Changes in Black Family Structure
By Richard Morin
Listen carefully to what African American men and women say privately about each other, says Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson. "But you won't like some of what you hear," he cautions.
Patterson has been listening to black men and women for nearly four decades. He has sifted through census data. And he's closely followed the work of other researchers who study with new urgency what Patterson calls the current "crisis" in African American gender relations.
Never, he says, have the voices of black women and men been angrier or sadder. Never have many of the statistics been bleaker or more alarming. And never have these issues been more relevant to all Americans, Patterson and other researchers say.
As marriage rates among blacks plummet, Patterson says he's hearing increased numbers of educated, middle-class black women speak in tones of resignation or desperation about the scarcity of similarly accomplished black men.
As the black divorce rate has soared, he's asked black husbands and wives to talk about their marriages and has been increasingly dismayed by how many say they're disappointed, dissatisfied or already straying.
He's also carefully listened to the misogynist lyrics of many popular rap songs. "Hateful," Patterson described them, flatly rejecting the claim that these lyrics are harmless posturing. "How far can you go with those lyrics and claim what you're hearing is not what you're hearing?" he asked.
"It is a crisis," M. Belinda Tucker, a UCLA professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral science whose recent book "The Decline in Marriage Among African Americans" highlighted the research of 22 leading psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, historians and economists. "But it is a crisis set in the context of a larger crisis: the continuing vulnerability of the black male in this society."
Many experts agree: Gender is complicated, "but when you add race, you double, if not square, the problems," said Larry Bobo, a Harvard sociologist.
But these experts also urge caution. Millions of African American women and men, regardless of their social or economic class, enjoy healthy and respectful relationships with the opposite sex. Millions are happily married or happily single. Only some rap music demeans women; a new wave of rap artists is gaining popularity by rejecting the misogyny of its predecessors.
Nor are these problems unique to African American men and women. Tucker and Patterson say there's evidence that suggests gender relations among white men and women may become increasingly strained for some of the same reasons.
"In many ways, what has happened to blacks is a precursor to what will happen to whites," Patterson said. "Some of the trends are clearly in the same direction. Whether they have the same disastrous effects remains to be seen."
Census figures document many of these trends. In 1910, the government reported that a majority of black women worked outside the home; white women passed that milestone only in the past 20 years, census statistics show. With work inevitably comes increased tensions at home as men and women white and black struggle to adjust to new roles and responsibilities, Tucker said.
Census figures also reveal that the number of unmarried black women who gave birth fell by 5 percent between 1990 and 1994, while the percentage of out-of-wedlock births to white women increased by 23 percent during the same period. And there are almost twice as many single white mothers as single black mothers, although the proportion of black families headed by women is much larger.
These statistics suggest that more children white and black, poor and non-poor must struggle to learn how to grow into men and women without a father in the home. Even as this problem continues to plague the black community disproportionately, economists have documented an expanding white "underclass" in which grinding poverty complicates the establishment of healthy gender relations, Patterson said.
In the past four decades, a social and economic revolution has transformed traditional patterns of marriage and family among both whites and blacks. Still, Tucker said, the changes are far more dramatic among African Americans, among whom the percentage of households headed by single women remains much higher than among whites. In 1950, 64 percent of black men age 14 or older were married, census data show. (The census selected 14 as an early but arbitrary benchmark.) But by 1995, that proportion had plummeted to 43 percent. (The percentage of currently married white males in the same age category also dropped, but not nearly as much, from 68 percent in 1950 to 61 percent in 1995.
Married black women are even rarer. Between 1950 and 1995, the percentage of black women 14 or older who were married fell from 62 percent to under 38 percent. Currently, 59 percent of all white women are married, down from 66 percent in 1950. Data collected by census researchers also suggest that fewer than 75 percent of black women can expect to marry sometime in their lives, compared with 90 percent of white women.
Together, these changes "represent a significant shift in the basic structure of the African American community and family life," Tucker said, and carry "serious implications for African American community functioning and individual well-being."
Researchers say they are just now beginning to understand the reasons behind the precipitous decline in black marriages.
