The Color Line and the Quality of Life in America
Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change
Risking the Future: Adolescent Sexuality, Pregnancy, and Childbearing
The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy
The Economic Progress of Black Men in America
The State of Black America 1987
USA vs. Starrett City Associates 660 Federal Supplement 668
The statistics by themselves are dismaying: currently, more than 60 percent of black infants are born outside of wedlock; almost as many black families are headed by women, and the majority of black children live only with their mothers. These figures are three to five times those for white Americans, and at least three times the statistics for blacks of a generation ago. Since Daniel Patrick Moynihan released his famous report on The Negro Family almost a quarter-century ago, terms like “breakdown” and “crisis” have pervaded discussions of black domestic life.1
From Emancipation until the mid-1950s, black families remained remarkably stable. Despite low incomes and uncertain employment, most black households had two parents in residence. While rates among blacks for matrifocal families and out-of-wedlock births always exceeded those for other races, in 1950 they were still below 20 percent. This would seem to cast doubt on the view, advanced by Moynihan and others—including E. Franklin Frazier, Kenneth Clark, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—that family instability persists as a heritage of slavery. On the contrary, arrangements imposed by owners were never accepted by the slaves themselves; once freed, blacks sought the durable unions they had been denied.2 At all events, changes that began after 1950 cannot easily be termed a plantation legacy. Moreover, none of the other explanations advanced for the dramatic changes in black life since the early 1950s seems wholly convincing. In this and a subsequent article, I will examine some recent books and reports that consider black family stability and related conditions, including employment, segregation, and attitudes and practices concerning race. Several themes recur throughout the discussions of these conditions, all of them the subject of much debate.
—Since the black population is disproportionately poor, statistics on family structure may express class conditions rather more than behavior based on race.
—Since the number of single-parent households has been growing at about the same rate for both races, the trend may be national rather than distinctively racial. In fact, relative to the white figures, the black ratio of out-of-wedlock births has been steadily declining.
—While the years since 1950 have seen important changes in residential and employment patterns, segregation remains a fact of life and has an influence on black behavior.
Risking the Future, a report of the National Research Council, emphasizes the pronounced differences between the races in youthful sexual activity, pregnancies, and births. Disparities like those shown in Table A (see page 27) remain even when levels of income and education are taken into account.
Three-quarters of all black women begin sexual activity before they are eighteen, compared with half of their white counterparts. This higher incidence, combined with less frequent use of contraception, means twice as many blacks as whites become pregnant. In an even greater imbalance, births to unmarried black teen-agers are four times the white rate. By age eighteen, one of every four unmarried black women has become a mother, and more than 40 percent are mothers by…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.