Reimagining Black Families’ Cultural Assets Can Inform Policies and Practices That Enhance Their Well-being
This brief is part of a larger effort by Child Trends researchers to expand knowledge about Black children and families. This effort will include continued work on Black family cultural assets and the development of a new multi-year applied research agenda on Black children and families. While these publications will sometimes prioritize adults within Black families and sometimes prioritize children, the goals of the publications and research agenda 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.
The family unit has been a key institution in Black communities in America since the capture of Black people in Africa and their enslavement in the United States. Although there are variations in the composition of Black families, research has shown that they share core protective elements (i.e., cultural values, traditions, and practices). These elements—referred to in this brief as ‘cultural assets’ or simply as ‘assets’—have sustained families and supported their functioning over time.[i], [ii], [iii] Cultural assets include, but are not limited to, extended kin and social networks, religiosity and spirituality, optimism, and role flexibility. These assets are defined later in this brief, alongside examples of ways in which they have been operationalized.
The body of work within which this brief belongs is the first step of a larger effort by Child Trends researchers to expand the field’s knowledge about Black families’ cultural assets. Our goals are to 1) highlight historical and contemporary Black family life, as well as demographic trends and shifts related to Black families; 2) use what we learn to inform an understanding of the ways in which Black families draw on and apply cultural assets within a systemically racist and everchanging American context; and 3) inform the development of policies that have the potential to strengthen Black families.
The timing for this brief and our overarching body of work is critically important. Over the past few years, there has been increased national attention to the ways in which educational,[iv] economic,[v] housing,[vi] health,[vii] social service,[viii] and criminal justice[ix], [x] systems have perpetuated injustices and violence against Black people in the United States. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many previously existing inequities.[xi], [xii], [xiii], [xiv], [xv] With increased push from certain segments of the public and backlash from others, the federal government has issued an executive order on racial equity. Some researchers[xvi] and philanthropic organizations have also been vocal about shining a light on and addressing the complex relationship between policies and racialized hierarchies. Together, the public; federal, state, and local governments; researchers; and the philanthropic sector can use their power and resources to advance and expand existing policies that tackle structural racism and support the well-being of Black families. In tandem with a better understanding of cultural assets (which can shed light on the ways in which families with varying characteristics function), this strategy will help chart a path toward ensuring the well-being of Black families and children, a goal that is beneficial for all Americans.
Section 1 of this brief illustrates the conceptual model for our research agenda on Black families and anchors it within the context of historical and current policies and institutions that have impacted the well-being of Black families with children in the United States. Next, in Section 2, we examine three historically dominant perspectives in research on Black families and suggest that the diversity of Black families in the United States limits the current value of each of these perspectives; this section includes an overview of the shifts in Black families’ demographics over the past 20 years that necessitate a new research paradigm. In Section 3, we use the information from the previous section as context to describe select cultural assets that anchor Black family life in the United States and how these assets may have changed or be changing based on historical, social, or demographic shifts. Finally, in Section 4, we introduce the need for new or modified data collection and research approaches that will enhance the field’s understanding of Black family life and well-being.
Defining Black People in the United States
When referencing Black people as part of the research agenda on Black families, we are referring to individuals who may identify as African American—those who were primarily born in America and are descended from enslaved Africans who survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade—as well as the smaller populations of people living in America who may identify as Black African or Afro-Caribbean.
Black also includes individuals who reported being Black alone or in combination with one or more races or ethnicities in their responses to the U.S. Census—for instance, an individual who identifies as Black only, as well as someone who identifies as Black and White combined or Afro-Latino.
Section 1: Conceptual Model
As discussed, our focus on cultural assets is situated within a developing body of Child Trends research that examines the experiences of Black families with children relative to the systems, institutions, and organizations with which they engage. This applied research agenda is guided by a conceptual model that serves as a frame for our work (see Figure 1).
