans, the best way forward is not simply for blacks to become more like whites (especially not now that whites have become less like whites used to be, when white marriages were long-lasting, fertile, and economically stable). Nor is the solution simply for whites to learn from examples of black resilience (although that would be worthwhile, too). Of more fundamental importance, people of all races must discover from humanity’s diverse cultural heritage those signposts which point to an enduring human nature: that the man and the woman from whose bodies a child is given life, remain with one another; that they provide for and nurture that child, in loving cooperation; that their financial ambitions do not carry them too far from the home, even if one or both must leave on occasion; that they remain humble enough to ask for help, and gracious enough to provide help, across an intergenerational network of expanded kin and community; and, finally, that they support government programs that protect, restore, and supplement, rather than preempt, replace, or supplant, the enduring functionality of the natural family.


Ryan C. MacPherson, Ph.D., is author of Rediscovering the American Republic (2 vols.) and Senior Editor of The Family in America. He serves as chair of the History Department at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minnesota.

[1]      W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903; rpt., New York: Vintage, 1990), 7, 9.

[2]     DuBois, The Negro American Family, Atlanta University Publications Series 13 (1908), 21, 25, 27, 31.

[3]     Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 1992),  239–40.

 [4]     Juan Williams, Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America—and What We Can Do about It (New York: Crown, 2006), 88.

 [5]     Elizabeth H. Pleck, “The Two-Parent Household: Black Family Structure in Late Nineteenth-Century Boston,” Journal of Social History 6.1 (1972): 3–31.

 [6]     Douglas J. Besharov and Andrew West, “African American Marriage Patterns,” Beyond the Color Line: New Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity in America, eds. Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom (Stanford: Hoover Institution, 2002), 95–109, at 96.

 [7]     Stephanie J. Ventura and Christine A. Bachrach, “Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States, 1940–99,” National Vital Statistics Reports 48.16 (October 18, 2000), Figure 9.

 [8]     E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Family in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939), 146, 150, 153, 155–56.

 [9]     Ibid., 158, 179–80.

 [10]   Ibid., 246, 485–86

 [11]   E. Franklin Frazier, Black Bourgeoisie (French ed., 1955; trans., Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1957), 238.

 [12]   Office of Policy Planning and Research, United States Dept. of Labor, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” March 1965 (rpt., Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1965), 5.

[13]   Frazier, The Negro Family, 325, 343, 346, 356, 484. 

[14]   Ibid., 488.

[15]   Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma, 2 vols. (1944; rpt., New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), esp. chap. 3 and app. 3.

[16]   Office of Policy Planning and Research, “The Negro Family,” [i]. 

[17]   James T. Patterson, Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life—from LBJ to Obama (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 32.

[18]   Myrdal, An American Dilemma, 2:929, 934.

[19]   Douglas Massey and Robert Sampson, “Moynihan Redux: Legacies and Lessons,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 621 (2009): 6–27, at 6.

 [20]   Office of Policy Planning and Research, “The Negro Family.” 

[21]   Lyndon Johnson, quoted in Daniel Geary, Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and Its Legacy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 76.

[22]    James T. Patterson, Freedom Is Not Enough, 58.

[23]   Lee Rainwater and William L. Yancey, The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy (Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1967), 192.

[24]   Massey and Sampson, “Moynihan Redux,” 9.

[25]   James T. Patterson, Freedom Is Not Enough, 15–18, 117–20, 130.

[26]   Kenneth B. Clark, Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 47.

[27]   Daryl Michael Scott, Contempt and Pity: Social Policy and the Image of the Damaged Black Psyche, 1880–1996 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

[28]   Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage (Berkely, CA: University of California Press, 2005). 

[29]   Robert B. Hill, The Strengths of African American Families: Twenty-Five Years Later (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1999), 9–10.

[30]   Ibid., 40, 48.

[31]   Coontz, The Way We Never Were, 241.

[32]   Hill, The Strengths of African American Families, 101, 124.

[33]   Ibid., 107.

[34]   Ibid., 83–85, 109, 110, 112.

[35]   Bart Landry, The New Black Middle Class (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 97–98. 

[36]   Sasha Abramsky, The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives (New York: Nation Books, 2013), 81.

[37]   Williams, Enough, 2.

[38]   Ibid., 8. 

[39]   Ibid., 12.

[40]   Ibid., 19. 

[41]   Michael Eric Dyson, Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? (New York: Basic Civitas, 2005), chap. 4; Manuel Roig-Franzia, et al., “Bill Cosby’s Legacy, Recast: Accusers Speak in Detail about Sexual-Assault Allegations,” Washington Post, November 22, 2014, Web.

[42]   Williams, Enough, 25, 29–30. 

[43]   Ibid., 69, 217, 229.

[44]   Jo Jones and William D. Mosher, “Fathers’ Involvement with their Children: United States, 2006–2010,” National Health Statistics Reports 71 (December 20, 2013), Table 1, at p. 12.

[45]   Kathyryn Edin, Laura Tach, and Ronald Mincy, “Claiming Fatherhood: Race and the Dynamics of Paternal Involvement among Unmarried Men,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 621 (2009): 149–77, quoting 162, 170, 171, 172.

[46]   DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, 3.

[47]   Norval Glenn and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, “Mama Says: A National Survey of Mothers’ Attitudes on Fathering,” National Fatherhood Initiative (2009),

 [48]   Coontz, The Way We Never Were, 236.



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