An Applied Research Agenda on Black Children and Families to Advance Practices and Policies That Promote Their Well-being

Research BriefBlack Children & FamiliesFeb 17 2022

This brief is part of a larger effort by Child Trends researchers to expand knowledge about Black children and families. This effort includes continued work on Black family cultural assets and the development of a new multi-year applied research agenda on Black children and families. While sometimes prioritizing adults within Black families and sometimes prioritizing children, the goals of this effort are consistent—to build a deeper understanding of the diversity of Black families, contextualize their experiences within systems and institutions, and produce evidence to inform policies and practices that promote their well-being in the twenty-first century.

For this work, we define a Black family as a group of at least one self-identified Black adult related by birth, marriage, adoption, or choice to one or more children (infancy through adolescence). The adult(s) may also be residing with or economically, socially, and emotionally responsible for the child(ren)’s well-being.

Since the end of their enslavement, Black people in America have made noteworthy progress integrating into a country that exists because of their labor but that was not designed to support their well-being. In fact, people of African descent have held or are holding some of the highest-ranking positions in the country: president and vice president of the United States. Despite these accomplishments, the legacies of systemic racism, legal segregation, and discrimination mean that many Black Americans lack access to, and full and equitable participation in, just about every area of American society that promotes advancement for its citizens. These barriers affect the day-to-day and long-term outcomes of Black children and families across many domains, including education, employment, health, child welfare, and criminal justice. In each of these areas, Black people face challenges that differ from those faced by other racial and ethnic groups. Developing and implementing an applied research agenda can fuel efforts to address these challenges and advance the progress and well-being of Black children and families.

W.E.B. DuBois was the first to espouse the need for such an agenda. At the turn of the 20th century, Dubois began a lifelong endeavor to create “a basic body of fact concerning the social condition” of Black people in the United States. His work was designed to promote understanding and inform efforts to secure racial equity and justice. Recognizing the ongoing relevance of such work as the nation strives to bridge divisions and promote the welfare of all its citizens, this brief describes the need for, approach to developing, and steps toward building an applied research agenda that deepens understanding of the diversity of Black children and families, contextualizes their experiences within systems and institutions, and produces evidence to inform policies and practices that promote their well-being in the 21st century.

This brief first posits that the multifaceted experiences and characteristics of the Black population in the United States require an applied research agenda to ensure that policies and practices are responsive to Black children’s and families’ diverse assets and needs. Then, we discuss the importance of a racial equity approach to designing and implementing an applied research agenda. Finally, we delineate the process for creating such an agenda, wherein researchers review the existing knowledge base, engage diverse stakeholders, and map organizational resources.

The Diversity of Black Children and Families Requires an Applied Research Agenda

An applied research agenda that captures the growing diversity of Black children and families in the United States can challenge stereotypes and deepen understanding of their complex experiences and needs. Far from being a homogenous population, Black people—who make up about 14 percent of the U.S. population—are geographically, culturally, religiously, economically, educationally, and sexually diverse. For example:

  • Although concentrated in the South, Black children and families are represented in every region of the country and reflect the increasing diversity of Black people in the United States.
  • While most Black people in the nation speak only English at home (89%), others also speak Spanish (3%), Haitian or French Creole (2%), and Amharic and other Ethiopian languages (1%).
  • Black people are also religiously diverse. About 66 percent of Black Americans are Protestant, 21 percent are not affiliated with any religion, 6 percent are Catholic, 3 percent identify with other Christian faiths (mostly Jehovah’s Witnesses), and 3 percent belong to non-Christian faiths, the most common of which is Islam. African and Caribbean immigrants are more likely to be affiliated with a religion and less likely to be Protestant than U.S.-born Black Americans.
  • Additionally, Black households differ by income level: 54 percent earn less than $50,000 and 28 percent earn $75,000 or more, including 18 percent that earn $100,000 or more annually.
  • Black people in the United States also have diverse educational backgrounds. According to 2019 data, nearly 90 percent of Black people have a high school diploma and about 26 percent ages 25 and older have earned at least a bachelor’s degree. Among Black immigrants ages 25 and older in the United States, 31 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree.
  • Moreover, there are approximately 1.2 million U.S. adults who self-identify as Black and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT)—36 percent of whom are raising children[1].

An applied research agenda is also needed to address gross disparities in education,[2] employment,[3] health,[4]  child welfare[5], and criminal justice[6] outcomes for Black children and families. These disparities illustrate the unique positioning of Black people in the United States resulting from both systemic racism (i.e., racial discrimination embedded in the norms and institutions of a society) and policy decisions that have undergirded racial injustice. However, policies can also address systemic inequities to provide Black children and families with greater access to resources and improve their experiences and outcomes within systems and institutions of power. Research is needed to inform and evaluate policies that hold the promise for such change. This research will be most impactful if conducted using a racial equity approach.

