Two Views of the Black Family

A behind-the-scenes debate

I serve as an advisor to the Woodson Center, and at a recent meeting, a very interesting debate broke out. If you’re not aware of the Woodson Center’s work and mission, I recommend checking it out—especially the 1776 Unites project, in which I am involved. For 40 years, the center and its founder, Bob Woodson, have worked tirelessly to try to solve some of the most tenacious social problems in the US. You can see in the video below that Bob is a force to be reckoned with.

In trying to find solutions to the problems of poor communities, do we focus on their deficiencies or their strengths? Should we emphasize the scourge of parental absenteeism that potentially puts children at risk? Or should we talk up the informal networks of friends and extended family that step in to care for those children? The former is surely a weakness, the latter is surely a strength. And yet they’re both parts of a single complex of behaviors, attitudes, and patterns that all of us—Bob Woodson, Robert Cherry, Beth Feeley, and I—want to change.

It’s tough stuff. We certainly don’t resolve the issue, but I think our debate is instructive in itself. I’d love to know what you think, so let me know in the comments.

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GLENN LOURY: Yeah. I mean, I think it raises a more general question about how to deal with "pathology." Because we're focused on solutions. This is a part of the lifeblood of Bob Woodson's vision. Solutions. And I think "strengths of black families" has the appeal that it has in the context of Bob's work in part because it focuses on positives. It looks at what people think people are doing that's right.

But I think there is pathology. I mean, this is just me, Glenn Loury's personal opinion. I think there's deep scarring. I think there's broken stuff, brokenness. I think the brokenness is very, very deep. And there's dysfunction. There's abuse. There's neglect. There's abandonment. And it's on a wholesale scale. It's not an isolated thing. It is deeply insinuated into the situation. So, you know, there's a number of different things you could say here. I mean, you might say, okay, strengths. Okay. But the main issue is dysfunction. Something that has to be fixed here.

ROBERT CHERRY: I don't like using the word pathology.

You don't?

ROBERT CHERRY: No, no, because ..

ROBERT WOODSON: We're beginning to discuss it now.

Is it just a word or is there a deeper point?

ROBERT CHERRY: Well, the deeper point is that there's an inability to function in very difficult, sometimes uncontrollable circumstances. It isn't that people have pathologies; they don't have the resources. They don't have the right support in getting out from under those circumstances. And if you layer on drugs, crime, you layer on a couple of things, it's overwhelming in many ways. If you talk to those people, many of those mothers, let's say, they're not pathological. They're overwhelmed. They make bad choices. They don't have resources. They don't have support.

ROBERT WOODSON: Well, let me, let me just add to both of you. Pathology doesn't bother me. All of what you said, Robert, is true. And you can call it whatever you like. It amounts to that. But Glenn, in response to what you were saying, I look at it again. Those are the liabilities. That's the amount of mortgage someone owes. That's the credit card debt. You can say how bad the debt is that they have. The question is what assets, if at all, they have. And that's what Bob [Hill] was talking about. Given all how dire the situation is.

That's what Bob Hill is talking about.

ROBERT WOODSON: That's what Robert Hill was talking about. But there are assets. The question, let's talk about the part about the assets.

ROBERT CHERRY: Yeah, but [Hill] incredibly understates the deficits and the problems. He continually wants to say it's no different than among whites. He understates the depth of the problem.

ROBERT WOODSON: Let me just say this. For instance, in his second study, there was three, "The Myth of Income Cushions" is another one, about a lot of blacks who qualify don't apply for it. But then he talks about informal adoption. The fact that there were at that time [in 1980] 3 million kids being cared for by non-relatives. Half of the 3 million are black. So blacks are disproportionately caring for non-relative children without any aid from the government as foster parents. That's a strength.

ROBERT CHERRY: I understand it's a strength.

Or a necessity, a necessary consequence of the breakdown of the primary unit. I mean, those kids had to go somewhere.

ROBERT WOODSON: Yeah. But see, you can compartmentalize it and say, yeah, everything you're saying is true. But the question is, are there any assets that someone has?

ROBERT CHERRY: Yeah, but you don't want to glorify those assets. Naomi Schaefer Riley has written extensively about the problematic nature of relatives taking care of kids. They need support, but I think there's a way not to idealize that.

ROBERT WOODSON You know, to be very honest, when I hear people saying, "You're idealizing it," I'm just talking about strengths. It's not idealizing anything. But I mean, I have seen people crawl out of the worst mess that you can imagine.


ROBERT WOODSON: And I go to those people, and I want to know from them how they did it, when they did it, how they overcome. I think there's so much to learn. I don't care if it's just two out of a hundred. I want to know how did the two make it and what lessons we can learn that would help others to do it. I mean, is there anything wrong with that? If it's just two?

No, there's nothing wrong with it, Bob. The question is, at the end of the day, what do we need to focus our attention on in order to have the biggest impact on the situation?

ROBERT WOODSON: I'm saying that, again, following the principles of our market economy, you look for anomalies. It may be just one or two, but I've always found there are unique things that can be learned from even studying a small sampling of something. There are seeds of innovation or ways of doing things that people never thought about before. And perhaps there is a way that we can cultivate that and do it.

