ATHENS, Ohio -- It's not family structure but institutionalized racism in America that negatively influences the lives of black men, according to an Ohio University researcher. In the first known study of the effects of early childhood on black men, Ohio University Professor of Sociology Lena Wright Myers found that family structure has little to do with self-esteem and how black men view the world.
"I've seen how the prevailing literature does a cultural put-down of black men who grew up in a mother-only family structure. Whenever there's a lack of success related to a black male, the black family structure is blamed for it," Myers said. From 1988 to 1990, Myers interviewed 230 black men in Jackson, Miss., who were diversified in age, education, income and family structure. She asked them how they viewed the way in which they were raised. Of the sample, 25 percent grew up with both biological parents, 39 percent grew up in mother-only families, 3 percent in grandmother-only families and 33 percent were raised by other relatives. Seventy-two percent of all study participants said their home life had a positive influence on their lives as adults.
"If they're saying the way they were raised was helpful despite the structure of their families, it shows that whomever was the head of the household was doing something right," Myers said. "We have to stop saying that just because a child is from a mother-only family that he's not going to turn out to be successful."
According to others in her field, Myers' study is unique because it is the first to document the effects of family structure on black men. "Obviously, this work breaks new ground," said Delores Aldridge, Emory University Distinguished Professor of Sociology. "Unlike any other scholarly works on black men, it provides evidence gained from black men themselves."
The issue of black family structure has been part of a national debate for decades. One of the first national leaders to openly address the issue of nontraditional black family structure is longtime U.S. Sen. Daniel Moynihan, D-NY. In a 1965 report, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," he suggested that the absent-father notion contributed to a strong possibility of ineffective socialization of black males. "Numerous black families consist of women as single parents, and that type of family has been historically seen as broken, unstable and weak," Myers said. "Whereas in the same type of family for whites, it is not as negative."
According to her study, other factors, mostly embedded in racism, contribute to the problems that black men face, including unemployment, crime, health problems and alcohol and drug abuse. "Black men historically have been led to believe that they are inferior, and that negatively affects their socialization," Myers said. "An example of this is not having an equal opportunity for employment despite how well qualified one might be."
Myers' research was published in October in a 142-page book "Black Male Socialization Revisited in the Minds of Respondents" as Volume 16 in Contemporary Studies in Sociology by JAI Press Inc. in Stamford, Conn. She holds an appointment in the College of Arts and Sciences at Ohio University.