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American Apartheid

The Color Line and the Quality of Life in America

by Reynolds Farley, by Walter R. Allen
Russell Sage Foundation, 493 pp., $37.50

Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change

by Marian Wright Edelman
Harvard University Press, 127 pp., $15.00

Risking the Future: Adolescent Sexuality, Pregnancy, and Childbearing

edited by Cheryl D. Haynes
National Academy Press, 337 pp., $21.95 (paper)

The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy

by William Julius Wilson
University of Chicago Press, 254 pp., $19.95

The Economic Progress of Black Men in America

US Commission on Civil Rights
157 pp.

The State of Black America 1987

edited by Janet Dewart
National Urban League, 261 pp., $18.00 (paper)

USA vs. Starrett City Associates 660 Federal Supplement 668

(“benign quotas”) US District Court, Eastern District of New York

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 the time they reach their early twenties. More than 90 percent of all unmarried teen-agers are now choosing to keep their babies; among blacks, virtually all do. In consequence, over half of all black women who head families have never been married, while that is the case with only one in seven whites.

The fastest-growing group is the three-generation household: usually a teen-aged mother, with one or more children, sharing a crowded apartment with her own mother, now a grandparent in her thirties. These arrangements arise because welfare agencies are reluctant to provide independent housing for parents who are minors, although they do get food stamps and stipends. Since 1970, black multi-generation households have increased threefold. Three-quarters of the younger mothers have never been married, and most have dropped out of school to bear and care for their babies. So early a start on single parenthood can only perpetuate poverty. Extended families including aunts and cousins who can help with the children, often a recourse in the past, are less evident in today’s cities. Fathers, many of them equally young, may drop by but are seldom a continuous presence. Few of these mothers are in a position to give their children the support they will need to survive in unpromising surroundings. Even if they press for better schools and other services, they lack the power to compete successfully for them. (The growth of multi-generation families has also intensified the problem of homeless households. In many cases, the teen-aged mother brings her infant into an apartment already crowded with her younger brothers and sisters. After a while, she is told she will have to go, which usually means to a welfare hotel. No one opposes providing homes for the homeless; if nothing else, the children deserve a decent place to live. At the same time, a commitment to give housing to anyone who bears a baby may not be the best way to discourage teen-agers from starting families.)

While these observations may apply to upward of half of all black youths, there is also the other half. If early parenthood is often tolerated, it is hardly universal. Nor does sexual activity mean most black teen-agers want to have babies. Risking the Future points out that while more black youngsters do become pregnant, at least since the 1950s the proportion who end up giving birth (51 percent) has not differed markedly from the rate for whites (46 percent). By the same token, almost as many black teen-agers choose to have abortions: 35 percent, compared with 40 percent for whites. Nor does the abortions-to-births ratio vary greatly between the races: 725 per 1,000 for white teen-agers as against 677 for blacks. Moreover, by their mid-twenties, black women become less disposed toward having children. At ages twenty-five to twenty-nine, the ratio of abortions to births for blacks is 591 per 1,000, compared with a much lower 185 per 1,000 for whites. This would suggest that at least half of young black women have no wish for early motherhood.

What distinguishes those who don’t? I know of no convincing sociological explanation that would answer the question. We might visualize two school friends, both of whom are poor and have become pregnant. One will decide to have and keep her baby, and perhaps several others, spending much of her adult life on the welfare rolls. Her friend will arrange for an abortion at a public clinic, finish school, and obtain a promising job. (She may later marry and become a mother, although the more successful her career, the greater the odds of a separation or divorce.) Why the two take different routes cannot be analyzed with any certainly. We can invoke phrases like “self-esteem,” but the interplay of character and circumstance are as elusive here as with all human decisions. What is clear is that many black women are doing well professionally. Nor is being a single mother necessarily a barrier: 38 percent of black women who head families also have full-time employment, a figure not very far from the 49 percent of white women in comparable situations.3

