Identifying the special strengths - and needs - of the black family

A reporter spends an afternoon talking with members of a black family, then returns to his or her desk to dash off the ''definitive'' story of today's typical black household.

A researcher looking for data on females heading black-family households selects a convenient community, sends out some questionnaires, and draws some convenient conclusions.

Unfortunately, these two scenarios are representative of the kind of attention being focused on black families today.

''Black families are getting a lot of press, but good research is very rare, '' says Howard University Prof. Harriette McAdoo.

Founder of the McAdoo Family Profile Scale used by sociologists to measure the kinds of support a family receives from relatives and friends, Dr. McAdoo is a pioneer in the relatively new study of black families. During the past 10 years she has identified some of the causes of upward mobility in middle-class families, and currently she is shaking up stereotypes having to do with single mothers.

''There has always been the stereotype of the black mother who is single and who is probably going to end up on welfare,'' Dr. McAdoo says. ''But the women we've been talking with have full custody of their children and are working at full-time jobs, doing everything possible to remain independent.''

Partly in response to the 1965 Moynihan Report, a Department of Labor study that documented the breakdown of ghetto black families, a number of scholars have focused on identifying the strengths that are unique to black families. There's been no lack of evidence, but funding for studies has steadily dwindled.

''A lot of research in the past has been problem-oriented, because it was easier to get funding if you were looking at specific problems,'' Dr. McAdoo explains. ''But I think you have to get to people before they're involved in the criminal justice system, before they go on welfare, before they're at a crisis point. My orientation has always been that you're better able to design programs to help families if you're able to understand how normal families function.''

Dr. McAdoo thinks studies of contemporary black families could in fact help others who are struggling with some of today's unprecedented social changes. She points out, for example, that white mothers who now are returning to work when their children are young are doing what black women have done for decades.

Michelene Malson, a mother of two teen-agers and a project manager at Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, says: ''Because I've always been in the labor force, it's easy for me to forget how much things have turned around in the past five or 10 years for working women. In the past, when a white woman got married, it was likely she would stop working. But for black women, it has always been the other way around.''

Dr. Malson has been looking at the informal support networks that traditionally have helped working black mothers with child-rearing responsibilities. In their interviews, Dr. Malson and her colleagues were struck by how many of the women had mothers who also had worked:

''When we asked if they had always thought they would have a family and also work, 95 percent said yes to both questions,'' she notes. ''They had grown up in families where women had always done this and didn't think it was unusual.

One characteristic strength of black families that Dr. McAdoo and Dr. Malson have studied is the informal support systems provided by members of the extended family, and by co-workers.

Doing for others, they say, is an outgrowth of the Afro-American tradition of reciprocity that has been passed along from generation to generation, summed up by the proverb ''What goes around comes around.''

Help with child care, a major function of these support systems, ranges from baby-sitting to informal adoption of children. Extended kin also help one another financially by lending money for mortgages or college tuition - and by exchanging in-kind services. And they provide emotional support and a buffer against feelings of racism and isolation.

But at least one researcher says that these networks are in some ways limited:

''Extended-kin networks have always been a force for survival among black families, but today it seems that those households that are most in need - those that are headed by women - are not always benefiting from them,'' says Shirley Hatchett of the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

Early next year, the institute will publish ''National Survey of Black Americans,'' which will document what is happening to black families on the national level.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has also announced a conference next spring to find ways to strengthen black-family structures.

''What the NAACP is trying to do is to get programs going at the community level,'' says Dr. McAdoo of Howard. ''Most importantly, they're making people aware of the consequences for families and for children of the continuing rate of poverty and the continuing feminization of poverty among women of color.''

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