Conceptual Model of the Black Family Research Agenda
The left side of the conceptual model illustrates the bi-directional influence of federal, state, and local policies on the systems, institutions, and organizations with which Black families with children interface, and vice versa. The single-headed arrows—two solid and two dashed—on the right side of the model also represent influence between the components, but show differential types of influence between systems, institutions, and organizations and Black families with children. Systems, institutions, and organizations have more influence and power over Black families with children (represented by the solid arrows); conversely, Black families with children have a present but less dominant influence over systems, institutions, and organizations (represented by the dashed arrows).
The reduced level of power illustrated in the model is not indicative of the lack of agency of Black families with children; rather, we recognize the powerful role of context—including history—in stymying the agency and power of Black families. For instance, both formal and informal federal, state, and local policies have and continue to implicitly and explicitly sanction racism, discrimination and oppression. These situations highlight the need to formally address injustices experienced by Black families with children while simultaneously understanding the ways in which Black families’ cultural assets can fortify them against these challenges.
Section 2: Historical Perspectives and Recent Trends for Black Families in the United States
Creating policies and institutions that ensure the well-being of Black families and children will require a new and more nuanced understanding of Black family life. Researchers, the media,[xvii] and other institutions have often portrayed Black families as a homogeneous group. Frequently, these depictions have pathologized Black families by putting forth negative stereotypes and overgeneralizations[xviii] that are both limiting and dangerous. These viewpoints undermine our understanding and appreciation of the richness and diversity of Black families’ cultures, values, experiences, and lifestyles. In addition, these representations can also serve as the basis for the initiation and interpretation of ideologies and research that are formulated into policies and programs that codify racism toward Black families.[xix], [xx]
Below, we provide a cursory overview of a limited number of dominant historical perspectives on the conditions of Black families in the United States. We then include a high-level summary of past and current trends in Black families’ demographics. Because society is everchanging—with Black family demographics no exception—we contend that research on Black families must also evolve. We hope that this high-level exploration of previous research perspectives on Black families, set alongside ongoing and emerging societal shifts, will provide the foundation for a reimagining of Black families’ cultural assets in our current context.
Dominant research perspectives on Black families
Researchers who have studied Black families have articulated a range of perspectives about their functioning and well-being. While the constraints of this brief do not allow for an examination of all prior perspectives on Black families, we are sharing three specific perspectives that are (or have been) widespread and have shaped the design and implementation of research and policy that impact Black families.
- The first perspective: Black families are disorganized, pathological, and unstable, in large part because of their history of enslavement in the United States.[xxi] According to this perspective, the impact of slavery on family structure led to the formation of single female-headed households that are mired in poverty, with adults and children at significant disadvantage and risk for poor outcomes across a range of domains (e.g., housing, education, employment, etc.) important to family stability.,[xxii], [xxiii] Implicit in this narrative is an assumption that Black families are deviant because they do not mirror White middle-class families in structure or behaviors.
- The second perspective: Black family challenges are a result of living within a society that is affected by historical and structural issues such as systemic racism, oppression, and discrimination, and family strengths help to navigate these barriers. This perspective counters the first and explores the ways that Black families have shown resilience and strength by drawing on cultural mores from their histories, and by using and/or adapting these histories to navigate the realities of racism.[xxiv] This perspective (which also tends to implicitly focus on the White middle class as a normative standard) suggests that the emergence of female-headed households and disadvantage among Black households is not because of family structure, but that structural racism and other unfair treatment of Black people causes disadvantage. In addition, culturally specific values, behaviors, and resources[xxv],[xxvi] within the Black family, such as linkages to extended relatives,[xxvii],[xxviii] have enabled Black families to survive—and in some cases thrive—despite relentless challenges to their well-being.[xxix], [xxx] Some work in this area suggests that the values, behaviors, and resources on which Black families in America have drawn are an extension of familial strategies and resources that African people carried with them to the United States that were then translated and adapted during and after enslavement.[xxxi]
- The third perspective: Black families experience structural racism as a result of the country’s history, but may react to and attend to these issues differently based on income, social standing, or other factors. This perspective examines Black families within a framework of intra-race comparisons and income, highlighting distinctions between various socioeconomic classes of Black families.[xxxii] In this body of work, income and class become a proxy for social standing, and may be used comparatively to understand differences in family structure and behaviors, and/or the “success” of Black families. Notably, even within-group examinations of Black families that attend to historical and structural issues within U.S. systems tend to underscore White middle-class standards as aspirational.
