By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
The official theme of the 2021 Black History Month observance is “The Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity” focusing on the historical impact and study of African American kinship.
With the 2021 theme in mind, historians and anthropologists have been applying various yardsticks to measure the economic and social state of the Black family.
According to the Statista Research Department, in 2019 there were about 4.15 million Black families in the U.S. with a single mother.
This is an increase from 1990 levels when there were about 3.4 million Black families with a single mother. An analysis by the Center for American Progress reveals that African American children across
generations have had more than twice the odds of having an incarcerated household member as white children.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has amplified various other disparities that directly impact the Black family.
One is the disproportionate number of Black families without viable healthcare and chronic diseases, making them the most vulnerable to the deadly virus.
Also, Black family leaders, mostly women, are employed in essential and health-vulnerable roles as healthcare workers, maintenance, law enforcement, public service jobs, social services, public transportation, and education.
Unemployment for Black family units was deemed low during the pre-COVID period, according to government measurements. However, this was deceptive as surveys did not consider Black men and women who had ceased seeking work in the job force due to frustration.
Lack of education, incarceration, drug abuse, and erosion of job growth disqualified many African Americans, notably males, from competing in the employment market.
While reforms are being devised by progressive state and local urban governments, the criminal justice system still entraps a large segment of Black youth and men.
African American family business startups are on the rise, especially among women and young millennials, despite the lack of access to start-up and support capital from traditional banks.
And, pre-pandemic, African American youth from poor and middle income families were attending HBCUs and traditional colleges and universities in record numbers.
At the same time, captured on video and virtually spread mass consumption on social media, the death of unarmed Black men by police has set into motion protests in the nation’s cities akin to the 1960s.
Again a movement has been spawned to fight for Black empowerment, aptly called the Black Lives Matter movement.
This has caused the nation to pause to look at the disparities and biases on the Black Family unit, the focus for 2021 Black History Month.
In the midst of the 60s liberation movement, (1964 this March), a Labor Department official named Daniel Patrick Moynihan published a paper titled, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” which argued that “a tangle of pathology” afflicting Black communities had emerged because “the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling.”
The causes echo what we see today: growing rates of teenage pregnancy; young parents who failed to complete school and find employment. Fathers were largely absent from the home, and single mothers often became welfare dependents.
That report and the Black Liberation movement, fueled the launch of the Great Society Campaign under President Lyndon Johnson.
It was designed in theory to create protections for civil rights, access to the ballot, employment and education, and a social safety net to feed the poor and Black communities.
There were gains. But as we see in 2021, the Black family is still plagued by some of the same issues which existed in 1964.
Conservative Republicans will say Johnson’s Great Society failed, by naively believing government programs and laws could uplift Africans from the depths of socio-economic despair.
But a closer look historically reveals clues that lead to the front steps of the conservative Republicans who worked to sabotage the machinery of the Great Society from its inception to this day.
Also, some blame must rest in the laps of African Americans themselves.
This is the assessment of Historian Dr. Henry Lewis Suggs, who is professor emeritus of American history at Clemson University.
“You may use the word ‘sabotage’ relative to the Conservative Republicans and this may be true,” said Suggs. “But also the Black community failed to plant the seeds of leadership in new generations to safeguard and continue the advances that were made.”
“By the 1980s, young Black people were more concerned about ‘silver rights’ than civil rights. Money was more important because they had the delusion that they had equality in other areas.”
Suggs said African Americans voted overwhelmingly for Jimmy Carter in 1976, who championed the civil ideals of the 1960s during his
campaign. “But his attention was focused more overseas with the Russian expansion and Iran,” said Suggs. “He did not produce the civil rights measures he campaigned on.”
“During the 1980 election, Black folks stayed home, and Ronald Reagan won,” said Suggs. “He was more in tune with the White Conservative
Republicans growing in the South. They had no interest in pursuing civil and economic rights which would help empower Black and poor families.”
Suggs said that Reagan led the retreat from policies that helped poor families and civil rights. Progressive policies in employment, housing, education and civil rights were targeted for “nullification”.
Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush promoted the career of Clarence Thomas, an African American lawyer, and others to lead the charge.
Thomas was put in charge of the Education Department, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) and was later placed on the
U.S. Supreme Court.
An African American was given the keys to the administrative car and drove it and two decades of civil rights progress into the ditch, Suggs said. With the Bush, Clinton, and Bush II administrations, Conservative Republicans forced compromises on welfare reforms, designed to move impoverished Black family heads from dependence on welfare to independence economically.
It reduced the number of time families had on public family support, public housing, and food assistance.
Child support was mandatory, with harsh penalties imposed on the marginally employed fathers, who did not live under the roof with their child, oftentimes.
The “War on Drugs” in the 1980s and 90s weaponized the nation’s urban communities. Low-level drug dealers were easy targets and filled the jails.
Today the opioid epidemic which plagues mostly poor and white people, is treated as a health issue and not criminalized.
Unwed mothers were forced to secure employment in low wage jobs with little assistance for child care. A few were able to take a path to education options to move up and out of poverty.
By the end of the 20th century, the weakening of economic, and civil rights protections fostered in the 60s was in high gear.
“By then, the NAACP, SCLC, the Urban League which led the fight for civil rights in the 60s were unable to respond,” Suggs said. “They were collapsed or in disarray.”
The churches, HBCUs, and other institutions that grew out of the African Americans’ push for equality historically were struggling to support the Black family and community.
The growing cost of a public and private college degree, shrinking access to the employment market due to employment bias against Blacks based on race, or credit rating and the recession of 2008, and the current pandemic also took their toll.
“Even the ability to promote civil rights from the pulpit was weakened,” Suggs said. “Preachers could not advocate for it or against its erosion from the pulpit. They were silent by fear of the tax code being used against them.”
But Suggs said it did not stop Conservative White Evangelicals.
They formed their political action committees (PACS) to use financial and legal resources to back candidates who would fight against employment and educational equality, clean water, voter access, and
law enforcement reforms which all impact Black families in some way today.