Chasing the Jones

This week, the NYTimes published an op-ed referencing a famous report: The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. In this 1965 report, Moynihan, the Asst. Sec’t of Labor, declares the deterioration of the black family as the main reason why blacks were and would perpetually be at the bottom of the indices for well-being in the country. What Moynihan most considered pathological is that

In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is to out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.

This report angered many, and continues to anger. Pathology is a deviation or difference from some “normal” condition, and this report made it quite clear that what is normal is what white folks do.

The report itself does contain some references saying that the differences in the black community are pathological because they differ from the white community, not because the practices themselves are inherently bad. Like in Chapter IV:

There is, presumably, no special reason why a society in which males are dominant in family relationships is to be preferred to a matriarchal arrangement. However, it is clearly a disadvantage for a minority group to be operating on one principle, while the great majority of the population, and the one with the most advantages to begin with, is operating on another. This is the present situation of the Negro. Ours is a society which presumes male leadership in private and public affairs. The arrangements of society facilitate such leadership and reward it. A subculture, such as that of the Negro American, in which this is not the pattern, is placed at a distinct disadvantage.

Of course, that is not the dominant narrative of the report, which then goes forth and gives all the testimonies of the black leaders of the time that spouts thinly veiled black female hating nonsense, such as:

Whitney Young:

“Historically, in the matriarchal Negro society, mothers made sure that if one of their children had a chance for higher education the daughter was the one to pursue it.”32

“The effect on family functioning and role performance of this historical experience [economic deprivation] is what you might predict. Both as a husband and as a father the Negro male is made to feel inadequate, not because he is unlovable or unaffectionate, lacks intelligence or even a gray flannel suit. But in a society that measures a man by the size of his pay check, he doesn’t stand very tall in a comparison with his white counterpart. To this situation he may react with withdrawal, bitterness toward society, aggression both within the family and racial group, self-hatred, or crime. Or he may escape through a number of avenues that help him to lose himself in fantasy or to compensate for his low status through a variety of exploits.”33

The report is pretty clear that it believes that these “pathologies” began due to the three centuries of injustice and oppression, but that going forward, the burden is on the nation to strengthen black families. After it does that, blacks are on their own:

In a word, a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure. The object should be to strengthen the Negro family so as to enable it to raise and support its members as do other families. After that, how this group of Americans chooses to run its affairs, take advantage of its opportunities, or fail to do so, is none of the nation’s business.

The report is fascinating in that it both “blames the victim” and properly roots the problem in history at the same time. In 20 pages, the report gives an overview of American slavery, the failure of Reconstruction and urbanization, and shows how it has contributed to the “pathologies” it identifies. It recognizes the horrors inflicted on Black people, but consistently downplays that racism still existed in 1965 or that racism or bias has any effect on family structure, test scores, education, or crime and delinquency.

In recalling the report in the op-ed, the author of the NYTimes op-ed interestingly ends with a call to provide for the safety and well-being of children, citing some of Moynihan’s predictions about out-of wedlock births and fatherless homes. While I obviously agree with the sentiment, these days family structure is not the primary reason for why children are unprotected. A single mother could do a damn good job raising her children if she had a job that could adequately provide for them. If the criminal justice system did not disenfranchise felons, making them ineligible to live in public housing or receive student loans, then perhaps more fathers could live with their children, or get educations.

If we continue to base what’s “normal” on what white folks do, we will continue to miss what the real problems are, and continue to believe the lie that there is something “wrong” with us. There is nothing wrong with us. There is something wrong with the world we live in.

14 thoughts on “Chasing the Jones

  1. I’m a little bit torn, and a bit confused about your response to the report. I have not read the report, but agree that the parts you excerpt seem to be some “black-female-hating-nonsense.” I also agree that there are many things we could do to protect children before we start blaming family structure.

    At the same time, a stable two-parent household has its advantages, starting with increased financial stability and a sharing of parenting duties. To the extent that the report favors heterosexual family arrangements, I don’t necessarily prefer that arrangement, but do think there’s something there: children should be exposed to both male and female loving caretakers; there is something unique that each can provide. If I were in a same-sex relationship, I would try to make sure that there was a male figure–uncle, male close friend, etc.–that would be committed to being involved in my child’s life, and committed to providing advice and support for the parenting decisions my partner and I made.

    You say that a single mother could do a “damn good job,” but in the next statement, you seem to want more men to live with their children. Do you mean as single-fathers, or in the home with mom? If it’s the latter, is that ideal for you? Is that better than a single-parenting situation?

