When Robert Hill asks an audience to list weaknesses of the black family, "they go on page after page," he says. "But when I ask for some positive things, they can't even fill one page -- even among black auidences.
"That reflects real brain-washing," the National Urban League's research director told participants yesterday at a day-long conference on the black family at the District Building.
"We're so oriented to looking at what is wrong -- emphasizing negative pathologies and dysfunction. But it is very important for us to be aware of and build on concepts that are positive to ourselves."
Hill's concern will the "erroneous types of information as pertains to blacks" -- particularly since "blacks were believing some of these things" -- led him to develop a report in 1971 on the strengths of black families.
He identifies as the five major strengths of the black family: strong kinship bonds, strong work orientation, flexibility of family roles, strong achievement orientation and strong religious orientation.
"These five factors have functioned for the survival and the advancement of blacks," said Hill. "The only way to get stronger is to build on existing strengths."
The focus on the negative, however, often led by white sociologists, Hill said has caused some blacks to see these strengths and weaknesses.
As an example, Hill pointed to what he calls "informal adoption -- the practice of having a child raised by a grandmother, sister, aunt or brother.
"It's a widespread practice -- most blacks know someone who is informally adopted, what we think of as taking in and caring for our own.
"However, if you ask them about the black extended family, strong kinship bond or informal adoption, they won't know what you mean." But if you ask in negative terms, about "illegitimacy, everyone knows what you're talking about.
"Since the nuclear family -- father, mother, kids -- is seen to be the norm, anything departing from that path is seen as deviant. Somehow, then, we're supposed to apologize for having a kid cared for by a grandparent."
When a white woman bears a child out of wedlock, it is called, " a single-parent experience or alternative life style," commented Hill. "With us it's a pathology and she's promiscuous, but when it occurs among white's it's redefined."
The flexibility of black family roles -- women heading households, men cooking and caring for children, and children accepting some grown-up responsibilities -- is a strength white families, said Hill, are now trying to achieve.
Blacks, he said, "should be very careful about equating the structure of a family with its effectiveness." He also cautioned blacks who are moving up the economic ladder to avoid embracing "values that are foreign to us."
Adopting "middle-class notions that you've got to have a nuclear family to function," said Hill, serves to drive a wedge among blacks.
In an earlier keynote address, WDVM-TV anchorwoman J. C. Hayward, said: "The black family in American is facing stresses and strains."
A member of Delta Sigma Theta, Inc., the sorority sponsoring the conference, Hayward said some of the stresses "are caused by increased opportunities or by tryingto acquire financial security, and some by the physical displacement, hunger and other problems of poverty."
A major problem for American black families is this country's high infant mortality rate, Hayward said, noting that the District's rate is the highest in the nation.
"The national legacy of racial inequity has an impact on our families," she added. "Unemployment is visited unequitably on black families.
"Over 10 million children, 17 percent of all children in the United States, live in official abject poverty. And I don't have to tell you how many of those are black.
"The solution can be found within our families," said Hayward. "Nor just our nuclear families of mother, father, brothers and sisters.But our local community family of neighbors and friends.
"The black church has been our foundation and strength that we can look to for spiritual aid. Seek out a church that meets your needs. Get your young people involved in it.
"We've gotten to the point that we don't care about our neighbor's child. But if a child lives in your community, the child is your child. It's our responsibility to make sure that child does right."