In 1965, the United States Department of Labor released “The Moynihan Report,” a paper that aimed to explain the causes of poverty in the Black community. Although the author, Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, acknowledged that slavery, segregation, and other racial injustices had harmed Black families, he concluded that the primary cause of poverty was the “deterioration of the Negro family.” Moynihan who later became a four-term Democratic senator representing New York, concluded that racism had forced Black families into “a matriarchal structure.” According to Moynihan, this “deterioration of the Negro family … is the fundamental source of weakness of the Negro community at this time.”
The simplistic nature of this argument has not stopped it from gaining popularity over the past fifty years. Conservatives and liberals often claim that Black people would be better off if Black children were raised in two-parent homes. Government officials and private organizations are so concerned that they have started programs to promote marriage in the Black community.
It seems that over the years, we have come to believe, as writer and social critic Mychal Denzel Smith wrote, that “[e]very major problem in black America can be solved if we addressed the problem of missing fathers.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
This argument is a thinly veiled attack on Black women. While it may seem that the marriage argument is directed at Black men who shirk their parenting responsibilities, since the Moynihan Report, Black women have been named as the partial or primary cause of Black men’s absence from the Black family. The Moynihan Report argued that in “matriarchal” Black families, husbands had “low power” and were controlled by “dominating” wives with more educational opportunities and better paying jobs. According to the Moynihan Report, “The Negro wife in this situation can easily become disgusted with her financially dependent husband, and her rejection of him further alienates the male from family life.” In short, the mean, bossy Black woman — the Sapphire, if you will — runs the Black man out of the home. Moreover, the implication of the single motherhood argument is that Black women cannot or are not doing a good job raising Black children. So, even if the marriage argument is framed in terms that reference fathers, the argument is still one that attacks the character and abilities of Black mothers.
It is true that 72 percent of Black children are born outside of marriage. However, it is not true that single motherhood is the cause of the continued problems suffered by the Black community. There are many reasons why this is so, but two of them will be addressed here.
First, those that bring up the marriage argument have likely heard the conventional wisdom that all things being equal, children do better when both parents are involved. Indeed, there are studies that show the emotional and economic benefits that two-parent households provide. Nevertheless, it is important to look under the surface, because the reality is more complicated.
Dr. Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, examined some of the factors that explain why children of single-parent homes tend to fare poorly. She concluded, “[C]ompared to married parents, single parents tend to be poorer (because there is not a second earner in the family) and less well-educated (in part because early childbearing interrupts or discourages education), and this is what matters for their children.” In other words, marital status does not operate in a vacuum: it must be considered together with factors such as age, education, and wealth. Indeed, when examining the impact of marital status on educational outcomes, Dr. Ivory Toldson, editor-in-chief of The Journal of Negro Education at Howard University, found that “a black student from a two-parent household with just one parent who dropped out of high school was three times more likely to repeat a grade in school than a student from a single-parent household where the primary caregiver had an associate’s degree or higher.” If marital status were the sole driving factor of success, we would expect the student of the dropouts to complete high school as well. So, by itself, a mother’s martial status is not enough to place a child at risk. The factors that might place that child at risk — education and poverty — have not been given as much attention in our national debate. Increasing marriage rates in the Black community will be a meaningless victory if the structural racism that causes Black families to be more likely to poor or uneducated is left unaddressed.
For further proof that it is a wealth of racism rather than a lack of wedding rings that is responsible for continued problems in the Black community, we can look to our Latino brothers and sisters. Roughly 68 percent of Latino children are raised in a two-parent home — nearly double the rate for African-American children. Yet, the poverty rate for Latinos is comparable to African-American poverty rate; roughly 21 percent of both groups live in poverty. Latinos, like Blacks, have higher rates of unemployment than whites, and their median income is even lower than that of African-Americans. If being raised in a two-parent home guaranteed success, we would expect to see better numbers for the Latino community. Latinos’ continued struggles indicate that something other than marriage is at play, and that something is structural racism.
Second, the marriage argument unfairly implies that Black single motherhood is responsible for a decline in the Black community. This would be true if key statistics about the Black community declined as the number of single mothers rose. However, the opposite is true. In 1960, roughly two-thirds of Black children were born to married parents. Over the years, that number steadily decreased. But at the same time the number of Black single mothers rose, several indicators of progress increased. In 1959, Black poverty was 55 percent. Currently, only about 25 percent of Black adults and children live in poverty. In 1960, only 20 percent of Black students completed high school. By 2015, that number more than quadrupled to reach 88 percent. In 1964, less than five percent of Black students obtained a four-year college degree. Presently, 23 percent of Blacks have bachelor’s degrees. Black teenage pregnancy rates are historically low.
The above statistics should prove that it is completely unfair to blame Black women for the perceived failures of the Black community. If single motherhood were to blame for the fact that African-Americans, despite advances, continue to lag behind whites, we would expect to see Black educational rates fall as the marriage rates did. However, the fact that the opposite happened indicates that something other than single motherhood caused the problems that existed before single motherhood became commonplace. In the 1960s, many of the outward racial barriers to success were removed. These barriers caused poverty and low achievement; removing them opened paths to success. So, at this point, rather than blaming Black women for the barriers that Black people continue to face, we would do better to continue to work to remove the remaining barriers that racism has placed in the way of Black progress. Black women should not serve as a scapegoat while the racism that continues to affect Black lives goes unaddressed.
Being a mother of any color is a challenge. Being a mother to a Black child in a society that devalues and criminalizes Blackness is even more difficult. Black mothers love their children. More important, history has shown us that Black mothers don’t just care for their own children. They join in the fight to make things better for everyone in their communities. From the beginning of our time in this nation, Black families have had to contend with slavery, segregation, violence and many other evils. Black women are and have been a key reason why Black people continue to progress in America despite enormous obstacles.
Black mothers — married or not — have given Black America their love and support. They deserve to receive love and support – rather than blame – in return.
Nareissa L. Smith is a summa cum laude graduate of Spelman College and a magna cum laude graduate of Howard University School of Law. Over the course of her academic career, Professor Smith has taught Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Legal Writing, and seminars examining the role of race and gender in our legal system. She can be followed on twitter at @NareissasNotes