African American marriage in the 20th century

African American marriage in the 20th century

Elaine B. Pinderhughes

It is not possible to understand African American marriages fully without attention to the social, economic, racial, and historical factors that have stressed male-female relationships beyond those stresses experienced by majority couples. I propose that the societal projection process (Bowen, 1978) has entrapped African Americans in ways that have continually and severely strained their marital and couple relationships. These experiences, and the ways in which African Americans have responded to them, have created a vulnerability that is compounded by societal shifts and changes, and is manifest in the precipitous decline of marriages at a rate higher than that found in all other racial groups in the U.S. I will examine the state of African American marriages in this cultural context, with specific attention to the effects of the unequal sex ratio, socioeconomic conditions, and overstressed male-female relationships. I will then discuss implications and offer suggestions for therapists who work with this population.


There is an old joke which says that African Americans are the only immigrants who were heavily recruited to come to this country, had escorts for the trip, and jobs awaiting. Throughout their history in the U.S., the circumstances and consequences of their unique arrival and subsequent treatment profoundly influenced every aspect of their life, especially marriage. The conditions under which they were forced to live have exerted an ongoing and unrelenting disruption of their efforts to build cohesive families within stable marriages. In the continuing absence of environmental supports, their struggles against these undermining influences have left African American marriages fragile and extremely vulnerable to societal shifts and changes (Lawson & Thompson, 1994; Staples, 1981; Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995).

Only since the 1960s, however, have scholars been concerned about the rising divorce, decreasing marriage, and relatively high male-female relationship instability rates among African Americans. As noted by Pinsof, (2002a,b), the factors responsible for rising divorce rates in the U.S. and elsewhere–namely, the increased human lifespan, the transformation of women’s roles, and the shift in values and beliefs about marriage and divorce–have also further weakened marital stability among African Americans. For example, divorce among African Americans has been consistently higher than that for other groups–their divorce rate is twice that for whites (Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995).

At the same time, the decline in marriages has been even higher, prompting some experts to express fear for the survival of African American families. In 1960, 78% of African American households included a married couple; this rate deceased to 64% in 1970; and by the late 1980s, only 48% of African American households included both a husband and a wife. This downward trend continued, reaching a low of 39% by 1993 (Billingsley & Morrison-Rodriguez, 1998). According to the U.S. Bureau of Census, in 2000, 16% of African American males were married, as compared to 60% of whites; 37% of African American females were married (nearly twice as many unmarried) as compared to 57% of white females.

What accounts for these shifts and for the differences between African Americans and whites? And what is the significance of these shifts for the male-female relationships between African Americans? I will argue that contextual conditions and the societal role of African Americans have been responsible for the problems that threaten marital occurrence, quality, and stability. The conditions include the restriction of economic opportunities, the discrediting of African American identities, and the use of social practices and policies that have legitimized inequality (Billinsley & Morrison-Rodriguez, 1998; Lawson & Thompson, 1994).

Role of African Americans in the U.S.

Elsewhere I have used Bowen’s (1978) theory of the societal projection process to explain the purpose served by the peculiar role African Americans have occupied within the U.S. social system, and to examine the systemic effects for couple and family functioning (Pinderhughes, 1988, 1999). This conceptualization suggests that, just as the scapegoat in the family projection process stabilizes a family, the scapegoat role of African Americans has served as a larger system stabilizer, reducing tension and anxiety for others in the system. Their anxiety-relieving and tension-reducing function for American society has been maintained by stereotypes and social structures, customs (racism and discrimination), laws, and policies that have restricted opportunities, lifestyles, and life choices. Orlando Patterson (1998) quotes Ralph Ellison (1953) to underscore the purpose of this sociocultural role:

We see that the Negro stereotype is really an image of the unorganized,

irrational forces of American life, forces through which, by projecting

them in forms of images of an easily dominated minority, the white

individual seeks to be at home in the vast, unknown world of America. [p.


Cornel West (1993) also addressed this issue: “Slavery and racial caste have served as the floor upon which white class, ethnic and gender struggles could be diffused and diverted.” [p. 156]

As receptacles for anxiety, conflict, confusion, and contradiction within the social system, African Americans have been required to live with multiple and ongoing stresses, and their family and couple functioning have become highly vulnerable. The adaptations they have made in coping with this societal role have become a part of their culture and, as such, these adaptations have both facilitated and undermined marriage. The decline of the African American marriage will be examined in this context.