Bob, that is noble. That's a noble impulse. If I had an epidemic of cholera that broke out in a city, and people were getting sick and they were dying, it would call forth all kinds of responses of humanity and healing from the population. Nurses would take care of the sick. People would risk their lives. Heroic deeds would be undertaken to respond to the outbreak. And it would be worth honoring those efforts and studying them because they are strengths.

But if it's bad drinking water that's making people sick, and I don't get that, I don't catch that and turn it off and stop it, I'll be looking in the wrong place. The question here is whether or not what's happening to the black family is like that. Whether or not the welfare state going all the way back to Lyndon Johnson and before, and all the do-gooders, whether or not the turn of the culture that has become so cravenly immoral in promoting all kind of rap music stuff and all kinds of negative ways of living, whether or not the death of God and the absence of those churches, whether or not the black middle class moving out of the segregated enclaves, where the healing impulses were most strongly developed, and moving off into the integrated suburb, if that's what's going on.

So people are having kids and they're not taking care of them and they're not raising them and the kids are not getting their cognitive development, they're not learning how to read and to count. And they're getting cigarettes put out on their arms, and they're hungry and they're being shouted at all day long, and nobody will turn off the television, and they're being fed sugar and fat for their diets. And if we look for the heroes who are putting a Band-Aid on that situation, we'll be looking in the wrong place. And the question is, what's going on? What's going on with the black family in these places that have all of this terrible human failure? And I think we just have to recognize that something is happening. Something very fundamental is happening.

ROBERT WOODSON: All of what you say, I will agree. I will agree. All I know is that we have got to be looking. Some years ago, there was a front page article about a scientist at the National Institute of Health. He operated on a frog, took the ovaries out, and then sewed the frog up, and put him back in this bath that was bacteria-laden. But the frog’s skin began to heal in the presence of all of this bacteria. This was so counterintuitive. They took it out and analyzed, how did this frog's wound heal in the presence of these bacteria?

And it was front page news because they said that what [the scientist] has found has the promise of curing some very dreaded kinds of diseases. But it's going to take years of investment before the impact of what he has found ... and I'm saying that somebody has got to be focusing on unusual things that are happening that have the promise of doing ...

When when you consider, and I hope I can make this point, that 60% of Apple's income comes from a device that didn't exist eight years ago, my hope is that sometimes in these urban centers that somebody will do or say something that promotes a kind of cure that changes someone's attitude and beliefs. I keep using the same example, how Kimi Gray sent 600 kids to college from this one nasty, toxic public housing project, and none of their parents, a few of them married. How did they do that? I want to interview all 600 of those kids to find out. They were exposed to all of this stuff that you just outlined. And I want to know from those 600, how did they escape? And 600 is not an insignificant number of people.

ROBERT CHERRY: Yeah, but we know things that can help, like visiting nursing programs.

ROBERT WOODSON: But you keep throwing out services, Bob ...

ROBERT CHERRY: It's not some bullshit!

ROBERT WOODSON: You think if we just had the right complex of services, everybody would be fine.

ROBERT WOODSON: I'm being very specific, here. Visiting nurses that aid from prenatal through three years old, to say that that is ... I mean, after all, why should somehow having someone from the community figure out how to help these young mothers be better than a visiting nurses program?

ROBERT WOODSON: Well, to make Glenn's point, my drunken niece that I spent thousands of dollars trying to get her out of a hell hole public housing she's in, her attitude was ... you know what I mean? She's been lost. I spent thousands trying to get her help. Sending in a damn nurse wouldn't help her. She's got a defeatist attitude.

Wait a minute. Hold on. You guys are on the same team, here. I think Robert Cherry is right that the visiting nurse program, there's a lot of evidence that these young mothers, whatever. But I want to credit, Bob, what you're saying about the possibility of innovation, of seeing examples that can then be the seed for something that's much better. The positive, optimistic, life-affirming spirit that you bring to it, I mean, who's going to be against that? I'm not against that. I'm really not. But I think this all goes to show, as we terminate this conversation, the value of this discussion.



Okay, so I think we certainly should have it.

BETH FEELEY: I put in the chat the article we'd like people to read ahead of time, and so hopefully I will call Ian and Will just to make sure we've got a couple who have done so. I think that was a great point.

ROBERT WOODSON: Well, we already had half of it now.

But you know what, since you're recording this, Beth, if you guys would let me, my guys can edit this into a 20 minute post over at The Glenn Show newsletter, and we can capture a little bit of the energy of the discussion. If you're comfortable with that.

ROBERT WOODSON: I’m comfortable with it.

BETH FEELEY: Alright. He's the man.

Put it up at Dropbox or something like that, Beth, and let me get access to it.

BETH FEELEY: That sounds great. I can do that. Can I just comment? What I hear is, I would love for this to be a nuanced conversation. I don't think that every situation is going to be solved by the visiting nurse, nor is it going to be solved by the indigenous person, but just to show that there is a whole menu of options.

ROBERT CHERRY: That's right. That's exactly right.

And they're not in competition with each other.

ROBERT CHERRY: That's exactly right.

BETH FEELEY: I think that so many times in our culture now, it's an all or nothing. It's you're bad, he's good. And that is just simply not reflective of life.

ROBERT WOODSON: And I'm holding out for a cure.

BETH FEELEY: So with that, thank you gentlemen.

God bless you, Bob. God bless you.