Our work both builds on and challenges these perspectives, acknowledging that they are complex and not always mutually exclusive. We examine the ways in which history, structural racism, and cultural assets affect Black families, but do so within a contemporary context. For example, we broaden our examination of Black families beyond previously over-researched family types such as female-headed households or Black families in poverty. Instead, we include families with different structures, families across varying socioeconomic strata, families with adults who identify as Black and another race, Black families who may not identify as American (e.g., those who are African, Caribbean, or Afro-Latino), and Black immigrant families. To the extent possible, our work is also noncomparative, meaning we focus specifically on Black families with children unless there is a firm rationale for making comparisons to other racial groups—for example, to highlight significant disparities that result from systemic racism or other factors.
Trends in the number, structure, geography, education, earnings, and wealth of Black families
In this section, we explore demographic data to provide context on Black families that is helpful for understanding how cultural assets may have evolved and been used historically. We also highlight emerging demographic trends to inform thinking about how research (e.g., data collection, research strategies and perspectives) and cultural assets may need to be reimagined in the future in response to changes among Black families.
Number of Black people in the United States
An estimated 46.7 million people, or about 14 percent of all people in the United States, identify as Black or African American (including just under 42 million who report their race as Black or African American alone, and an additional 4.7 million Americans who identify as Black or African American in combination with one or more additional races). In 2000, this number was considerably lower, at roughly 36 million Americans who identified as Black or African American. This growth is notable and marks a 29 percent increase in the number of Americans who identify as Black or African American since 2000. Across all individuals identifying as Black or African American, women (52%) outnumber men (48%) by 4 percentage points. Currently, 10 percent of the Black population living in the United States was born elsewhere (up from 7% in 2000), most of whom (88%) come from Africa or the Caribbean.
A note on data sources
The majority of data presented are compiled from the U.S. Census Bureau. We focus on data on the demographics of Black families specifically, which includes families where any adult member identifies either as Black or African American alone, or in combination with one or more other races. Due to data limitations, some sources do not explicitly state whether they are inclusive of Black multiracial individuals—we note these instances in the text for clarity. The Census defines a family as a group of at least two people who are living together and are related either legally (e.g., marriage, adoption) or biologically. Finally, data are reported from 2019, the most recent year of data available, unless otherwise noted.
Structure of Black families in the United States
Black families in the United States have many different structures. Almost one third (29.2%) of Black people in the United States over age 15 are married and just over half (50.9%) have never been married. The remaining 15 percent reported being divorced (11.5%), separated (3.2%), or widowed (5.2%). Just under 9 percent (8.8%) of all cohabitating same-sex couples (married and unmarried) reside in households where the householder is Black or African American.
Since the end of state laws making interracial marriages illegal in the late 1960s, the number of mixed-race marriages in the United States has grown. A Pew Research Center analysis of 2014-2015 American Community Survey data show that, in 2015, 18 percent of newlywed marriages were those in which one partner was Black and the other partner was a race other than Black. Looking more closely at the composition of these marriages, Black men appear more likely to marry a non-Black spouse than Black women. For instance, 7 percent of all interracial marriages occurred with a Black husband and White wife and 4 percent occurred with a Black husband and Hispanic wife. In comparison, marriages between Black women and a White husband occurred at a rate of 3 percent, and marriages between Black women and Hispanic husbands occurred at a rate of 1 percent. In general, the analysis finds the rate of intermarriage by Black men has consistently been about two times that of Black women (24% vs. 12%) since the 1980s.
In total, 59.1 percent of Black Americans are living in a family household. Just over one quarter (27.4%) of Black households are led by a married couple, with 11 percent of couples having at least one child under age 18. More than one in ten (13.9%) Black family households are female-headed (with no spouse present). In fact, the majority of Black children (64%) are being raised in single-parent households, most often led by women.[xxxiii] Among Black families, 27.6 percent live with at least one child of their own under age 18. These families differ in composition, but most households with children are headed by parents.