Significance of Slavery

Franklin (1967), Frazier (1966), and Patterson (1998) contend that slavery was the initial factor that sabotaged African American marriages: slaves were forbidden by law to marry in some states, and other states seriously circumscribed their freedom to do so. Furthermore, any emotional bonds that slaves sought to create were substantially undermined by the prevailing beliefs and social structures that reified the inferiority of African Americans: males were regarded as oversexed, promiscuous, and incapable of marital commitment; slave sales separated families and disrupted relationships, and females were sexually exploited (Furstenberg, Hershberg, & Modell, 1978; Jordan, 1971; Stampp, 1956).

African-American males were invisible, except when perceived as aggressive and out of control–a perception that persists today (Boyd-Franklin & Franklin, 1999). In my study of slave documents, I discovered that just as African Americans were not considered to be fully human (see the three-fifths clause in the Constitution **), slave fathers of children were not named or listed in birth records. Only the slave mother’s name and the name of the mother’s owner were recorded. I concluded that this practice

… reflects the long-standing tendency in this country to nullify and

neglect maleness in African-American families. For all intents and

purposes, the African-American male was a zero–he did not exist.

[Pinderhughes, 1999, p. 187]

Stevenson (1995) suggests that

… the slaveowner routinely identified the child’s parentage solely with

the mother, often denying any acknowledgement of the father’s

role–biologically, emotionally, socially, or materially. [p. 38]

My research in Nigeria in 1974, on group-bonding patterns among the Yoruba (one of the tribes from which a large number of slaves had been taken), confirmed that illegitimacy and one-parent families were patterns that developed after their arrival in the U.S. Our research team found no illegitimacy among the traditional tribe members: if a man impregnated a woman, he married her (Pinderhughes, 1978). Although this custom was facilitated by the practice of polygamy, it also meant that, for those natives being taken from Africa, every mother had a husband and every child had a legal father (Pinderhughes, 1999). Patterson comments that the most devastating impact of the “holocaust of slavery” was “the ethnocidal assault on gender roles, especially those of father and husband, leaving deep scars in the relations between Afro-American men and women” (1998, p. 25).

After slavery, the stability of the African American family continued to be assaulted by a number of forces that threatened their roles as husbands and wives: for example, the disorganization of the post-Civil War plantation economy, during which there were frequent separations from and desertions by spouses; ongoing economic exploitation; disenfranchisement (maintained by lynching); and other structural inequities affecting employment, housing, and health (Lawson & Thompson, 1994; Pinkney, 1993). Despite the legacy of slavery and post-war instability, African American couples were tenacious and resilient enough to be able to marry and maintain their relationships. In 1880, 80% of African American families included a husband and wife (Billingsley, 1992). But, even though the majority had married and created stable families as soon as they could, the legacies discussed above left marriages and families vulnerable to the assault of massive stresses in the last half of the 20th century.

Northward Migration and Subsequent Deindustrialization

The northward migration of African Americans began in the early 1900s and continued into the 1960s. Large numbers left the rural South for work in the urban areas of the North and West. A blue-collar middle class with some economic stability emerged, but there also was ongoing economic inequity, high unemployment and underemployment, poor healthcare, and discrimination in housing and education. These factors, along with an erosion of the extended family because of the migration, meant that African American couples continued to be under siege (Lawson & Thompson, 1994). But a majority of African Americans married and stayed married until the 1960s.

With the disappearance of stable employment and blue-collar jobs in urban centers after 1960, this component of the African American middle class was decimated. The shift to a technological economy radically changed the choices and chances for many African American males. High levels of poverty, crime, drug abuse, and incarceration followed (Wilson, 1987). Billingsley and Morrison-Rodriguez (1998) describe how

… the technological changes and the related shift in the number and type

of available jobs; changing social mores; and punitive, oppressive and

ineffective social policies at the highest levels of government … may

accomplish what slavery could not–the destruction of the African-American

family. [p. 33]

The fragility of African American marriages, derived from their legacies and societal role, are associated with a number of problems that affect male/female relationships. In 1990, African Americans constituted 12% of the U.S. population, but their men made up 47% of the prison population and 28.8% of males in psychiatric hospitals. Fifty-four percent of their children lived in one-parent families, and these children constituted 50% of all children awaiting adoption (Kroll, 1993). Today, African Americans suffer disproportionately and have higher morbidity from stress diseases (high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes), and even much higher rates of cancer and HIV-AIDS. In 1996, 41% of childbirth deaths and 30% of the infant mortality rate were African Americans (Black, 1999; Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995). Byrd and Clayton (2001) claim that since they arrived as slaves, “they have had the worst health care, the worst health status, and the worst health outcome of any racial or ethnic group in the United States” (p. 33).

