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 A Sociological Analysis of the Debate Over the Prevalence of Single Parent Family Structure Among African Americans  APA Click To ViewClick To Download

A Sociological Analysis
of the Debate Over the Prevalence
of Single Parent Family Structure Among African Americans

Page 1
Over the years the evolution of the structure and functions of the family have
made this institution a hotly debated topic in the public arena. The most combative of
U.S. social policy has evolved around the idea of utilizing social policy to somehow
"strengthen" the family by propagating traditional gender roles and nuclear family ideals
or by addressing the various social and economic factors that act as push factors for
familial change. In respect to the debate over the causes and solutions to the prevalence
of single-parent family structure among African Americans, it seems as though the issue
of causality has been divided along cultural and structural lines. Advocates of the
cultural theory to describe the deterioration of a nuclear family structure amongst
African Americans lend heavily to gender and racial ideology and propose solutions to the
issue that reek of traditional American ideological bias. Proponents of the structural
theory for the changing structure of African American families conversely root their
ideas in concrete empirical evidence as well as first hand interviews with members of the
culture in question. This paper will serve as an analysis of both the cultural and
structural theories, and will also discuss the prevailing reasons why the structural
theory and its proposed solutions will better serve the functions of public policy and
the plight of African American people themselves.
          The argument posed by proponents of the cultural theory simply serves to
rationalize the deterioration of traditional family ideals amongst impoverished African
Americans by pushing racial, gender and class ideology. This is most evident in Patricia
Hill Collins' article "A Comparison of Two Works on Black Family Life", an analysis of
Daniel Patrick Moynihan's report, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" and
Bill Moyer's "The Vanishing Family: Crisis in Black America". Both works are exposed to
lack in supporting evidence, and to pose claims about African American culture and
resulting family structure that disregards the prevalence of middle and upper class
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Page 2
family structures, fails to address alternative family structures, and under emphasizes
the effects of racism and discrimination on the socioeconomic status of African Americans
as a whole (Collins 1989, pg 2). The underlying assumption is that the attitudes and
ideals of white middle class Americans are the driving factors behind their socioeconomic
successes, and the fact that African Americans lack these particular characteristics
condemns them to poverty and familial dysfunction. According to Moyers and Moynihan, the
deterioration of African American values is the primary cause of such phenomena as
illegitimacy and the prevalence of mostly impoverished single-parent families. Maxine
Baca Zinn, in her article "Family, Race, and Poverty in the Eighties" best describes the
argument presented by such cultural theorists as "culture as villain", "family as
villain", and "welfare as villain", the meanings of which will become apparent as we
analyze this theory as presented by Moyers and Moynihan.
          At the root of this supposed deterioration of values is the seemingly
"backward" gender roles that typify African American families, also known as "culture as
villain". The assertions of deviance lie on the assumption that traditional gender roles
and the nuclear family structure that prevail in the United States are not only American
norms, but necessities for the normal functioning of a family. According to Collins, the
Moynihan report popularized and stigmatized the idea of a "Black matriarchy" as a
deviation from normal gender roles where males dominate the household and females are
subservient (Collins 1989, pg 3). Moynihan asserts that African American females are
inappropriately socialized to exude masculine qualities, therefore prohibiting African
American males from assuming their roles as family providers. Since African American
females too often choose to head their own households, an idea otherwise named "family as
villain", Moynihan contends that their male counterparts are forced into submissive roles
that alienate them from participating in the rearing of their children, and undermine the
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Page 3
authority typically bestowed upon them on the basis of gender. It follows that this same
masculinization of the female role leads to higher levels of educational attainment, and
therefore increased levels of economic contributions to the family, which renders them
independent of their spouses, assuming that the division of power in the family is
dependent on monetary contributions and a breadwinner model. Conversely, but with the
same consequences, Moyers asserts with a "welfare as villain" approach that it is the
receipt of welfare benefits that foster the independence and dominance of African
American females over their male counterparts- effectually leading to the increased
prevalence of the female-headed, single-parent family.