    Finally, although I agree that the “norm” in the report seems to be based on white middle-class families, I don’t know that that makes it a bad standard to strive for. Focusing on the goal of two-parent households is not problematic just because our society has made it easier for Whites to achieve. I guess I’m open to the discussion of family structure in our communities, and whether we’re losing something by poo-poing the “ideal.”

    Just some thoughts…

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    1. ORJ,

      You state that there are advantages to two parent homes and I agree there can be and usually are. However, we have to take into account that they don’t always mean increased financial stability or shared parenting responsibilities. In fact, many 2 parent homes include one person, usually the mother, who stays home and she usually handles the bulk of the parenting responsibilities. I’ve also encountered entirely too many situations like this where, from the outside, the couple cannot afford to do this, but they do it anyway, relying on the government to make ends meet. And even when both parents work, we know that women generally end up taking on more parenting responsibilities. Maybe its a reflection on how our society has ostracized men from the parenting process, but it is still a big deal. Is it changing? Yes. Which is great. But two parents in the home is just the starting point.

      LaToya, the Whitney Young quotation is not unlike Wilson’s “Truly Disadvantaged” where he basically suggests that the main problem causing the breakdown of the Black family is Black Male economics. If a man can’t work, he can’t provide. If he can’t provide, he feels inadequate. He can’t handle feeling inadequate day in and day out so he abandons his family, either in search of distant work (to a lesser extent) or to remove himself from facing being a failure every day. If the Black male leaves, the Black woman has no choice but to pick up the slack and that behavior is why so many Black women grow strong, yet bitter, jaded, cynical. They pass that onto their children which passes right along with the absence of the Black Male father figure, and the cycle continues.

      “If we continue to base what’s “normal” on what white folks do, we will continue to miss what the real problems are, and continue to believe the lie that there is something “wrong” with us. There is nothing wrong with us. There is something wrong with the world we live in.”

      I do agree with this. I am, for one, tired of our existence being that which is measured against White people. I know why it is; they are the majority. However, we have to make sure that our value system is exactly the same as theirs before we can begin to make any relevant comparisons. I argue that we don’t always have the same values, so its like comparing apples and oranges. How about we establish our own standards and guidelines by which we measure success? They need not be lower or higher than those of Whites, but maybe they are just different? Society has to change, yes. But it seems that with every progress there is a setback. So instead of feeling so downtrodden all of the time because we don’t measure up to them, why don’t we use a different stick?

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  2. I was just giving examples of what could be done to help children that are more about institutional/societal responses rather than responses that are solely in the sphere of the black community. A single mother headed household is not a problem for children, in my opinion, if she has employment that can support her family and adequate child care. The fact that thee are not fathers in the home is not a pathology inherent to the black community, but rather a consequence of the punitive criminal justice system that sends black men to prison and then makes it impossible for them to positively reintegrate into their communities after release. The report implies that the deteriorattinf black family is because blacks don’t value family in the same way whites do. I don’t think that is the case.

    Do children of two parent opposite sex households have better long term outcomes than children of two parent same sex households? I can understand why it might seem intuitive that the former is preferable, but I am not sure that this is the case. Is there data on this? I know the latter group might be pretty small.

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    1. I don’t know if there is any data suggesting that children of two-parent opposite sex households have better long term outcomes, and it was not my intention to suggest that (even though I admit that’s the conclusion one makes after reading my response). I don’t think same-sex two-parent households are problematic, but I do think that men and women each have something unique to offer the children in their lives, and that children miss out on something important if they don’t get exposure to both. I don’t know how to reconcile that with a dearth of data to suggest any long-term negative consequences; like you said, I guess it’s my intuition. But if I were in a same-sex marriage, I’d make sure my kids had a male role model in their lives.

      As far as not having fathers in the home–does the data really suggest that high criminalization rates is the main reason black men are not in the homes??? If so, that is news to me! Although I’m aware that our communities are suffering from over-criminalization of black men, I also thought that single-parent homes and children born out of wedlock was a phenomenon on the rise across all communities in the US, but–as usual–experienced more acutely in black communities. Wouldn’t you say there has been an increasingly liberal attitude toward having children before and/or out of marriage in general? And that that attitude has been more liberal in black communities? It doesn’t strike me as right that the only reason we have more single mothers is because black men are in jail. Then again, maybe I’m just not caught up on the data…

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      1. Well, you are probably right, I don’t think the majority of reason for single motherhood in the black community is due to prison rates, although I think it is a big reason. According to some of the sociological data, most low SES women, who tend to make up the majority of single mothers, actually highly value marriage, and aspire to be married. But they don’t believe they or their prospective partners have the prerequisites for marriage, such as financial stability and the like. And that shouldn’t be surprising – I know many middle class people, especially men, who say they are waiting to get married until they feel like they can “afford” it.