The Effects on Marriage

What do these conditions have to do with the state of marriage among African Americans? Why are so many more African American men in prison? Why are so many more children growing up without their fathers in the home? Why are so many more children without a father or mother and in need of a new family? Why are African Americans suffering from poverty and serious health problems in higher numbers? Are these conditions symptomatic of the state of African American marriage, or is the state of African American marriage symptomatic of these conditions? I believe that these conditions constitute causes and effects of problems in African American marriages and in the overall relationships between men and women. They are the result of entrapment in the societal projection process and having to live with constant conflict, confusion, and contradiction while trapped within a system that undermines functional roles.

Currently, African Americans must cope, as must everyone in the U.S., with profound societal changes; the technological revolution; the acceptance of premarital sexual activity, premarital births, and tolerance for fathers who fail in their parental responsibilities; lengthened childhood; increased educational expectations; more consumer-driven, individualistic and materialistic values; and deemphasis of the value of social responsibility and sacrifice (Billingsley & Morrison-Rodriguez, 1998). In the wake of historical and current forces, the state of African American marriage is regarded as grim and expected to get worse. While research shows that African Americans value marriage, they are marrying less. When they do marry, they separate or divorce, and are more disinclined to remarry after divorce (Lawson & Thompson, 1994; Patterson, 1998).

Structural Factors and Marital Decline

Broader structural factors influence African American family life than the family structure itself (Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995). Researchers are currently engaged in investigating two structural factors that impact marriage occurrence, stability, and quality among African Americans: the unequal sex ratio and socioeconomic conditions, in both of which the societal role is operative.

The Unequal Sex Ratio

The concept of unequal sex ratio suggests that there are a smaller number of marriageable men than there are marriageable women. In 1985, according to the Wilson-Nickerman Male Marriage Pool Index, there were 73 African American males for every 100 females in the general population. However, among marriageable (i.e., employed) males there were 43 males to 100 females. This compared unfavorably with 93 males to 100 females in general white population, and with 63 marriageable males to 100 females (Darity & Myers, 1995). In 1991, there were more unmarried white males than females under age 40, while the African American ratio was 77 unmarried men to 100 women under age 40. The reduction of African American men suitable and ready for marriage derives from multiple factors: higher death rates from disease, poor healthcare, and violent crime eliminate large numbers of them from the marriage pool; high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, gang activity, and incarceration further reduce the number of desirable males available for marriage. As a result, there has also been a decrease in the number of married women, a higher number of nonmarital births, and a higher percentage of children living in one-parent households.

Socioeconomic Conditions

A number of socioeconomic factors also fuel the decline of African American marriages. As discussed above, unemployment and underemployment seriously jeopardize the ability of men to support a household. African American men who have stable employment are twice as likely to marry as men who do not. Increasing economic marginality make men unattractive as husbands, while the men are also less interested in or reluctant to marry because of constraints upon their role as providers (Darity & Myers, 1995; Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995; Wilson, 1987). The confluence of economic issues and marital decline “results in institutionalizing a majority among African-American men, creating greater marital instability [for them] than probably at any other time in our history” (Myers, 1995, p. 222). The sex ratio conditions impact African American marital behavior five times more than whites, while employment has an effect that is twenty times greater (Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995).

The decline in marriage is also connected to the increased income of African American women and their greater likelihood of completing training and/or education compared to African American men. At the highest occupational levels, African American women surpass men. Among administrative and managerial workers, there are now 127 African American women to 100 men; among professionals, there are 151 women to 100 men. For whites, there are 64 female managerial workers and 95 professional workers for every 100 white men. Patterson (1998) suggests that these gender disparities may be generated by the racial attitudes of whites since African American women have always been more acceptable to them than are the men. “Greater fear of Afro-American men, induced by racist sexual attitudes, and greater familiarity with Afro-American women in the course of growing up made it easier for Afro-American women to find jobs in clerical, and later in professional, Euro-American settings” (p. 22).