A Racial Equity Approach is Critical to Designing and Implementing an Applied Research Agenda on Black Children and Families

Mainstream social science research on Black children and families prior to the 1970s largely cast them as dysfunctional.[7] This history has negatively influenced many Black Americans’ trust in the intent and value of scientific inquiry. An applied research agenda for the 21st century should seek to reverse prior deficit-focused practices in research by using a racial equity approach. Such an approach has distinct features and areas of focus.

Features of a racial equity approach to research

A racial equity approach to research has features that set it apart from traditional methods. It is intersectional, asset-based, and culturally responsive—features that ensure that research results deepen understanding of diverse communities and promote solution-oriented strategies and policies.

Intersectional research considers the overlapping characteristics that define individuals and groups and influence their lived experiences. When applied to Black children and families, such research explores how race intersects with other dimensions of identity, including ethnicity, immigration status, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, and geographic location. While studies that use race as a control or demographic category are important, they cannot sufficiently explore Black children’s and families’ diverse experiences, needs, and assets. Targeted research employing qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods designs are needed to promote understanding of Black families in the United States—not as a monolith or solely in comparison to other racial or ethnic groups, but as a multifaceted population warranting in-depth analysis. Longitudinal and continuous follow-up studies are also essential for a comprehensive research agenda on Black children and families given that race intersects with other background characteristics to influence short- and long-term intervention effects. Exploring the mechanisms that fuel such outcomes over time is necessary to sustain progress toward racial equity and justice.

Asset-based research is characterized by a strengths perspective. It views communities of color holistically, documents inequities and their sources, and identifies spaces and strategies of resistance and resilience. As such, asset-based research challenges the deficit framing of Black children and families. Rather than viewing marginalized communities themselves as responsible for the negative effects of discriminatory policies and practices, asset-based research explores how dominant systems and institutions reproduce or disrupt inequities for people of color, providing actionable evidence to guide positive change.

Culturally responsive research challenges researchers to think about who is doing the research, whether the research questions advance understanding of the population(s) being studied, whether measures are appropriate and valid, and how and when participants’ voices and feedback are incorporated into research design, analysis, and dissemination.[8] Culturally responsive methods require:

  • Diverse research teams that include members who reflect the population(s) being studied
  • Research questions that challenge stereotypes and oversimplifications
  • Measures and instruments that are examined for bias and tested for cultural validity
  • Data analysis, whether qualitative or quantitative, that is in-depth and open to disconfirming as well as confirming evidence
  • Opportunities for participant engagement during the research process
  • Reports and products that authentically represent the data and are accessible to diverse audiences

While some may construe culturally responsive methods as politicizing the research process or introducing biases into otherwise “objective” scientific inquiry, such methods actually seek to achieve the opposite effect. That is, culturally responsive methods aim for greater transparency, thoughtfulness, accountability, and precision in research so that all communities—but especially those that are marginalized and least served by traditional research approaches—can reap the benefits that accrue from well-designed studies and a robust evidence base.

Focus areas for a racial equity approach to research

A racial equity approach to research attends not only to individuals and communities of color, but also to the contexts in which they operate. This attention to context requires researchers to focus on issues such as access to resources, quality of services and experiences, and justice in outcomes and results.

Resource access—or the ability to obtain and make full use of information, services, and opportunities—is a critical issue facing many Black people in the United States. Policies can directly and indirectly constrain access to educational, economic, health, and social resources through barriers such as inadequate or ineffective communication that reduce understanding of programs and services and restrictive eligibility requirements that increase the difficulty of participation. For example, if an employer provides educational benefits but also requires mandatory overtime or irregular work hours that reduce employees’ opportunities to enroll in and complete coursework, the opportunity for professional and human capital development is available but not accessible. People of color are disproportionately affected by schedule instability, which is 14 percent higher among Black workers than among their White counterparts. When using a racial equity approach, research has the power to uncover access barriers such as irregular work schedules that impact the effectiveness of policies for Black families. Equity-focused research can also identify strategies to address such barriers that are grounded in the lived experiences of those who are disproportionately affected.

The quality of services and opportunities that one receives is affected by key dimensions of social identity, including race, class, and gender. For instance, many Black students report school experiences that are diminishing and dehumanizing. While Black teachers positively influence the educational experiences of same-race students, the massive loss of Black educators following school desegregation policies has resulted in a persistent diversity gap in the nation’s public schools. About 15 percent of students in U.S. public schools are Black, compared to only 7 percent of teachers. Recruitment and retention policies aimed at closing the teacher diversity gap are being implemented with promising results, but additional research is needed to examine the short- and long-term effects of these policies for Black children and families. By investigating the quality of services and opportunities afforded to Black people in areas such as employment, education, health, child welfare, and criminal justice, research that uses a racial equity lens can make visible the processes that inhibit or advance social change.