        But I don’t think that this is an issue of a more liberal “attitude” toward motherhood before marriage rather than just a reality of the situation. Although perhaps you are right to a certain degree; black single women who get pregnant are much more likely to NOT chose abortion than are white single women who get pregnant. If that is a more “liberal” attitude toward single motherhood, then so be it. But to me, that signals a stronger commitment to an idea of family, to an idea of motherhood, no matter what it looks like, and I think there is tremendous value in that.

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    2. Well speaking economically, same sex couples have higher incomes than opposite sex couples, so if we want to talk economic advantage, they have the edge there.

      As for the rise of female-headed single parent homes in the Black community, this is an interesting phenomenon, but not one that cannot be explained. First, we can look historically at marriage between Blacks. When it was illegal to get married, we did the best we could to try and keep our families together. When we were separated and sold away from each other, we learned how to adapt and adjust. The concept of the Black Family has NEVER been the same as those of Whites in this country and that started off because the laws would not allow it to be so. We adjusted, did what we could, for generations. When people get used to a certain way of being, it is hard to change that. Can you imagine our ancestors’ agony when they create a child, only to find out they are being sold to another state? Would we not think, over time, that a certain level of detachment would take hold, especially among the men?

      When we finally got the rights to legally marry, we did it, yes, because its something we wanted. But marriage itself never really dictated how we did “family”. We adjusted. The funny thing is that for a people SO rooted in religion and the morality that comes with it, we had to adjust because the laws of the land would not allow us to live according to the laws of our faith. So, we adjusted our morality. We adjusted our values. The whole “Sex before marriage” thing seemed to not apply to us.

      Then, we lost a disproportionate number of our men to the Vietnam war, which is around the time that the single parent boom came to be in our communities. There were little work options so most brothers signed up or were drafted, leaving wives/girlfriends at home to raise the children. Those who made it back were even more disparately affected by the lack of job options (general economic toil + racism) and they were lured in by drugs (Self-medicating), which suddenly became plentiful in Black communities (hmmm). With drugs came gangs and violence associated with that. Those boy children left home grew into young men without Daddies at home, so they turned to gangs, looked up to pimps (who stayed having money) and those were their influences. The church stopped being inspirational because the church wasn’t providing jobs, it was just providing words of hope that weren’t translating well into reality. Our “leaders” were all dead, for the most part ,and Black folks were like “what do we do now?”

      We have to think of this in this historical context and recognize the generational effects of systematic racism, poverty, housing discrimination, etc. The American Negro is still suffering these effects and the Negro Family is feeling it the worst.

      These are not excuse, but rather valid explanations. Not everyone is strong enough to break the cycles. As someone going through a divorce, I can tell you, my son’s father had a LOT of these issues which came from his parents’, their behavior, and their issues, which came from theirs.

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  3. Okay, now I’m really turned around. Isn’t the controversy over the Atlanta billboards and Maafa21 based on the fact that black women are having abortions at disproportionately higher rates than white women? Am I misunderstanding the point you’re making? Why do I get the feeling that I’m careening towards a math lesson, here? LOL.

    To the extent, however, that abortion seems to be more unacceptable in the black community (disproportionate numbers of abortions notwithstanding), I’m not sure it’s all about valuing family. I think it’s also about undervaluing other things in life, like higher education, a career, and long-term financial stability. Sometimes, I think we underestimate the ways in which having a child before you’re mentally and physically ready will set you back. Children are beautiful; they’re a gift. But there’s a cost, even if you are ready, speaking much less of before you’ve gone to college, started a career, attained some income stability, or found a committed partner to help you raise that child. Combine that undervaluing with a potentially more cavalier attitude towards single motherhood in black communities (like Benee said–we adjust, and in many of our communities it’s become the norm), and we have a different perspective on abortions. Maybe that different perspective is ultimately a good one. But I don’t think it’s all an inherently virtuous dedication to the family unit. If there were a better understanding of what would be sacrificed, or, a sense that more opportunities were available to us (that higher ed, a career, and long-term financial stability were actually accessible to us), the willingness to take on single motherhood early in life would be different.