In 1977, African American males were twice as likely to receive professional degrees compared to women. Ten years later, women had taken the lead and the gap is still widening. Patterson (1998) believes that African American women will soon surpass men in median incomes. These women are now even less inclined to marry for economic security. Their relative economic independence, however, is not new. It has its roots in the historical tendency of southern families to educate the female child in preference to the male–a strategy to keep her out of domestic service and away from possible sexual exploitation by the white employer (Staples, 1981). Also, the historically greater availability of employment for African American women (though usually low-paying) as compared to men has given women a significant economic role and more power in the home than that enjoyed by white women. African American women now have significantly greater income and education relative to their husbands than do white wives (Orbuch, Veroff, & Hunter (1998).

Male-Female Relationships

More debate, pain, anger, anxiety, and conflict have been generated by the topic of male-female relationships than by any other issue in the African American community (Boyd-Franklin & Franklin, 1999). The disastrous state of relations between spouses is regarded as a crisis; their relationships in general are weak, fractured, chaotic, hostile, and embattled. The strong ties generally heralded in African American families are not between spouses or lovers but between blood and adopted kin. This negative state of their gender relations is a major source of the wider problems of African Americans and the main means of the group’s victimization of itself (Patterson, 1998).

Stereotypes of African American men play a powerful role in maintaining their status in the social system and, therefore play a part in the problems between men and women. The responses that men have to being treated as invisible (except when perceived as threatening, challenging, or dangerous), and the responses of women to the expectation that they should compensate for social injuries, become sources for tension between partners. Stereotypes of men as irresponsible, undependable, abusive, and exploitative, or of women as evil, domineering, and suspicious, filter into the expectations that each partner has of the other and become the source for marital problems. Work must be done to avoid internalizing stereotypes because translating them into expectations of self or spouse often become the basis of severe relationship conflicts (Black, 1999; Boyd-Franklin & Franklin, 1999; Pinderhughes, 1988).

Power in male-female relationships is another central factor in African American marriages (Hatchett, Veroff, & Douvan, 1995). Power in the home becomes a complex and nodal issue for couples, especially for the male. Dissonance for each spouse occurs from living in the larger society where men are supposed to have more power, but the power is is denied because of race. Men and women become more vulnerable to channeling their frustration from this dissonance into marital conflict (MacAdoo, 1991; Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995). Higher educational levels, increased income, and greater power in the home for women, coupled with the absence of guidelines for marital behavior (slavery had destroyed African cultural practices), compounding the confusion over gender relations and decision making. The current value placed on egalitarianism in husband-wife roles in today’s culture, does not diminish the gender/power issue for African Americans. In fact, it may compound conflicts and magnify the male’s ingrained sensitivity to threats to his manhood and power. Research findings suggest that African American men highly value the traditional sex-role power distribution and male authority more than than either African American women, white men, or white women.

African American men are also less likely than white men to view the traditional division of household chores as unfair to their wives or partners (Hatchett et al., 1995; McLloyd, Cauce, Tacheuchi, & Wilson, 2000; Taylor, Tucker, & Mitchell-Kernan, 1998). While this finding may seem contradictory to African American males’ expressed approval of equity in power relations (Orbuch et al., 1998; Patterson, 1998), it makes sense in the context of their societal role. Men wish to have a compensatory sense of power in the home. A wife’s demand for flexibility in assignment of tasks–which is needed for adaptive functioning of dual-career families–may compromise a husband’s feelings of masculinity if he also feels powerless in other contexts. Tucker and Mitchell-Kernan (1995) warn that this issue can be pivotal in putting African American marriages at risk.

Marital instability, tension, and conflict can also be fueled by “economic anxiety” or “provider role anxiety,” that is, concern about the ability to provide for one’s family (Hatchett et al., 1995). For “men of color,” success in the role of provider is “of major psychological significance” (McLloyd et al., 2000). Provider-role anxiety is heightened if a men has to struggle against the persistent stereotypes of himself as an unreliable family person and provider. It is even more heightened when financial conflicts occur in relation to providing for one’s children. Financial insecurity is an abiding anxiety for African American males in particular, even when, and perhaps especially when their incomes rise. Moving out of marriages when the anxiety feels unbearable may be an escape from feelings of failure and an effort to (re)establish a sense of competency.