"I see economics as key," Tucker said. Her conclusion echoes the work of Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, who found in the mid-1980s that an increasing share of black men in the inner city didn't marry because they couldn't: They were lucky to earn enough money to support themselves, much less help sustain a family. Current statistics show the disproportionate disadvantage that black men face in the work force, even in a booming economy. Currently, almost a third of all young black men are unemployed but say they are looking for a job.
Tucker's own study of men and women in 21 American cities found strong links between economic prospects and marital happiness. The patterns were strongest among African Americans: Black marriage rates and marital satisfaction were lowest in cities with the highest black unemployment rates. Using different data, sociologists Mark Testa and Marilyn Krogh of the University of Chicago have confirmed the connection between black male employment and low marriage rates, a correlation they found appears to be strengthening over time.
Tucker's research also uncovered a striking disparity between ideals and reality: "African Americans believe very strongly that it's still the man's responsibility to provide, far more so than white men or women. When women work, African American men and women believe it's to provide support for that [male] role," but not replace or otherwise appear to challenge his position as the family's primary breadwinner. "At the same time, African American males are less able to be the provider. That kind of discontinuity, that kind of conflict, can bring even greater pressures to bear because you're not able to live up to that standard."
The problems for black men and women don't end at the altar. Even when blacks marry, their marriages are more likely to end in divorce; black divorce rates in the United States are among the highest in the world, Patterson said.
Sociologist Shirley Hatchett of the University of Illinois led a research team that tracked 199 black and 174 white couples during the first years of marriage. After three years, 17 percent of the African American couples were divorced or separated, three times the white percentage. "A major factor in marital risk among African Americans is the anxiety felt by many black husbands about being able to provide adequately for their families," Hatchett reported. "Moving out of marriages where they feel inadequate may be a way of escaping a feeling of failure or establishing a sense of competence."
Black marriages also may be more likely to end in divorce because married African American men and women are more likely to view life after a divorce more positively than do whites. Sociologists Mark Rank and Larry Davis at Washington University in St. Louis, who analyzed the results of a national survey of 13,017 randomly selected adults conducted in the late 1980s, found that white married men and women were far more likely than black husbands and wives to have negative feelings about life outside their current marriage. African American wives and husbands consistently reported feeling that "their standard of living, career opportunities, social life, sex life, and life as a parent would be more favorable outside marriage" than white wives and husbands did, Rank and Davis reported in the journal Family Relations.
"Even when black married spouses expressed the same amount of marital satisfaction as white married spouses, the alternatives to marriage look somewhat better," Rank and Davis argued. "This fact may be one of the keys to understanding why black couples have a higher divorce rate than their white counterparts."
Other factors combine and conspire to complicate gender relations among blacks. One in four black males in their twenties the years when most men and women get married is behind bars, on probation or on parole. About 20 percent of all employed African American women hold managerial or professional jobs, compared with 13 percent of all working black men. The percentage of black women going on to college is increasing; it's falling among black men. In graduate and professional schools, black women far outnumber black men.
Patterson said there are an estimated 772 middle-class black men for every 1,000 middle-class black women, and the gap is widening. Those numbers alone would explain why "the situation is almost perfect for middle-class black men" seeking a long-term relationship, marriage or a family, but more difficult for many middle-class black women, Patterson said.
Sociologist Scott South of the State University of New York at Albany agrees. His research suggests that black men are significantly less likely to express a desire to marry than are white men, or black or white women. One reason: Black men are "in demand" and "don't have to commit to marriage before enjoying the benefits of marriage."
Gail Dean, 38, of Indianola, Miss., is a college-educated social worker who makes a comfortable living. She has never married, and doubts she ever will.
"What strikes me the most is how black men are intimidated by successful women," said Dean, who was interviewed in a series of polls conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University. "I own my own home, I'm independent, and I meet guys who are intimidated by that they feel they're not the man if the woman has more than they have."
It's not just black women who see these disparities.
"When I meet my peers, usually the black women that are my age, they really have it going on," said Richard McIntire, 29, a media representative for the state of Maryland, who is black. "They have as much education as I do, if not more. A lot of them are still in school or pursuing some higher goals in their careers, where I find that a lot of the guys may have the same ambitions but they just aren't getting the job done, for whatever reasons."
Staff researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company