          Moyers and Moynihan then pose two solutions to "fixing" the African American
family, neither of which are practical or ideologically sound. The first solution
involves the restoration of male dominance in African American family structure through
an increase in employment and exposure to "real men" who wield traditional white
patriarchal power (Collins 1989, pg 4). While failing to propose a strategy to increase
the labor force participation of these disenfranchised males, Moynihan does suggest an
interesting way to increase the African American male's sense of masculinity- military
service. I fear that this solution harbors the potential to wreak havoc on the social
structure of the black community which is traditionally a matriarchy, and would better
serve the interests of the white American male by reinforcing the validity of patriarchy
and paternalism by extending these ideas across racial and class lines. Moyers' solution
to the deterioration of the African American family structure is based on constricting
the influence of black female matriarchs by increasing their financial dependence on men.
This proposition rests on the assumption of the breadwinner model as the principle
structure of the American family, as well as the assumption that welfare breeds
dependence and laziness and is detrimental to the development of appropriate of gender
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Page 4
roles. This solution also appears to reinforce patriarchal ideals by promoting
female-on-male dependence, and also seems to serve the conservative right wing polity
(who often oppose the spending of tax dollars on welfare programs and benefits) by
deferring responsibility for the poor from the government into the hands of black men.
Like the arguments posed by Moyers and Moynihan, these solutions have no basis in
research or concrete empirical evidence and largely serve to impose traditional white
middle class norms on the African American community.
          In addition to "The Negro Family: A Case for National Action", Daniel Patrick
Moynihan authored another work "The Tangle of Pathology" that reiterates many of the same
biases rooted in the assumptions identified above. This article analyzes the changing
structure of the African American family using many of the ideas presented in Moynihan's
aforementioned article to support his claim that "the tangle of pathology is tightening"
(Moynihan 1992, pg. 41). By exploring African American society and culture through
manifestations in matriarchy, delinquency, crime, and alienation, Moynihan develops an
argument for black males' enlistment in military service. Central to his explanation of
this "tangle of pathology" is the idea that the will of the "Negro People" was broken
under slavery and although it has been reasserted in the recent history, the future of
their community is doomed until the "viability of the Negro family is restored" (Moynihan
1992, pg. 33). Based on the assumed dominance of the nuclear family and breadwinner
model, Moynihan claims that the African American matriarchal family disadvantages the
minority in a society that is structured to reward male leadership. Matriarchy is seen to
be the root cause of poverty, the discrimination of colored men in occupational and
educational attainment and the prevalence of illegitimacy in the African American
community. The end result of these pathologies is framed to be a burden on welfare as he
cites "migration into cities like Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C"
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Page 5
(Moynihan 1992, pg. 35), without citing any studies or empirical evidence on the matter.
Moynihan does succeed in quoting studies, statistics, and court cases that support his
claims, but does so without sufficient analysis of underlying causal factors for the
phenomena that plague the African American community. The article voices several ways in
which military service would benefit African American males including being immersed in a
masculine world where rewards are granted on the basis of merit (possibly an reference to
the assumed dependency of blacks on stigmatized welfare programs and benefits), but poses
no actual solution to the problems inflicting the black community. Overall, this article
is based on the same generalizations about members of the black community and assumption
that white middle class patriarchal structure should be imposed on African Americans as
"The Negro Family: A Case for National Action", and suffers the deficiencies that renders
the argument illegitimate.