Gender issues also contribute to marital instability because of the tendency of African Americans to protect their sons in ways they do not protect their daughters. The need to compensate for the greater psychological risks to which males are exposed sets up distorted expectations for them, which then alienates female children in ways that later contribute to problems in marital intimacy (Boyd-Franklin & Franklin, 1999). The necessary adaptations they make to their systemic role can compound the marital problems.

Studying the expectations couples have about marriage offers insight into the fact that African Americans are increasingly making decisions not to marry or, if married, to divorce. These attitudes can shed light on the differences that exist between partners. Differences in expectations and perceptions are a major issue in any relationship, and the societal role of African Americans that embodies so much confusion and contradiction compounds these differences for couples. Researchers have found a variety of gender differences in African American couples’ expectations and attitudes toward marriage. Women look for financial security whereas men expect companionship. Married women are considerably less sexually and emotionally satisfied than are men. Men have lower expectations of marriage than women. Vast differences exist between men and women about values regarding sexual morality, preferences in sexual practices, level of sexual activity, and attitudes toward fidelity. Hatchett et al., 1995; Patterson, 1998; South, 1993).

The rates of infidelity of African American men constitutes a prime factor in marital instability and rising divorce. They exhibit infidelity at a rate higher than other groups, and are nearly twice as likely to be unfaithful as white men. However, African American women will not accept infidelity and are far less forgiving than white women (Patterson, 1998). Male infidelity may be connected to the unequal sex ratio in that the overabundance of desirable women makes it easier for men to avoid a committed relationship (Lawson & Thompson, 1994). When men are scarce, they have more potential partners, are more reluctant to enter into long-term relationships, have less need to compromise, and can attract women without offering many incentives for women to accept them (Kiecolt & Fossett, 1995). One can speculate that the societal projection process has pushed African American women to be sensitive about their womanliness, just as it has caused African American men to be sensitive about their manhood. Stereotypes of African American women as unattractive, bossy, castrating, evil, and mean, threatens their sense of themselves and may cause them to experience infidelity as the ultimate in powerlessness.

Protective Factors in Marriage

One wonders how any African American marriages are able to survive given the odds against their doing so. Many theories have been generated about factors that enable couples to achieve stable marriages. Researchers are beginning to identify protective factors that support marriage and enhance marital satisfaction. Orbuch and his colleagues (1998) suggest how wives have successfully managed their husbands’ sensitivity to power threats. In stable marriages, African American and white wives were supportive in different ways: white wives were cooperative, offering an overt compliance to their husbands; African American wives were collaborative and there was a meshing of ways of interaction. The collaborative style that was observed reflected the significance and value placed by African American men on women’s independence and strength and their preference for an equal partner rather than a submissive, cooperative one since their families’ survival often depends upon two active partners. It was concluded that the nurturance African American men need has to be more subtle than that offered to white men because of the issue of power vulnerability (Orbuch et al., 1998).

Compatibility for African American couples was characterized by openness to new experience, and by more separation and autonomy than for white couples, which was seen to be consistent with wives’ greater power and the norm of independence for women. Collaboration rather than cooperation in decision making, and “friendship” as well as partnership were identified as characteristics of African American stable marriages and satisfied spouses (Carolan & Allen, 1999). A study of long-term married couples (MacKey & O’Brien, 1998) found more conflict in the early years and the use of more confrontational styles to manage conflict in the later years among African American couples than among either white or Mexican couples. They concluded that the types of conflict that all couples face today in negotiating marital roles when there are few available models, may be similar to those reported by African Americans in the study. More studies of long-term, successfully married African American couples may inform our understanding of how all couples negotiate roles and marital conflicts under stress.

Researchers are also studying mediating factors such as neighborhood and family network support, communalism and spirituality/religion, factors that have long been noted as moderators of the stresses of being African American has on marital stability. Findings are beginning to indicate that these forces can function as supports and moderating forces, but they also can be stress reinforcers. For example, although strong kinship network ties facilitate greater potential access to needed support, they also embody a greater risk of unwanted interference (Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995).