In addition to parent-headed households, many grandparents live with their grandchildren. Among Black people over age 30, 4.9 percent were grandparents living in a household with their grandchild. Within these households, 40.4 percent were the primary caretaker responsible for the care of their grandchild. In addition, more than one quarter of Black children (27.7%) are living with and being cared for by a grandparent with no parents involved.
Some children may also be living with others outside of their family, either through engagement with the foster care system or through legal adoptions. According to data analyzed from Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, a total of 97,156 children whose race was reported as “Black, non-Hispanic” were engaged in the foster care system, representing 23 percent of all children. Additionally, 11,663 Black children were adopted in the United States in 2019.
Geography of Black families in the United States
Due to the prevalence of slavery in the Southern regions of the United States, the U.S. Black population has historically had a larger presence in the South. This presence persisted even after slavery ended. For instance, from the 1900s to the 1940s, over 70 percent of the Black U.S. population lived in the South. Even at the height of the Great Migration (1916-1970)—when millions of Black Americans purposefully left the South to head for what they thought to be less racist environments, and better educational and employment opportunities in Northern and Western cities—the number of Black people in the South never dropped below 50 percent of the total Black population. Black people moved not just for opportunity, but also to where they had family (or other ties). These preferences meant they tended to concentrate in particular states such as California and Michigan, as well as certain cities such as New York, NY and Chicago, IL.
During the 1960s and 70s, however, changes began to occur in Western and Northern areas. Employment opportunities decreased and social upheaval in the form of riots (often initiated because of oppressive practices and poor treatment of Black people) occurred in predominantly Black cities. These occurrences propelled some Black people to move back to the South.[xxxiv] These moves have continued, led in part by Black professionals, college graduates, and retirees who have been drawn back to the South because of family, social, and cultural ties, as well as lower costs of living. Recently, places like California, Michigan, Illinois, and New York have been seeing absolute declines in the numbers of Black people, and the Black population in places such as Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas has been growing. Currently, the Black population in the South is up to 56 percent in 2019 from 52 percent in 1970. In comparison, 17 percent of Black Americans live in each of the Northeast and Midwest, and 10 percent of Black Americans live in the West.
Education, earnings, and wealth of Black families in the United States
Educationally, Black people are making strides. Nearly 23 percent of Black adults (20.1% of Black men and 25.5% of Black women) had obtained a Bachelor’s degree or higher in 2019, up 8 percent from 2000.[xxxv] Despite having slightly higher rates of post-secondary education, Black women’s median earnings in the United States are still lower than Black men’s ($37,430 and $41,356, respectively). Overall, with increased education, Black families’ median income has only risen by $15,000 since 2010 to roughly $55,379 annually in 2019. In addition, most middle-class Black people are represented in the lowest of the middle-class quintiles, which range from $26,400 to $96,700,  and Black people are often new to middle-class status.
In terms of wealth, Black families have low levels of affluence and experience large differentials in wealth inequality. For instance, middle-class Black households had a median net worth of roughly $38,300 in 2016, with home ownership rates at 53 percent, compared to approximately $154,400 in median net worth and 76 percent home ownership rates for middle-class White households (comparison between families who fall at the top of the scale in both racial categories).[xxxvi] The fact that the median wealth of young Black families is just $600 is also concerning, as is the fact that 9 percent of Black families have so much debt that their net worth is negative.[xxxvii] This lack of wealth has been attributed to longstanding racist and discriminatory practices in the United States that have prevented Black Americans from building prosperity[xxxviii] and limited the ability of Black families to flourish.[xxxix] Also at play are close linkages between Black families, whereby more affluent individuals are often a source of support for less advantaged relatives. While deemed to be a cultural asset, this type of monetary assistance can result in income instability for family members who are more financially well off, as well as the inability of many Black families to accumulate wealth.
Cultural assets, including extended kin and social networks, have shaped, sustained, and supported Black family life for generations.