          The cultural theory to explain the prevalence of single-parent family
structure amongst African Americans is faulty at best. The failure of its proponents to
cite relevant studies and statistics or use in depth interviews to illuminate the basis
of their arguments insinuates that the roots of this theory lay in common racial and
gender ideology. At first glance these articles appear to make a small claim for the
causal factors influencing the prevalence of single-parent families amongst African
Americans, but any appearance of validity is crushed under review of the work that
explains the same phenomena employing a structural theory. The empirical evidence and use
of individual experience provided to support the structural theory undermines every
aspect of the cultural perspective's argument. The following section will detail the
structural theory for the prevalence of single-parent family structure among African
Americans and illuminate the various reasons this perspective eclipses that of cultural
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Page 6

          Cultural theorists named slavery as the causal mechanism for the emergence of a
matriarchal family structure among African Americans and the root of the deteriorated
family structure, but in the book "Roll, Jordan, Roll", Eugene Genovese employs
historical accounts to refute this claim and provide ample evidence in the contrary. The
prevalence of single-parent family structure has been attributed to matriarchy, a weak
sense of family, and the emasculation of black men, but records of slave holders and
historical accounts of slaves themselves reveal otherwise. Genovese states that "Evidence
of the slaveholder's awareness of the importance of family to the slaves may be found in
almost any well-kept set of plantation records" (Genovese 1974, pg. 9) to conquer the
myth of the absent family. He follows to cite evidence contrary to this popular belief,
including court recognition of "the painful problems caused by the lack of legal sanction
for relationships everyone knows to be meaningful and worthy of respect" (Genovese 1974,
pg. 9), and several instances when slaveholders chose to take financial losses in order
to keep slave families together. Historical accounts of slaves themselves making demands
for masters to purchase them along with their families while standing on the auction
block further validate the essential importance of the African American family in
history. Several states even moved to prohibit the sale of children away from their
mother, and more often than not masters kept families together under the premise that
slaves worked better under those circumstances (Genovese 1974, pg. 11). The information
in this short section itself undermines the historical roots of the cultural theorists
argument for African American's disregard for the importance of the family institution as
the basis of deterioration of the family structure today.
          An empirical study entitled "Race and the Retreat from Marriage: A Shortage
of Marriageable Men?" espouses a research-based explanation for the prevalence of
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Page 7
single-parent family structure amongst African Americans; that of the influence of
changing employment circumstances among males. This study, that relies heavily on the
Becker's rational choice model of mate selection and job search theory, is based on the
idea that "non-marriage in the marriage market is the conceptual equivalent of
unemployment in a labor market, and it occurs when there are mismatches between the
demand for and supply of potential partners" (Lichter, McLaughlin, Kephart, Landry 1992,
pg. 14). Of importance is the fact that this study rests on the assumption that all
single women are looking for spouses and that women primarily choose partners on the
basis of economic reasons. Research methods include an evaluation of the effects of the
local quantity and economic quality of available men on transitions to first marriage
among young women, the marital search model that incorporates microexplanations like the
role of women' s increasing economic independence, and male marriageable pool hypothesis.
This study finds supporting evidence that a decreased supply of marriageable men (as
defined by economic attractiveness) is a more valid explanation for prevalence of
single-parent family structure amongst African Americans than the receipt of welfare
benefits, amongst other relevant factors. These findings, evaluated in a broader
socioeconomic spectrum including the fact that female economic independence is positively
associated with marriage, leads to the conclusion that because of the shortage in
marriageable men, public policy that advocates a living or family wage for impoverished
men and women would be a better strategy for encouraging marriage and a traditional
nuclear family structure than advocating marriage for the dependence of females on a
male breadwinner, as previously proposed by Moyers and Moynihan (Lichter, McLaughlin,
Kephart, Landry 1992, pg. 29).