The Societal Project Process Role

This role is the nodal issue. Network supports and connectedness to community and extended families are nonexistent for many African Americans, especially men, many of whom remain extremely isolated. Increasing rates of suicide, high-risk behavior, crime, drug abuse and addiction stem from isolation. Hypothesizing that the responses of African Americans to their plight have now become internalized, Patterson (1998) argues that centuries of unrelieved oppression and economic discrimination have resulted in cultural patterns (attitudes and behavior, particularly of men) that now obviate the need for them (p. 166). In other words, the societal projection process has operated such that African Americans themselves are helping to create these disastrous outcomes.

In my opinion there is some truth in the assertion that the societal projection process is at work here. African Americans’ responses to the stresses of their social roles have undermined their marital roles. Their efforts to manage these stresses push the flexibility, mutuality, and adaptive compensation that denote healthy family and couple functioning to exaggerated and destructive levels. Hard work can slip into driven dedication; being strong and tough can become domination and abuse of power; flexibility can lead to disorganization and inconsistency; and caution can slip into immobilization, passivity, or withdrawal under extreme stress. Thus African Americans are confronted with this dilemma: to maintain healthy family and couple functioning, they must manage the anger and frustration stemming from their societal role, such that the vulnerability and mutuality so necessary for intimacy are not destroyed by the invincible stance and readiness to struggle that are needed to cope with that role. They must maintain intimate relationships in the face of ongoing, disruptive circumstances that demand very different behaviors. They must not channel their anger and frustration into their bodies or discharge their feelings onto mates or children. Males have especially to guard against using domination in their relationships as a compensation for social injustice. This requires a state of carefully regulated flexibility and vigilance. The current condition of African American male-female relationships indicates the Herculean nature of that task. Any solutions to the decline of African American marriage must take into account this stress dilemma.


Couple therapy, like all therapy, has little power to make the larger social system changes that are needed to extract African American couples from their social projection process role. Yet the issues requiring such urgently needed changes are operative in African American clients’ problems. Perhaps it is because of our impotence in changing context that the field of family therapy has, until recently, marginalized its significance of context. Literature, theory, and practice have been based on this omission, ignoring the role of the interactive process of race, gender, and class in the problems African American couples bring to therapy, and minimizing the importance of context in the therapeutic process as well as in the measurement of outcomes. Differences are a major issue in all relationships, but they are magnified by contextual dynamics for African Americans. The interaction of race, gender, and class in the problem of African American couples compounds the likelihood that the partners’ differences in values and perspectives will be many and deeply rooted. As noted above, such issues as finances, power, partnership, nurturing, and companionship are particularly contextually loaded.

Therapists must be prepared to help couples crystallize their thinking about these differences and how their expectations of one another have been shaped by their social roles and identities in terms of race, gender, and class. Understanding the multiply contextual nature of their problems can help them to find solutions and improve their ways of coping. However, because a noncontextual, Euro-centric perspective has dominated the field, and because most therapists are beneficiaries of a process that victimizes their clients and is part of their problems, therapists have been poorly trained and minimally motivated to pay attention to these complex issues (Hardy & Laszloffy, 1999). Moreover, therapists’ societal role has blinded them to their handicap, limiting their capacity to think critically and contextually about the couple’s problem.

Therapists have insisted that a philosophical shift is needed in the field to enable a reexamination of its most basic assumptions. Such a shift would increase the likelihood that therapists will be trained to overcome their entrapment; take responsibility for personal biases and behaviors based on that role; become comfortable with the issues of race, class, and gender; and be able to use a broader perspective that respects the multifactorial and transactional nature of their clients’ problems. This is a tall order: such shifts would be profound and there is a great resistance to them (Almeida, Woods, Messineo, & Font, 1999; Hardy & Laszloffy, 1999). There is some indication, however, that a beginning is underway because of the attention now being paid to postmodern theory and narrative concepts. Couple therapy based on these ways of thinking will help couples clarify perceptions and beliefs about their experience and problems, understand the sources that are often connected with socialization and dominant societal messages, and develop alternative perspectives that will facilitate more harmonious behaviors and improved relationships. The therapist’s stance, as collaborator and learner, can itself be therapeutic since it empowers clients whose life experiences may have led them to expect much less. Because of the strong emphasis on communalism and spirituality among African Americans, encouraging couples to connect with resources such as support groups, advocacy and religious organizations can help satisfy those needs.

