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Review: Restoring The Traditional Black Family

Norton, E.H. (1985, June 2). Restoring the Traditional Black Family. The New York Times.


(Download Restoring the Tradition overview as a PDF)

This article addresses the importance, the debate, statistics, causes, and some proposed directions to be taken in regard to the troubles suffered by poor black families. It does not blame the victim, and it seems to avoid paternalism and condescension. Avoided, too, are conservative scorn and liberal guilt.

Daniel Moynihan attempted to raise concern for the black family in the mid-sixties, and, as Assistant Secretary of Labor, he found himself in a sea of controversy. Whatever the truth and validity of his analysis, he had touched a very sensitive nerve. Twenty years later, as Democratic Senator from New York, he explained in a series of lectures at Harvard in April 1985 that, “The original report confined its analysis to the black family…I want to make clear this is not a black issue.” Indeed, major 1985 reports from two federal agencies have underscored “the problem of the increasing poverty among all the nation’s children.”

Of all the damage done by racism, its systemic undermining of the African American family is the most painful for blacks to consider. Since the outcry over the report, “there has been a backing off the subject.” The persistent strength of the black family is testimony to the strength of the race and the resilience of the human spirit. The slave trade brutally separated families. Rape followed; children were sold. Preference was given to domestic black women over their men. The workplace was never friendly, and welfare paid poor women not to have a husband in the home. In this article, Eleanor Holmes Norton confronts the rising conservative opinion that black problems are internal to the race. She believes that “the heart of the crisis lies (in) the self-perpetuating culture of the ghetto.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., had used some of Moynihan’s statistics to sound a warning about the alarming “rate of illegitimacy” and the “fragile, deprived and often psychopathic” condition of the black family. Those statistics are even more alarming today:

  • 1965-Black families headed by a woman 2 1/2 times as often as white families.
  • 1984-Black families headed by a woman 3 1/2 times as often as white families (43% of black families; 13% of white families).
  • 1970-1982-Births to single women have almost doubled for whites (5.8% to 11%).
  • 1970-1982-Births to single black women have gone from 38% to 57% (in 1962 65% black families were headed by husband and wife).
  • Mid-1980s-Seventy percent of black children are raised in poverty.

According to the Congressional Research Service

  • White males and females live in even ratio until age fifty, when man’s shorter life span begins to open the gap.
  • For blacks, the gap widens dramatically at age twenty.
  • Black teenage unemployment is at 39% overall, 2 1/2 times that of white youth.
  • In 1948, 87% of black males were in the work force.
  • In 1960, that figure decreased to 74%.
  • By 1982, only 55% of black males were in the work force.

These figures may correlate to other crises within the black family and make permanent relationships between husband and wife difficult:

  • The joblessness of the ghetto.
  • The anti-father bias of welfare.
  • The predatory underground economy of the streets, and the macho style fostered to protect threatened manhood.

According to the article

This qualitative change in fundamental family relationships could have occurred only under extreme and unrelenting destructive conditions. Neither poverty nor cyclical unemployment alone could have had this impact. After all, poverty afflicts most of the world’s people. The transformation in poor black communities goes beyond poverty. These deep changes are anchored in a pervasively middle class society that associates manhood with money. Shocking figures (see above) show a long, steep and apparently permanent decline in black men’s participation in the work force…since 1960…a dramatic loss of jobs.

The unemployment rates of young blacks have been the most devastating and militate against the establishment of stable marriages…The loss of roles as workers has led to the acceptance of other roles for financial gain, many of them anti-social. Aside from the fact that large numbers of young men are imprisoned, disabled by drugs and otherwise marginal or unavailable as marriage partners, there is an unusual disparity between the sheer numbers of black men and black women.

Some argue persuasively that the female-headed family is an adaptation that facilitates coping with hardship and demographics. This seems undeniable as an explanation, but unsatisfactory as a response. Are we willing to accept an adaptation that has a majority of black children under the age of six-the crucial foundation years of life-living in poverty?

The family’s return to its historic strength will require the overthrow of a complicated, predatory ghetto subculture, a feat demanding not only new government approaches but active black leadership and community participation and commitment.

The author asks the country to consider something beyond welfare or workfare-stop-gap measures or remedies that focus on income or services. Training and job programs must focus on the poor, female-headed household and young men.

The article pays tribute to black resources, the family, national organizations, the middle class, the church and community organizations. It is an appeal to face a challenge which if avoided may not only rob the country of a rich resource, but weaken the whole.

Dean Borgman
© 2018 CYS

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