          Adding to the support of the previous study, William J. Wilson used Urban Poverty
and Family Life Study (UPFLS) data to evaluate the ways in which single parent families
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Page 8
perpetuate themselves through the effects of such family structure on decreased
educational attainment and labor force attachment. The article entitled "The Fading
Inner-City Family" assesses this process and uses interviews to illuminate cultural
factors that affect the prevalence of single-parent family structure in African American
families. In the black community, educational attainment is positively associated with
marriage, but being raised by a single African American parent is also associated with
high levels of poverty, likelihood of welfare dependency, and a low potential for
educational achievement (Wilson 1996, pg. 47). Likewise, participation in the labor force
as measured by economic worth is positively associated with rate of marriage, but being
raised in a single parent household by a black mother is associated with problems of
labor force attachment(Wilson 1996, pg. 47). Wilson refutes cultural theorists tendency
to "blame the victim" by noting that scientific evidence fails to support the claim that
welfare benefits promote illegitimate births, and by noting the rate of out of wedlock
teen births nearly doubled since 1975, while the real value of AFDC, food stamps and
Medicaid had fallen (Wilson 1996, pg. 48). This article also cites Mark Testa's finding
that "the decreasing marriage rates among inner-city black parents is a function not
simply of increased economic marginality or of changing attitudes toward sex and
marriage, but of as Testa emphasizes, 'the interaction between material and cultural
constraints'"(Wilson 1996, pg. 49). This article also illuminates a more personal account
of cultural reasons members of the black community cite against getting married- namely
that marriage is simply "not in the forefront of the men's minds" (Wilson 1996, pg. 51),
and that women have a general distrust of men's motivations. And finally, Wilson touches
on macrostructural reasons for the high rates of single-parent families in African
American communities, the decline of the mass production system, and labor market
conditions that supported the male breadwinner model-bringing us to Macine Baca Zinn's
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Page 9
findings in the article "Family, Race, and Poverty in the Eighties."
          Maxine Baca Zinn harnesses the structural theory for the prevalence of
single-parent family structure amongst African Americans by assessing the influence of a
decline in opportunity structures as reflected in patterns of employment, marriage, and
community composition. Of primary importance is the identification of deindustrialization
as the active agent in the marginalization of black people in the United States. Cities
previously acted as "opportunity ladders" (Zinn 1989, pg.63) for under-educated workers
because of the prevalence of manufacturing jobs that paid a family wage. The shift away
from the production industry, particularly for automobile, steel and rubber industry
employees, marked serious consequences for blacks because of so-called "structural
racism" (Zinn 1989, pg.63). The rise of jobs in the highly technological global economy
that requires extensive education and training has resulted in a weakened labor force
attachment amongst inner-city workers in general and African Americans in particular
(Wilson 1996, pg. 53), which has lead to increased male joblessness and female-headed
households (Zinn 1989, pg.65). It is important to note that out of wedlock births are
sometimes encouraged by families who fear that marriage would result in the addition of
another dependent on the financial burden of the family, because this identifies the
mother-only family structure amongst African Americans to be a consequence of poverty,
instead of a cause (Zinn 1989, pg.65). Finally, Zinn's article examines how these changes
in marriage and employment patterns have bred changes in the social fabric of low income
communities that have become isolated and suffer from what Wilson identifies as
"concentration effects". These effects are the result of isolation from middle class role
models who unite low income families with mainstream society outside the ghetto, and also
of the loss of social capital and informal pathways to occupational attainment.
         Zinn notes that Wilson's analysis of marriage in African American culture
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Page 10
treats the institution as an opportunity structure that no longer exists for a large
number of African Americans, instead of a middle class ideological imperative to be
imposed on minorities. The essential element behind the structural theory that deems it
more valid than the cultural theory is its roots in sociological and anthropological
studies and statistics, as well as its avoidance of common ideology as fact.

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Collins, Patricia H. (1989). "A Comparison of Two Works on Black Family Life."
      Signs: Jornal of Women in Culture and Society 14875-884.
Genovese, Eugene D. (1974). "The Myth of the Absent Family" Pp.450-458 in Roll, Jordan,
      Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon Books.
Lichter, Daniel t. Diane K. McLaughlin, George Kephart, and David J. Landry. (1992).
      "Race and the Retreat from Marriage: A Shortage in Marriageable Men?"
      American Sociological Review 57:781-799.
Moynihan, Daniel P. (1965). "The Tangle of Pathology". Condensed from The Negro Family:
      The Case for National Action. Office of Policy Planning and Research,
      United States Department of Labor. Wahsington, D.C.: U.S. Government
      Printing Office.
Wilson, William J. (1996). "The Fading Inner City Family". Pp. 87-110 in When Work
      Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. New York: Vintage Books.
Zinn, Maxine Baca. (1989). "Family, Race, and Poverty in the Eighties." Signs:
      Journal of Women in Culture and Society 14:856-874.

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