What is the state of the Black family unit in America today?

June 19, 2023 5:50 am

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June 19th, Juneteenth, has been set aside as a national holiday to celebrate the end of the enslavement of Black people. Today is a good day to take inventory of the state of Blacks in America.

There is no better place to begin than to revisit the journey of the Black family unit to help us better understand where we are, and more importantly, where we need to go.

The health and well-being of individuals are inextricably tied to that of the family unit.

Scholars agree on the central role a healthy family plays in the life of an individual. They also readily acknowledge that whatever plagues families in society generally, the impact of those same negative forces on Black families are much more severe and the ramifications more far-reaching and long-lasting.

The impact can be seen throughout communities across the country.  You need only to review a few grim statistics. We can begin with poorer health status caused by limited or no access to health care services. That became very evident during the Covid-19 pandemic. There is an ongoing health disparity when it comes to the higher mortality rate among Black pregnant moms and their infants.

Higher rates of unemployment persists for Blacks during period of economic prosperity.

By comparison, the Black family, disproportionately, lives in poor housing and blighted neighborhoods. This is also the case for Black home ownership, which is much lower than that of whites.

While there are many strong Black families, headed by one or both parents, there are many others still plagued, imperiled, and suffering from some indelible scars from the ravages of history — beginning with the institution of slavery that did everything in its power to rip apart and destroy the family unit, separating mother and father, mother and child.

There was simply no value and no nurturing of the Black family unit for centuries. Such utter disregard went on far too long.

And even though it has been over a 160 years since that wretched institution supposedly died, the many negative effects are still seen today.

Since the abolition of slavery, the Black family has been imperiled by one destructive force after the other.

For example: in addition to higher rates of unemployment, the alternative is to take part in a welfare system that encourages separation and dissolution of the basic family unit.  Girls and women can have babies and continue to get financial support for those babies as long as the father is not around to help raise them.

Perhaps, the greatest and long-lasting impact of these destructive forces is on the children.

They are the ones who find it difficult, if not impossible, to have vision, to see beyond their immediate living environment. They are the ones who are more vulnerable, who are likely to succumb to drugs and a life of crime to escape their deprived and disheartening condition.

They are the children having children, in part out of ignorance and a lack of direction, in part out of hope and the need to feel important to someone, to show love, to receive love.  The result is double jeopardy, double loss.  A young girl may never reach her potential; and the child she brings into the world starts out at a disadvantage.

For a family unit that is already frail and weak, this can only make it weaker, more vulnerable — perpetuating the cycle generation after generation.

Where do the answers lie? Where do we begin to stop the destructive forces?

First, regain a level of appreciation for the importance of family and make protecting and strengthening it of the highest priority.

Blacks and whites must refuse to believe those destructive forces are beyond our control. We must commit ourselves to do whatever we can to address the conditions that the family unit confronts on an ongoing basis. The answers are neither simple nor easy.  Nor can they be achieved overnight.

As we continue to work for better housing, better education, equal access to jobs and other economic opportunities, we should invest a substantial amount of time and resources in our young people. We must help them overcome many hurdles and misconceptions that can destroy their future — even before they have any idea of what that future can be.

Providing them opportunities to have access and achieve a quality education in an ever-advancing technological society is paramount. Without an education both in terms of tradition and emerging technologies, the odds of improving their living conditions are firmly stacked against them.

To achieve appreciation for the value of a strong family unit, and address those needs to build and preserve it, often like any positive outcomes, must be taught, learned, and practiced, and passed on.

While no one can undo the past conditions that have left destruction, disenfranchisement, and disadvantages in its wake, today and moving forward, we can refocus our energy and efforts on what is necessary to build a stronger family unit — for generations to come.

But the Black family unit cannot become stronger existing in a societal silo. Physical and social segregation and isolation between Blacks and whites will not yield a good or lasting outcome.

Our lives, and more importantly our future well-being, are inextricably tied whether we like it or not.

Instead, educators, policymakers, leaders, and all of us as caring citizens alike must be willing to acknowledge the long-existing disparities, inequities, and overall disenfranchisement of Blacks in America, come together, commit, and continue to work at making things better.

Then, maybe, there will be real reasons to celebrate the meaning and promise of Juneteenth as a national holiday.

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Janice Ellis
Janice Ellis

Janice Ellis has lived and worked in Missouri for more than three decades, analyzing educational, political, social and economic issues across race, ethnicity, age and socio-economic status. Her commentary has appeared in The Kansas City Star, community newspapers, on radio and now online. She is the author of two award-winning books: From Liberty to Magnolia: In Search of the American Dream (2018) and Shaping Public Opinion: How Real Advocacy Journalism™ Should be Practiced (2021). Ellis holds a Ph.D. in communication arts, and two Master of Arts degrees, one in communications arts and a second in political science, all from the University of Wisconsin.