Therapists working with African American couples must be careful not to allow the necessary focus on context to reinforce partners’ inclinations to avoid responsibility for their behavior by blaming either the system or one another. Therapists must be vigilant about not overfocusing or inappropriately focusing on context to the exclusion of individual or family factors. Some therapists are now suggesting that how couples cope behaviorally, emotionally, and cognitively with specific acts of discrimination–with institutionalized injustice and a range of oppressive behaviors and attitudes–should be assessed and, with appropriate timing, can become a focus in the therapy (Boyd-Franklin & Franklin, 1999; Carolan & Allen, 1999; Green, 1999). All therapists, of whatever color, need to learn to make these conceptual shifts since personal experiences may result in an oversensitivity that leads therapists either to avoid or to over-focus on them.


As Pinsof (2002b) suggests, the increase in divorce and the decline in marriages may not reverse. Therefore, programs should be established to support people’s pair-bonding choices, and attention must be given to designing programs for African Americans according to their specific needs. I have repeatedly indicated that the situation of African Americans has differed drastically from that of the general population. Policies that address the decline of marriages will likely be insufficient. The future for African Americans may well portend even fewer marriages, more divorces, more single-parent families, and a higher rate of poverty. But the issue of single-parent families deserves closer scrutiny. Pinsof (2002b) notes that a substantial proportion of one-parent families of all ethnic backgrounds have fathers with varying degrees of involvement. For some, their involvement may differ little from that of two-parent families. A number of nonmarital families are functional and represent a reasonable lifestyle choice. Moreover, not all single parent families live in poverty. In Denmark and Sweden, 50% of births are to unmarried couples, and the families are thriving. But, the strong institutional and neighborhood support in these countries contribute to positive outcomes.

In the U.S., however, nearly 64% of African American children live in poverty (U.S. Bureau of Census, 1998), and they are at risk for severe problem behaviors related to drug use and crime. Father absence coupled with lack of supervision of the children predisposes them to delinquency. Mothers are often overwhelmed, unskilled, and may lack nurturing supports that would help them to function as effective parents. Abuse and neglect of the children, drug abuse and abuse by their boyfriends, as well as abuse of the children by stepfathers are all too frequent consequences (Billingsley & Morrison-Rodriguez, 1998). Economic issues underlie these scenarios and are cause and consequence of marital decline.

The societal projection process is also heavily implicated, as is the current absence of the national will to undo, if not indict, its destructiveness. To correct this situation would require policies mandating massive social programs and citizen action to combat poverty, racism, crime, drug usage, and disease. Billingsley and Morrison-Rodriguez (1998) recommend that the Black Church, which played a leadership role during slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, mount a spiritual and political campaign to save African American families. Tucker and Mitchell Kernan (1995) suggest that economic inequity and high male mortality and undesirability become prime targets for policy changes. Danziger (1995) advocates renewed efforts to stem unwanted pregnancies by promoting self-sufficiency among males and females: for example, through paid apprenticeships, national service, or other training or work opportunities. Drastic changes are also needed in educational systems and programs that teach healthy family relationships, parenting skills, and provide information about rights advocacy. Prevention programs, as described by Gurman and Fraenkel (2002), must also be expanded.


In the increasingly unstable sociopolitical climate of the new millennium, with its shifting values and social roles, changing family relationships, and fears about survival for self let alone for one’s family, African American families are more in peril than ever before. They must change their self-crippling responses to their societal predicaments. Patterson (1998) points out that men must change their

… gender attitudes, their sexual morality, their low opinion of marriage

and their chronic infidelity in marriages and cohabiting unions. [p. 164]

But we will be irresponsible if we make such a demand without simultaneously extricating African Americans from their destructive societal process role. This means that White America must find other ways to manage its anxiety and reduce its tension. Otherwise, changes such as those recommended above will be only palliative Band-Aids. Improvement in problems will be only temporary, and the next major societal shift will imperil African Americans again, perhaps this time making their invisibility a physical reality.

* I thank William Pinsof for his editorial feedback on this article, and Kate Silfen for her research assistance.

** The three-fifths compromise in the Constitution states that, in counting the population, five slaves should be considered equal to three persons (Article 1, Section 2, The Constitution of the United States of America.)


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Manuscript received April 19, 2002; accepted April 23, 2002.

ELAINE B. PINDERHUGHES, MSW, Professor-Emerita, McGuinn Hall, Boston College Graduate School of Social Work, Chestnut Hill, Boston MA 02467; e-mail: elaine.pinderhughes@bc/edu

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