    Getting back to your point about keeping up with the Jones’, we might debate whether an alternate set of values is “better,” but I think it’s unrealistic to ignore which set of values pay dividends in terms of life outcomes. Unless we’re all packing up and moving to an island, the reality is that there are a certain set of behaviors that improve life outcomes, in this country, at this time. We either change our behavior, or somehow get larger society to start valuing our alternative behavior. My bet is on the former. That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t acknowledge the racist and classist phenomenon that has led to alternative behavior, and try to remediate it.

    Are you referring to Promises I Can Keep? Yes, I also read the book to conclude that single-mothers do “value” marriage. But there can be a disconnect between saying you “value” a goal, and actually understanding how to achieve that goal. The same thing happens with education; black parents unwaveringly say they “value” education, but many don’t know what that means on a day-to-day level; they don’t know how to give that value meaning. All of which is not a surprise; in a country that says it “values” children, there is a lot of law and social policy that is hostile to the well-being of American children.

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    1. LOL, yes, it is a bit of a math lesson. A professor here at SLS thinks that the disproportionate number of abortions is because black women are disproportionately likely to be single. Single women are more likely to have an abortion than are married women. But single black women are more likely than a single white woman to not have an abortion. But black women are more likely to be single, so still have more abortions. And this is true at every income level. Get it?

      “I think it’s also about undervaluing other things in life, like higher education, a career, and long-term financial stability.”

      I don’t agree that our community undervalues education, financial stability, or careers. I don’t agree that women who have children prior to marriage undervalue those things. Perhaps our community is less likely to know or understand what it takes to get those things, or feels like those things are unattainable, but there is little data that says we undervalue them. Our children have the same aspirations as white children. Most parents, of all races and SES levels, say they want their kids to go to college. So the issue is not one of values. This is true among a set of many variables, including crime, etc. Blacks do not have a different set of values as whites. Just a different meaning attached to those values.

      “black parents unwaveringly say they “value” education, but many don’t know what that means on a day-to-day level; they don’t know how to give that value meaning.”

      I am also not convinced this is the case, but that’s for another post 🙂 And perhaps my dissertation.

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      1. I agree somewhat with ORJ’s POV about parents wanting education for their children but not necessarily knowing the step-by-step processes.

        Many parents know nothing about applying tp private schools, have never even heard of boarding schools, don’t know what FAFSA is, don’t know anything about deadlines for applications, etc. Guidance counselors are supposed to help students with their college applications, but most schools have ONE counselors for hundreds of students. I was lucky that in my school, there were 4 college admissions counselors and we were each assigned a counselor in our junior years. This was in boarding school. The average public school kid doesn’t have access to this type of assistance.

        And if the parents barely graduated high school themselves and never engaged in the college application process, they don’t know much about anything. Sure, they can research it, but let’s face it… the past generation isn’t all technologically savvy like we are.

        Coming up, I had parents who went to college. I had parents who wanted me to have the best, so they researched and worked hard so I could have the best. That was because they knew better. Too many of my friends missed out on great opportunities because their parents didnt know better and their parents feared what they did not know. They maintained the status quo and despite the eagerness of their children to try new things, they let their ignorance of educational matters squash their children’s dreams.

        My sister in law should have gone to Harvard. She scored damn near perfect on her SATs and had great grades in high school. She is also dirt poor so she could have gone for free. Where is she? At a CUNY school. Why? No motivation, support, or help from her mother… who is always talking about how important education is. I tried to offer my help, but felt I was perceived as meddling or questioning her parenting skills. So, I backed off and sadly watched more potential be wasted.

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      2. Why do you think her potential is “wasted” at a CUNY school? I’m seriously interested in this question because I think it reflects what I mean by the difference not in the value attached to education, but the meaning. I think black parents want their kids to go to college, but aren’t as concerned about which college. And perhaps that is a detriment to our community (or not – see my post about the student loan debt.) I remember my mother chastising me when I was deciding on law schools, when I was saying that if I got into Harvard, I was going to Harvard. (I did get in, my ego says.) She couldn’t understand why I was making a decision on a name alone. To her, law school is law school. Same when I was applying to college – without my full ride to Penn, I wasn’t going. Why spend all that money when there was a perfectly good small women’s college right down the street that cost a quarter of the price, even if no one had ever heard of it before (Chestnut Hill College)? To her, a college degree is a college degree – credentials are credentials. I think to many black folk, that is the value – get the degree, no matter where it comes from.

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  4. Hi LaToya,
    I was wondering if I could have your permission to cross-post “Chasing the Joneses” to Love Isn’t Enough (loveisntenough.com), a blog about parenting and race.

    Let me know what you think.

    Thanks,
    Julia

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