Justice in outcomes and results is characterized by fairness and transparency but is often denied to Black children and families. The banking and mortgage industries provide useful examples of how unjust outcomes impact Black families’ well-being. Studies have shown that Black Americans—regardless of their education level, employment status, and credit history—are less likely to receive mortgage loans than White Americans with comparable demographic and financial profiles.[9] Moreover, Black Americans who receive mortgage loans generally pay higher interest rates than White Americans, across income groups. These mortgage loan outcomes contribute to racial disparities in home ownership and wealth between Black and White Americans. While efforts are underway to address the home ownership gap for Black families, it is unclear if, how, and for whom these policies will have impact. Research using a racial equity approach can help identify mechanisms that lead to or mitigate unjust outcomes such as those seen in the mortgage industry by studying not only the recipients of services but also the individuals who are responsible for developing and implementing institutional and organizational policies and practices.

A Three-step Process Can Build an Applied Research Agenda That Deepens Understanding of Black Children and Families

Building an applied research agenda that has the capacity to deepen understanding of Black children and families and advance their well-being through institutional and organizational change requires a multistep process. These steps are 1) reviewing the existing knowledge base, 2) engaging diverse stakeholders, and 3) mapping organizational resources.

Reviewing the existing knowledge base on Black children and families is the first step in creating a forward-looking applied research agenda. Over the past 50 years, hundreds of studies have been conducted to provide a more comprehensive portrayal of Black children and families.[10] These studies have established a body of literature on Black family assets; identified factors that influence Black relationships, marital patterns, and family composition and structure; and described the role of Black parents in child socialization and outcomes. A thorough analysis of this literature can uncover areas of substantial knowledge, gaps in understanding and evidence, and methodological strengths and weaknesses to inform a research agenda on Black children and families for the 21st century.

Engaging diverse stakeholders is a second step in building an applied research agenda. Important stakeholders include policymakers and organizations, researchers, advocacy organizations, community outreach organizations, foundations and philanthropic organizations, and professional organizations that promote the well-being of Black children and families across multiple systems (e.g., employment, education, health, child welfare, and criminal justice) (see figure below). Through convenings, focus groups, surveys, and other means of communication, stakeholders can offer varying perspectives on 1) the most pressing issues facing Black children and families; 2) promising policies and programs that address the needs of Black children and families; 3) specific groups of Black children and families neglected in research, policy, or practice; and 4) the evidence base needed to support their work with Black children and families. The information gathered will facilitate research-practice-policy partnerships and inform the third step of research agenda development.

Mapping organizational resources is the third and final step in building an applied research agenda. While many important issues could be included in an applied research agenda on Black children and families, no one individual or organization has the experience, expertise, or time to pursue them all. During this third step, organizational resources are mapped against the comprehensive list of topics generated through a review of current literature and stakeholder engagement. The goal is to identify meaningful research priorities that advance the well-being of Black children and families and can be sustained over time. To be effective, this step requires a thoughtful, honest assessment of organizational commitment, capacity, and resources.


This brief has highlighted the need for, approach to developing, and steps toward building an applied research agenda that deepens understanding of the diversity of Black children and families, contextualizes their experiences within systems and institutions, and produces evidence to inform policies and practices that promote their well-being in the 21st century. Employing a racial equity approach and a multi-step process that considers stakeholder voices promises the development of an agenda that can advance policies to move the nation closer to racial justice and improved opportunities and outcomes for all children and families. Indeed, the need for a comprehensive research agenda on Black children and families is as clear and urgent today as it was when first proposed by W.E.B. DuBois more than a century ago.


[1] Also see: Brainer, A., Moore, M. R., & Banerjee, P. (2020). Race and ethnicity in the lives of LGBTQ parents and their children: Perspectives from and beyond North America (pp. 85-103). Springer International Publishing, Cham. Retrieved at: Race and Ethnicity in the Lives of LGBTQ Parents and Their Children: Perspectives from and Beyond North America (

[2] For additional information on racial disparities in education, see Cai, J. (2020). Black Students in the Condition of Education 2020.

[3] For additional information on racial disparities in employment, see Brody & Romer (2021). August’s jobs report.

[4] Parris, D., et al., (2020). Resources to Support Children’s Emotional Well-Being Amid Anti-Black Racism, Racial Violence, and Trauma and Harvard School of Public Health’s Health Disparities Between Blacks and Whites Run Deep.

[5] Roberts, D. E. (2002). Shattered bonds: The color of child welfare. New York: Basic Books.

[6] Rovner, J. (2021). Black Disparities in Youth Incarceration.

[7] Also see: Staples, R. (1971). Towards a sociology of the Black family: A theoretical and methodological assessment. Journal of Marriage and Family, 33(1), 119–138.

[8] Also see: Berryman, M., SooHoo, S., & Nevin, A. (2013). Culturally responsive methodologies. Emerald Group Publishing.

[9] Also see: Quillian, L., Lee, J. J., & Honoré, B. (2020). Racial discrimination in the US housing and mortgage lending markets: A quantitative review of trends, 1976–2016. Race and Social Problems,12(1), 13-28.

[10] Taylor, R. J., Chatters, L. M., Tucker, M. B., & Lewis, E. (1990). Developments in research on Black families: A decade review. Journal of Marriage and Family, 52(4), 993–1014.