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Best of times, yet worst of times

Robert B. Hill has earned a living and reputation by studying America's black families. Today, three decades after publishing the results of his first exhaustive examination, he is both optimistic and alarmed by what he sees.

Hill is a social scientist and senior researcher for Westat, a large Rockville-based company that conducts research for government and businesses. He formerly was director of the Institute for Urban Research at what was then Morgan State College, as well as head of research for the National Urban League, the 93-year-old black-advocacy organization.

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His first book, The Strengths of Black Families, was reprinted and updated a year ago. Just last month, he contributed a chapter on African-American families to a 291-page book, The State of Black America, released by the Urban League in advance of its annual convention in Pittsburgh.

At that convention, Urban League President Marc Morial named Hill in his opening remarks, quoting this passage from his work: "There has been a strong shift from Jim Crow -- the overt manifestation of racial hatred by individuals in white society -- to James Crow, Esquire -- the maintenance of racial inequality through covert processes of structure and institutions."

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Hill spoke recently with The Sun about his report:

You first examined the state of the black family 30 years ago. Now, you've revisited the issue. How would you describe the changes over that time?

There have been a lot of positive changes. The percentage of blacks living in poverty has declined. There's been the biggest explosion of blacks at the top. More people are seeing educational attainment, entrance to college. There's been a big increase in middle- and upper-class families.

I call it the tale of two cities -- the best of times for the majority, but the worst of times for a third of African-Americans.

They are still disproportionately impacted with poverty, ill health, poor education. And now are faced with new problems -- crack cocaine, [high] rates of incarceration, HIV virus -- that was not true 30 years ago.

Are you mostly encouraged by the changes?

It's a mixed kind of thing. I'm very encouraged by the upward mobility. What worries me is that our society has moved from individual discrimination to institutional discrimination.

You criticize what some regard as a landmark report, published in 1965 by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in part because you believe it largely blamed the poor for their predicament. But you also seem to agree with many of its findings. Does the Moynihan report have relevance?

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It does have relevance. He shed a national light on the growing number of single-parent households. You [have to] compliment him for saying we'd better look at that and stem the breakup of the family. The one thing he got in trouble for was the source of the problem -- blaming the victim. And for saying that all single-parent households are pathological.

The female-headed household among blacks and whites is a problem. But you should not devalue all single-parent households. It is the blanket condemnation that is the problem.

Your findings discuss the problems of families headed by single females, teen-age pregnancy, unemployment, youth violence and other crimes. How serious are these?

The problem of teen-age pregnancies has gone down. That's a problem that has been diminishing, though the level of it is about four times higher among blacks than whites. And the number of single-parent households is not only plateauing, it began to die down in the '90s. There's actually been a slight increase in two-parent households.

Youth crime is diminishing, although we read about it a lot.

But you have to ask: What are the external factors? There were no recessions during the 10-year economic expansion that began in 1991. Prior to that, we had back-to-back recessions every two or three years.

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You make the point that economic changes, particularly companies moving jobs offshore, have seriously affected blacks. What can be done about creating meaningful employment that provides employees with wages sufficient to support their families?

The real shift is still out of the inner city to the suburbs. The bulk of the people are still in the inner city, but the transportation routes are not there. How do you facilitate transportation? That's a management thing.

Some places have provided workers with cars, and done other things to get them out to the jobs.

The other thing is training. Many are dropouts, or GEDs -- they need training to market their skills.

Some people have advocated going back to what some call vocational schools, where they can get real marketable jobs.

Vocational schools have often been dumping grounds, and another symbol of discrimination against the poor and minorities. Does that worry you?

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To me, one of the real issues was once these kids got trained, who was going to hire them? Some vocational schools were done in cooperation with companies. But there was less attention to getting commitments to hire after vocational schools became predominantly black.

You don't have to forgo college. However, if you don't go on, you still have something to fall back on. Vocational schools do not have to foreclose options.

Historically, this country has moved to the left, then to the right, then to the middle on social and economic issues. Where is the country today, and is there sufficient concern for or discussion about the issues you raise in your report?

We made some of our greatest advancements and had some of the most progressive legislation under President Johnson from '64 to '69. The black poverty rate shot down and the middle class grew. Then that stopped with the Nixon administration. He dismantled a lot of the targeted programs and created block grants. Those grants went to states whether they needed them or not.

Reagan really dismantled housing, justice, everything. He made welfare harder to get. There were a whole lot of anti-family moves, and you saw a real spiral in some of the worst statistics during the '70s and '80s. Some of Clinton's policies were not that benign. He was not the liberal like Johnson and Kennedy.

I think Bush is more in line with Reagan. He definitely is not for affirmative action. He wants to get more Clarence Thomases on the Supreme Court, and that's not going to be good for black people. But our country is very fluid. It may change back again.

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Hispanics have replaced African-Americans as the largest ethnic group in this country. Do you worry that the voice and concerns of black Americans will fade in importance?

I'm chairman for the Census Bureau's black committee. We work very closely with other minorities, and we know the game of divide and conquer.

We need to work as a coalition with Hispanics and other groups as well. I do think there will be efforts to play us off one another, but the leadership of our groups know we have to be vigilant.

You point out that Jim Crow racism has been replaced by new forms and symbolic racism. Is racism in this country just as pervasive as it was 10, 20, 30 years ago?

Most surveys show that individual racism has declined -- the bad attitudes, the hostility. That's a positive thing. It's just that it is being supplanted by negative policies by institutions: criminal justice, redlining, juvenile services.

These are not bad people. Many of them have good intentions; it's just that the policies they are implementing have discriminatory effects. That's why we have disproportionate numbers of black youths in foster care, and blacks incarcerated. The minority person still doesn't get the housing or loans. That's why you need positive policies to counteract the bad policies.

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I'm very concerned about that. It's harder to combat institutional racism.

What is your bottom-line conclusion? Is the African-American family stronger or weaker than it was 30 years ago?

It is stronger overall. It is stronger because people are achieving more. But there's still a real challenge because too large of a segment is left behind.


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