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African-American Families

Contemporary Social Influences

Historical and cultural forces cannot account for every aspect of African-American family life. Contemporary social forces exert very powerful influences over the formation and nature of family life in black America today. For example, successive waves of migration from rural to urban areas during the twentieth century, racism, poverty, urbanization, segregation, and immigration from outside the United States have profoundly reshaped family life.

Rural to urban migration. When the Civil War ended, and former slaves were free to move, an overwhelming majority of African Americans resided in the rural South. In later decades, however, in response to economic downturns and the absence of opportunity in rural areas, African Americans moved to cities in the northeast and to urban midwestern areas to seek economic advancement. This twentieth century wave of migration out of the rural South was so massive that by 1998, only 55 percent of African Americans lived in the South. They make up one-fifth of that region's population. Nationwide, 54 percent resided in the central cities of metro areas. Half of the ten states with the largest African-American populations were outside of the deep South. New York (3.2 million) tops the list of states with the largest African-American population, followed by California (2.4 million).

As a consequence of these migrations, families moved from relatively cohesive rural communities to cities where they were anonymous. Not all families were able to re-create networks by moving close to relatives and people they had known in the South or to establish new ones with fictive kin. Urbanization with its fast-paced life, long work hours, multiple jobs, and neighborhoods, proved destructive to family life. Because women had access to the labor market, men assumed domestic responsibilities and shared in the care of children. African Americans encountered new and virulent forms of racism and discrimination, which were less obvious in the northeast, midwest, and west than those of the South. This new racism, however, had more subtle and deleterious effects. Residential segregation was enforced not by law, but by informal covenants and economic discrimination. Although many families had access to better paying jobs than were available in the South, their ability to advance their socioeconomic status (SES) on the basis of merit was often limited by the same racial discrimination they had experienced in the South.

Poverty. The transition from the rural South to urban life, often in northern cities, offered no guarantee of relief from poverty for African-American families. Poverty has remained the most pressing issue adversely affecting family life among African-Americans. Family life among African Americans is adversely affected by a tightly related set of adverse social conditions. These conditions include low SES and educational achievement, underemployment, teenage pregnancy, patterns of family formation, divorce, health problems, and psychological adjustment. In 1998, 88 percent of African Americans ages twenty-five to twenty-nine had graduated from high-school, continuing an upward trend in the educational attainment of African Americans that began in 1940. Despite this increased achievement, however, the median income for African-American households in 1997 was $25,050. Thus, the number of African-American families living below the poverty level stood at 26.5 percent in 1998. Poverty is important in its own right for the material hardship it brings. It has multiple adverse effects because it is implicated in marital distress and dissolution, health problems, lower educational attainment and deficits in psychological functioning, and prospects for healthy development over the life course (Barbarin 1983).

Immigration. Beginning in the 1990s and stretching into the twenty-first century, African-American family life has been subject to an influx of new immigrants from the Caribbean and parts of Africa. This movement is oddly reminiscent of the immigration pattern three centuries earlier. Arrivals from the Caribbean and East and West Africa have expanded the diversity of African-American families as they reconnect African Americans with their distant relatives who themselves have been transformed by modernity and urbanization. These new immigrants make for an African-American community that is even more diverse in language. The range of languages spans from the Creole patois of Haiti and French-speaking Africa to the Spanish of Panama.

Immigrants of African descent give new meaning and flavor to the American melting pot as they create their own blend of lilting cadences of Caribbean English, plus an added spice of French-speaking Senegalese. In one manner, these new groups of voluntary immigrants represent assimilation without accommodating the customs of American mainstream values and beliefs. While Africans and West Indians come to the United States to seek opportunities and freedom, they retain national pride and also the languages and customs associated with their countries of origin. As the issue of assimilation into the African-American community takes place, new tensions and promises will arise, as newcomers and long-time residents establish their relationships with one another and grope to find their areas of common ground.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsAfrican-American Families - Historical And Cultural Influences On African-american Family Life, Contemporary Social Influences, African-american Families In The New Millennium