Section 3: Overview of Black Families’ Cultural Assets
Some scholars have attributed the survival and thriving of Black families in the face of systemic racism and oppression to the transfer of particular cultural assets within and across families.[xl],[xli],[xlii], [xliii] These assets have been identified and studied by individuals from a wide variety of disciplines, including African American studies scholars,[xliv] anthropologists, [xlv] economists,[xlvi], [xlvii] family studies scholars, historians,[xlviii], [xlix] psychologists, [l] and sociologists.[li], [lii], [liii] While these researchers’ perspectives have been varied, and their work often debated, a core set of cultural assets unique to Black families in America consistently emerges from their collective analyses. Some of these cultural assets are thought to be remnants from the African ancestors of Black Americans and include, but are not limited to, the following: [liv],[lv]
- Extended kin and social networks
- Religiosity and spirituality
- Role flexibility
In the following section, we define these assets and highlight examples of the ways in which they have been used historically in Black families.
Historical expression of Black family cultural assets
Describing and operationalizing cultural assets is not a straightforward endeavor. Difficulties can stem from defining concepts: For instance, religiosity and spirituality are often thought about and discussed in tandem but are not the same. Cultural assets can also change over time, and contextual factors such as geography, income, family structure, and other issues can play a key role in how they are used. Capturing how the transmission of cultural assets occurs (e.g., consciously and unconsciously), and by whom (e.g., from parents to children), is also complicated. Despite these challenges, it is important for researchers to explore how cultural assets have been used in the past. Here, we conduct a high-level review of four commonly identified Black family assets. This overview provides initial insights that enables researchers to think about the ways in which these well-established cultural practices may change over time in response to shifts in trends and the experiences of Black families.
Extended kin and social networks refer to close ties among Black family members—especially among consanguineal (blood) relatives and among friends integrated into the family as “fictive” or voluntary kin. Extended kin and social networks differ in composition, strength of ties, and quality of exchange and interaction. Research also indicates differences in access to and use of these assets by gender.[lvi] In general, however, the existing literature demonstrates the beneficial role that family and social networks play for Black families and children, including through the receipt of support and resources that allow them to address members’ immediate needs, weather crises, and care for those unable to care for themselves (e.g., children, the disabled, the elderly). These exchanges have also been found to contribute to Black families’ psychological well-being and help them survive racist and hostile environments.
Religiosity and spirituality refer to the role of faith and a belief in and connection to a higher power that is external from the individual. These concepts are complementary and can be mutually reinforcing but they do differ.,[lvii] Religion tends to be formal and is generally organized around communally held beliefs and practices that occur in a group. Spirituality tends to be less formal, more individualized, and internally focused. Both, however, can help individuals and families gain perspective on (and inform) the ways in which they live their lives and their connections to others and society at large. Black people who were enslaved in America brought religion (e.g., beliefs in certain deities) and religious practices (e.g., particular ways of worship) with them, and these varied depending on place of origin. These practices were often used to facilitate communication among enslaved people and to subvert control from slave owners. Over time, many of these practices changed and adapted to local circumstances and influences.
Currently, religion and spirituality still play important roles in the lives of Black people in the United States. Seventy-four percent of Black people in the United States report a deep belief in God,[lviii] and a large majority also report valuing and participating in regular prayer. Sixty-six percent of Black Americans are Protestant and most Black people attend a Black church. Black people credit the church with providing them spiritual, social, and economic support, as well as promoting racial progress in the United States. Differences do exist, however, among age groups and immigration status. Younger generations of Black people are less tied to religion and less engaged in their congregation than older generations. Black African immigrants tend to be more religious than Black Caribbean immigrants or U.S.-born Black people. Black African immigrants are also more likely than Black Americans to practice orthodox Christian religions and/or Islam.
As with religion, spirituality plays an important role with respect to steeling Black families from some of the negative artifacts of enslavement in the United States. Some scholars have found that spirituality is a buffer against racism. Spirituality has also been found to support positive racial socialization within families.[lix]