Sociologist touts strengths of black families He lists work ethic, kin support network, religious foundation


Robert B. Hill doesn't deny that almost half of black American families are headed by single women, or that most of those women's children live in poverty, or that those facts are cause for concern.

But Hill says black families -- including many low-income ones headed by single women -- often have strengths that are seldom noticed: a solid work ethic; high aspirations for their children; broad kinship support networks, and a strong religious foundation.

"I'm not advocating the single-parent household. Economically, they're at a disadvantage," said Hill, director of Morgan State University's Institute for Urban Research. "But we should not immediately equate single-parent families with 'broken' and two-parent families with 'intact.' Many single-parent families function well."

Hill, a sociologist, was among the first scholars to focus on what's right with the black family. In 1972, as director of research for the National Urban League, he published "The Strengths of Black Families." Now he has written a sequel, "The Strengths of African American Families: Twenty-Five Years Later."

Hill says researchers and reporters alike have largely probed the black family's failures but neglected its successes.

"I acknowledge the problems -- unemployment, poverty, out-of-wedlock births, substance abuse, AIDS, crime, violence," Hill said. "But after those problems have been identified, the story stops. Then go on to identify solutions."

Hill's review of research on black families often dispels stereotypes. Some examples:

* Single black women who head families are about as likely to have attended college as to have dropped out of high school. Their children are nearly as likely to go to college as the children of black two-parent families.

* Black families of all income levels have high educational goals for their children, often higher than those of white families. Among families with annual incomes of less than $20,000, 83 percent of black parents expect their children to complete college, compared with 72 percent of similar white parents.

* Rates of child abuse, runaways and drug abuse are lower in single-parent black families than in comparable white families. Black youths smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, and use marijuana and cocaine at lower rates than white youths.

* The black extended family places four times as many children in homes as do child welfare agencies. While 200,000 black children are in foster care, 800,000 are informally adopted by relatives.

* Most blacks express a strong religious commitment. In a 1994 Gallup survey, 82 percent of blacks said religion was "very important" in their lives, compared with 55 percent of whites. Black youths from church-going families generally do better in school and get in less trouble than their peers.

Some strengths of black families, particularly the willingness of the extended family to help raise children, are rooted in their African heritage, Hill says.

A quarter-century ago, Hill's work on the strengths of black families did not receive its due, said Robert L. Woodson Sr., president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

"The climate of the time was black grievance, and Bob Hill's work didn't fit," Woodson said. "It was out of step for Bob Hill to talk about our strengths. He was a lone voice.

"We didn't realize that by focusing on disabilities and injuries, we were communicating a self-defeating message to our people," Woodson said. "People are motivated by victories that are possible. Bob Hill's work has always documented these victories."

Hill's approach is still not the norm, said Margaret Simms, vice president for research at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.

"There is a lot of emphasis on families that don't function well, and we don't try to learn enough from those that are successful," she said. "If you want to know how single mothers raise children that do well, you should look at them. We haven't done enough of it."

Hill, 58, is the product of a working-class family in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. His father, who left the home when Hill was an adolescent, was a cook. His mother cleaned houses and later government offices. Hill commuted to City College of New York on the subway, became the first in his family to earn a degree, and later received a doctorate in sociology from Columbia University.

Hill acknowledges that he may be accused of romanticizing or offering rationalizations for black poverty. He insists that he does neither.

But he says that America needs a more balanced view of black families. He believes that society is fixated on the so-called "underclass" but ignores the equally large black working class. He says the nation pays more attention to the two black families in 10 that are on welfare than to the eight that are not.

"There's a double standard on how we treat the white poor and the black poor," Hill said.

Media coverage of the white poor usually focuses on external causes of poverty, such as plant closings and changing technology, he said. But he says the black poor are portrayed as beset by internal problems -- the crumbling family structure, a breakdown in values, a poor work ethic -- without attention to economic causes.

Hill says a mix of public policy (economic growth, subsidized public-service jobs and affordable child care) and self-help initiatives (such as mentoring and entrepreneurship programs in black churches and communities) could strengthen black families.

Hill says black families have developed ways to cope that could be of use to other Americans.

"You can learn some things from blacks other than their music," he said. "All of our families can learn from each other."

Pub Date: 7/07/97

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