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Subject: Review of Billingsley (Klass)

Subject: Re: Billingsley's Black Families in White America (Urabe)


From: gmklass@rs6000.cmp.ilstu.edu (Gary Klass) (by way of gmklass@rs6000.cmp.ilstu.edu (Gary Klass))
Subject: Review of Billingsley (Klass)

                                 (Prentice-Hall, 1968)

          reviewed by: Gary Klass (gmklass@ilstu.edu), 4/21/94

               "Families are people,
                Families are love.
                They come in all kinds of shapes
                and all kinds of sizes,
                and that's all right with me.
                                    --a Barney song

Billingsley's was the first in a series of works defending the black family 
against the charges of the 1965 Moynihan Report.  The basic points made by 
Billingsley and those who agreed with him were:
1.  The Black Family is not falling apart as Moynihan claimed.
2.  The Black Family was strong throughout the period of slavery; Moynihan's
claim that "three centuries" of oppression had undermined the Black Family
was wrong.
3.  Black family structure is an rational adaptation to the conditions of 
racism in American society.
4.  Scholars should not analyze the Black family by the standard of white 
middle class patriarchy.
5.  It is a stereotype to focus on the (then) 25% of Black Families that are 
single-parent, rather than the 75% that are not.
6.  There are many variations of class and family structure in the Black 
community which lend strength to the community as a whole.
7.  Black family structure reflects authentic African traditions.

For those who agreed with him, Billingsley sparked a refreshingly new 
approach to the study of the Black Family, one that affirmed cultural 
"difference" and the strengths of the Black Family and disproved the 
Moynihanian "pathological" approach.  For those who disagreed, Billingsley 
initiated a decade of  not-benign neglect of an unfolding tragedy in the Black 
community.  For those interested in the sorry history of the whole thing, 
see Rainwater and Yancey's, THE MOYNIHAN REPORT AND THE 

Today, Moynihan claims vindication.  The black family did, by his standards, 
fall apart.  Today only 38% of Black children are born to two parent 
families.  This fact knocks down about half of Billingsley's main arguments: 
 If the Black Family of 1960 reflected authentic African traditions, how can 
the startingly different black family of 1990 do so?  It was wrong to 
compare white and black family structures in 1960, but you can draw the same 
conclusions comparing 1960 and 1990 black families.   

Actually, Moynihan never predicted that that the Black family would fall 
apart, just that it was in bad shape and that the conditions of black family 
life would impede the cause of full social equality (he has a slightly 
better claim for predicting the fall of the Soviet empire).  And Moynihan 
doesn't go around repeating what are now seen as the more sexist parts of 
his earlier work.  Nevertheless, he rightly claims a good portion of his 

Ideas have consequences.  I won't blame Billingsley for what happened to the 
Black family, but his ideas did inspire the 1974 National Association of 
Black Social Workers' largely successful effort to put an end to transracial 
adoption: a policy change that has destroyed the chance of thousands of black 
children for a healthy family life.  Only in authentic Black families can 
black children learn the coping skills necessary to survive in a white 
racist society, they argued.

In his most recent book, CLIMBING JACOB'S LADDER, Billingsley 
concedes that he was half wrong, although he insists Moynihan was half 
wrong as well.   He doesn't say precisely what he was half wrong 
about,  but he avoids all the bitter condemnation of Moyhinianism that 
characterized all the black nationalist family studies of the 70s.**  It's big 
of Billingsley to admit he was wrong, but he ought to add that he is sorry.
**Note: Most strikingly, the author of the book's Preface seems not to have 
read the new Billingsley at all and engages in all the old 70s rhetoric that 
Billingsley avoids.

From: urabesak@sjumusic.stjohns.edu
Subject: Re: Billingsley's Black Families in White America (Urabe)
Comments on Gary Klass' review of Andrew Billingsley
by Sadako Urabe
New York University
April 21, 1994

So where was Billingsley wrong in his more positive view of the Black 
family compared to that of Moynihan's view that the Black family is a causal 
nexus in a "tangle of pathology" which feeds on itself?  In spite of 
Billingsley's call for the great awakening of both the Blacks and the 
Whites, the problems of the Black family still persist just the same or 
even worse.  You are right, Gary, when you say that the fact that only 
38% of Black babies are born to two parent families must be pretty hard 
for Billingsley to face up to.

However, I think the contribution that Billingsley made in correcting 
the then generally accepted, and still existing, "ignorance and the 
distorted view" that Black family equals problem family is significant.  
His theoretical perspective makes us realize that Black people's problems 
are not just Black people's but they involve every American, even you and 
me!  His hitorical perspective makes us appreciate the feeling of people-
hood shared by the Blacks.

By focusing on the 75% of the Black family, rather than the 25% of the non-
working poor Black family, Billingsley was able to pin point the more funda-
mental aspect of the Black family issues i.e. racism or the illusion of 
White superiority in America.  He also states that the initiative for the 
change must come from the Whites as well as from the Blacks themselves.  I
remember the movement of the 1970's "Black is Beautiful" which made us all
aware of the new, unique identity of the Black people with their rich 
(predominately African) cultural heritage.

Is Billingsley responsible if some people carried his idea to the extreme?
No!  Is he wrong if the Blacks continue to have problems?  No!  I think that
Billingsley's dynamic argument is making some impact even today because 
restructuring the Black family and the Black community or developing a 
more viable, pluralistic and democratic America where slavery used to be 
practiced takes time --- much more than a mere 30 years for sure!