A candid survey by Black Entertainment Television and CBS reveals some new directions and a changing identity among black Americans, who say slavery and racism still affect their community but also are critical of their own shortcomings.
A new poll of 724 black adults by the two networks in mid-September offers a surprising and at times stark snapshot of contemporary black culture.
“At the start of the 21st century, the black family is hardly ‘The Huxtables’ of the 1980s nor even ‘The Hughleys’ of the 2001 television season,” the survey noted. “The core institution of the African American community is not ‘vanishing’ but simply adapting.”
The idea that blacks saw educational achievement as “acting white” was put to rest by the poll, which found that 61 percent of the respondents wanted their children to complete graduate school; 37 percent said they would be satisfied with college alone. Only 2 percent said a high school education or vocational school was sufficient.
Blacks did not see the shadow of slavery as having diminished over the years: 85 percent said the impact of slavery continued to be felt. In addition, almost half said they had been victims of racial profiling and 62 percent said they thought the U.S. government should apologize for slavery.
Black Americans, said Linda Faye Williams, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, “understand there is a legacy and that the ways in which they are treated differently stem from slavery. There can be no way there can be equality unless this legacy is acknowledged.”
But pervasive popular culture took a hit: 68 percent cited far too much emphasis on consumerism and a constant preoccupation with expensive cars, athletic shoes and the like. Forty-eight percent said that rap and hip-hop music had a negative influence on young blacks.
Many blacks also were critical of family trends, especially the growing trend of fatherlessness.
Forty-four percent said marriage had become “less important” than it was 20 years ago. According to both the survey and the U.S. Census, 37 percent of black adults are married, compared with 53 percent for the general population.
Based on preliminary census data and the poll, “70 percent of black infants were born to unmarried women in the late 1990s, a figure more than triple that of the civil rights generation,” the survey stated.
“The only black families that will come near to catching up with whites economically are two-parent families,” said Ms. Williams. “The reality is that African-American families are poor if they don’t have two parents.”
Having children out of wedlock drew a mixed response; 45 percent said it was “OK under certain circumstances” while 39 percent said it was “always wrong.”
Indeed, 36 percent cited financial concerns rather than crime, drugs, racism and poor schools as the most pressing problem for black families.
Respondents also spoke out on black fathers: 92 percent said absent fathers were a problem, 56 percent said “black men have failed their families,” and 31 percent blamed the fathers’ irresponsibility or lack of interest rather than joblessness or incarceration for the problem.
Still, no easy conclusions emerged, said journalist Leonard Pitts, author of “Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood.”
Blacks are often self-critical, he said.
He agrees with other sociologists that unemployment, racism, family problems and inadequate health care can erode black fatherhood.
“Black men have not been willing to step up to their responsibilities,” he said. “And some black women have been willing to allow that kind of behavior.”
“I don’t take all the responsibility from the black male, but I don’t assign all the responsibility to him,” said Alvin Thornton, chairman of the political science department at Howard University. “Parenthood requires attention by the father, and an economic structure that supports fatherhood.”
One woman at a discussion board at the BET Web site (www.bet.com) asked: “What about fathers’ rights?
“We live in a society where fathers are becoming more disposable,” she said.
Traditional values and family ties, meanwhile, continue to bolster the black community. Two-thirds of those polled said that church had a “major” impact on their lives. The survey also found that black families ate meals together at least five times a week and that adults “contact their aging parents regularly and frequently.”
The survey itself inaugurates “Under One Roof,” a yearlong BET weekly news series partly funded by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism and based on “unprecedented, continual self-examination of contemporary family life” in black America.
The findings will be presented before the Congressional Black Caucus next year.
“We were asking black people what’s going on,” BET’s Retha Hill told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Because BET was asking the questions, people were very candid.”