A 'strengths perspective' on black families


TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago, as director of research for the National Urban League, I wrote a book, "The Strengths of Black Families," to counteract the unbalanced treatment of black families in research studies as well as in the media.

The typical portrayal of black families focuses on the weaknesses of a disadvantaged "underclass," while excluding any consideration of the large majority of working-class, middle-class, and upper-class families. Answers are rarely sought to such questions as, "Why eight out of 10 black families are not on welfare?" or "Why two out of three black males do not have contact with the criminal justice system?"

A generation later, many of the gaps in unemployment, poverty and one-parent families between blacks and whites persist. Yet, new social problems have emerged: the availability of guns to youth, teen violence, open-air drug trafficking, a crack epidemic, AIDS and homelessness. Moreover, while jobs are exported from inner-cities, drugs and weapons are imported. If it was difficult to understand how a social scientist could write about any "strengths" among black families in 1972, a sequel to that work in 1997 might be expected to be met with wider disbelief.

Unfortunately, most assessments of black families identify problems, not solutions. Clearly, to solve any problem one must acknowledge that it exists and examine its severity. After the problems have been identified, however, very few analyses proceed to identity solutions to those problems. As a result, many people feel that it is futile and hopeless to try to help black youth or their families. Thus, the conventional analysis of African-American families leads to paralysis.

Indeed, many low-income black families (as well as white families) need to be strengthened. Yet, I believe that the one of the most effective ways to make families stronger is to identity policies, programs and services that reinforce existing strengths. Our strengths perspective is solution-oriented and focuses on the assets and resilience of low-income youth and families. Therefore, our latest work identifies strategies -- within the black community and in the larger society -- that make families stronger.

What are some of the strengths of African-American families? I identify five cultural attributes: achievement orientation, work ethic, flexible family roles, kinship bonds and religious orientation. These assets are not unique to black families, since families of other racial and ethnic backgrounds also possess them. However, these strengths have operated differently among black families because of their unique history of slavery and racial oppression.

The general public often refers to single-parent families as "broken," and characterizes two-parent families as "intact." Such beliefs prejudge the functioning of a family based on its structure. Yet, studies have found many single-parent families to function more effectively than many two-parent families. Thus, educators and other professionals should realize that the strong achievement orientation, work ethic and flexible roles of black families headed by women have promoted upward mobility for thousands of children.

Black youth from single-parent or two-parent families are just as likely to attend college. And black adolescents from one-parent families often have lower rates of smoking, drinking alcohol and using hard drugs than white adolescents from two-parent families.

National data do not support the popular myth that extended families have declined among African-American families. On the contrary, the role of black kinship networks has increased. Between 1970 and 1992, black households with three generations rose from one out of four to one out of three. The black extended family has informally adopted 800,000 children, while the government has not been able to find permanent homes for 200,000 black children in foster care.

"Kinship care"

Rates of child abuse are lowest among children reared by kin. In recognition of the increased importance of kin networks, child-welfare agencies have created a new category, "kinship care," to place children with relatives as their foster parents.

Finally, the black church continues to have a positive impact on black families. Research has found that black youth who have positive outcomes as adults are those with strong religious commitments.

Many government agencies and foundations are increasingly funding initiatives that build on the strengths or assets of low-income families and communities. Baltimore is in the vanguard of this national movement of focusing on community assets. Its mayor is dedicated to revitalizing communities through empowerment zones and other progressive initiatives. Its dynamic housing commissioner believes that livable communities can be created for public-housing residents within central cities. And its legislators are concerned about implementing enlightened community and economic-development policies.

Baltimore also has numerous institutions and community groups that are committed to building on the assets of families and communities. For example, the phenomenal success of the pioneering Pacquin School is due to innovative leadership that firmly believes in the resilience of adolescents who are single parents.

And, our black colleges continue to be a lifeline for thousands of youth who want a quality education. Morgan State, for example, has numerous initiatives to enhance the economic self-sufficiency of low-income groups. In sum, adopting the strengths perspective will transform stumbling blocks into stepping stones for everyone -- black and white.

Robert B. Hill, is director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University. His new book is "The Strengths of African-American Families: Twenty-Five Years Later."

Pub Date: 7/21/97

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