Unfortunately, Risking the Future says very little about men, many of them also very young, who take part in these pregnancies. It is as if their behavior—particularly their seeming aversion to contraception—is beyond remedy. In Families in Peril, Marian Wright Edelman asks, “Where are the black fathers?” The sad fact is that black men are less likely than white men to feel sustained responsibility for the children they produce. “An increase in the marital rate among young black men to the white level,” Edelman writes, “would reduce the proportion of fatherless young black families by between one-half and two-thirds.” As matters now stand, among black men aged twenty-five to thirty-four, only 39 percent are married and living with their wives, a far cry from the figure of 62 percent for whites. She shows that black men are more likely to be in prisons or the military, or die at an early age. The fact that upward of 20 percent are missed by the census would point up their lack of stable jobs or even settled addresses. Moreover, of those black men the census manages to reach, fewer than half have full-time jobs.

Thus Edelman feels that the task is less one of persuading more black men to marry than of providing the economic prospects that have traditionally shored up two-parent homes. One can’t object to that, although stable income and employment are not the whole story. Indeed, her proposal comes at a time when even people with good jobs are taking a more transitory view of marriage. And here, too, race would seem to intrude: black men in professional positions are twice as likely to divorce as their white colleagues, and fewer of them remarry.

Andrew Billingsley argues in The State of Black America, the report of a 1987 Urban League symposium, that unmarried motherhood is not the problem of a single race. He points out that “white teens in America have a higher rate of out-of-wedlock births than those of any of the other western industrialized nations.” Even if the black rate has always been higher, he says, the cause lies “in the structure of American society, not inside black families.” The figures in Tables B and C (see page 28), which I have derived from government documents, certainly show that out-of-wedlock births and households headed by women have risen markedly among whites during the last thirty-five years.


And from 1970 to 1985, the unwed birthrate for white teen-agers rose by almost 90 percent, while the rate for blacks actually fell by a few points. In fact, the figures Moynihan cited in 1965 when he called the majority of black families “highly unstable” were not much higher than those now being recorded for whites. Still, the fact that 61 percent of black children are being born out of wedlock poses unprecedented problems.

The continuing increase in single-parent families and out-of-wedlock births clearly derives from tendencies affecting the society as a whole. Billingsley nowhere explains why black rates remain substantially higher, but seems to suggest that we cannot expect black behavior to change so long as the overall culture continues on its current course. In fact, in comparison with whites, the black population has much fewer out-of-wedlock births than it did a generation ago. Nor should this be surprising: it is easier to end a pregnancy now than to preserve a marriage. As was noted earlier, black teen-agers obtain abortions almost as often as their white counterparts.


A common response to Moynihan’s The Negro Family was that he did not take sufficient account of the impact of class on family stability. As one critic put it:

The habit of analyzing data by color rather than income encourages the tendency to attribute to race-related factors differences that may in fact be due to income level…. It is difficult to be sure how much—if any—difference would remain in proportions of female-headed families if really sensitive comparisons were made between Negroes and whites on the same income level.4

  1. 1

    The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (US Government Printing Office, 1965).

  2. 2

    The major work here is, of course, Herbert Gutman’s The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925 (Random House, 1977).

  3. 3

    A recent report by the Alan Guttmacher Institute is especially revealing. Starting in 1966, the study followed 330 black inner-city teen-agers who had children out of wedlock. By 1984, when they were in their early thirties, 71 percent had completed high school and 76 percent had gotten married, although most of those marriages did not last. While 70 percent of the women had at one time been on welfare, by 1984 only 29 percent were still receiving public funds (Frank Furstenberg, et al., “Adolescent Mothers and Their Children in Later Life,” Family Planning Perspectives, July–August 1987, pp. 141–151). At the same time, the authors note, “we must recognize that the life courses of adolescent mothers today may differ from those of the women in this study.”

  4. 4

    Elizabeth Herzog, “Is There a ‘Breakdown’ of the Negro Family?” Social Work (January 1966), pp. 8–9.

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