The Gender Problem and the Black Family
Psychological and psychoanalytical approaches to containing and preventing prejudice leaned toward reforming childhood
socialization practices, parenting patterns, and family relations of authority for reasons that were both theoretical and practical, as noted above. Given this bias, the deep concern with gender roles and their development that pervaded the postwar literature on race is not very surprising. Mothers, it was clear, were strategically positioned as cultural architects because families were personality factories. To the extent that the United States succeeded in overcoming its social problems, mothers could be credited. To the extent that social crises remained unresolved, or even worsened, mothers could be blamed. And they often were.
In the case of the black family, however, the gender problem extended well beyond the willingness to identify mothers as agents of socialization and powerful sources of all sorts of attitudes—tolerant and prejudiced, achievement-oriented and fatalistic—in their (male) children. Beginning with E. Franklin Frazier's landmark study of the black family in 1939 and continuing with Abram Kardiner's and Lionel Ovesey's psychoanalytic theory and Mamie Clark's and Kenneth Clark's research in the 1950s and 1960s, "matriarchal" gender relations within the black family were analyzed and discussed as significant defects in their own right, immediate sources of personality and social problems (from warped self-esteem to juvenile delinquency to school failure), and appropriate targets for policy designed to improve race relations by enhancing masculinity and bolstering patriarchal authority. By 1965 a report on the state of young urban criminals that appeared in the New York Times Magazine simply stated that "the welfare world of New York is a fatherless world" in which "people infect one another with the virus of failure." The article continued:
The "unavailable mother"—unwed, indigent or surviving on welfare payments, socially deprived, economically deprived, intellectually deprived, often friendless, depressed, mentally disturbed, lonely, frightened, unable to supply the needs of a newborn child, already burdened with children she has rejected—the unavailable mother produces the unreachable child. This is the woman who needs the attention of the social welfare world. . . . We know that the damage to the [black] infant takes place long before he sees the dirt, the drunks, the drug addicts, the spilled garbage of the slum; the damage takes place when the unavailable mother brings her child home from the hospital and realizes she hates him for being alive.
A good look at gender arrangements, in other words, showed just how deeply the black personality—specially the black male personality—had been damaged.
The emphasis on gender roles was accepted unquestioningly as an essential component of comprehensive research and policy at the time. It was, after all, completely consistent with broad cultural trends, including the widespread popularization of psychoanalysis (still associated with the scandalous yet scintillating taint of sexuality in popular perception), an avid ideology of domestic and dependent femininity in the period after 1945, and the growing interest in the history of black Americans that was sparked by the emergence of the civil rights movement. The antifeminist implications of this emphasis in the psychological literature, however, became infinitely clearer in retrospect, especially in the wake of policy controversies like the Moynihan Report and in the face of a new women's movement prepared to criticize and defy notions of essential differences between men and women, in the family and elsewhere.
E. Franklin Frazier's monumental work The Negro Family in the United States was a touchstone for virtually every subsequent addition to the postwar literature on the psychology of race. His thesis was that the history of marriage, family, and childrearing in the black community had been determined by external and impersonal forces since the Civil War, especially the long march of industrial capitalism. Personal and even cultural factors were, in comparison, relatively insignificant. Considering this fundamentally nonpsychological argument, which consistently attributed causal status to economic over psychological processes, Frazier's prominence in the postwar psychological literature seems puzzling. Perhaps his subject matter—the family—was such familiar territory, to psychological experts, and so readily identified with them, that theorists and researchers in psychology were encouraged to claim at least Frazier's starting point as their own: that the black family was a Pandora's box that had been opened.
As a historical sociologist, Frazier emphasized long-term, macro-social and macroeconomic developments like slavery, mass migration, and urbanization as the hinges upon which the black family's history, and future, turned. He countered the theory that the black family's peculiarities revealed its African heritage by arguing that black Americans were shaped by exactly the same historical forces as white Americans and by describing how the passage from Africa and the experience of the first several generations of black American slaves had wiped out any possibility, of African cultural holdover. Frazier considered slavery to be among the most important factors shaping black families, even long after emancipation, and insisted that many contemporary features
of black gender, sexual, and parenting relations could be traced to its harsh consequences.
In particular, slavery, interfered with what Frazier understood to be the fundamental facts of gender, sexuality, and family economy. Women were naturally inclined toward monogamous and long-lasting emotional bonds. Male sexuality was naturally wild and terribly undiscriminating. The purpose of stable marriages and families was to tame men so that women could accomplish the necessary feats of reproduction and childrearing while being supported and protected by dependable breadwinners. Because becoming dependable breadwinners conflicted with male nature, however, incentives were required. Frazier saw those incentives in capitalist economic relations. For Frazier, ensuring patriarchal black families required an economic guarantee: that black men would be as free as white men to accumulate property, sell labor power, and otherwise function within the marketplace. In other words, Frazier assumed that capitalist patriarchy was the aspiration that made the most sense for black Americans at the moment, even while he criticized it as a historically specific social arrangement and called, at various points in his career, for nationalist and socialist alternatives.
These assumptions were so profound and widespread as to merit little contemporary attention, but they defined the nature of the black family's problem nonetheless. Slavery had interfered with patriarchy by making it impossible for black men to be breadwinning husbands and devoted fathers. This had forced black women into unnatural roles of family authority and replaced the primary family relationship—between a monogamous heterosexual couple—with unusually strong mother-child bonds and little, if any, dependence on the regular economic or emotional contribution of men. Although Frazier described some slaves as heroic in their efforts to maintain loving and loyal families in spite of the inhumanities of servitude, slavery ultimately stripped men of their male prerogatives and put "motherhood in bondage."
New challenges faced black families in the twentieth century, when mass migrations out of the rural South and the increasing pace of urbanization turned gender nonconformity into the kiss of death for black Americans. Frazier argued that the matriarchal family structure had been relatively benign in the rural isolation of Reconstruction, really only a matter of the "simple folkways and mores" of black peasants. Once in contact with the strong patriarchal norms of the dominant white culture, however, the black community started to disintegrate at its core. The "city of destruction" freed the corrosive forces of selfish
individualism among black Americans and the result was a proliferation of "roving men and homeless women," newly equipped to destroy any hope of stable families and communities through exploitative and violent behavior.
Frazier concluded that only by altering the course of those macro-social forces that had so destabilized the black family was there any hope of encouraging more stable (i.e., more patriarchal) families in the future. Including black men in the ranks of industrial workers might be one worthwhile avenue to pursue because gains in economic power and security offered a solid basis for increasing men's power in the family and therefore the viability of the black family itself. In the long run, only the complete integration of black men into the economic life of the United States, and equal opportunities to rise or fall there, would do.
In Frazier's analysis, constructive solutions for the black family were as deeply gendered as the definition of its problems had been in the first place. In The Negro Family in the United States, economics and demography typically preceded psychology. For example, Frazier never suggested (as some others did later) that black families were disorganized because their men were plagued by syndromes of low self-esteem. Offering men an opportunity (such as therapy or another method of individual treatment) to sort out their feelings about themselves or their parents was not considered. Employment was. Postwar research and policy directed at black Americans consistently emphasized male employment, although in some cases psychological failures were implicated as causes where Frazier had seen them merely as painful consequences. As we shall see in the next chapter, policy planners during the 1960s hoped that getting black men into good jobs with decent pay would correct the matriarchal deviations of the black family by allowing men to function as reliable breadwinners and domestic authority figures. Supporting masculinity was, in other words, a preferred method of tackling poverty, illegitimacy, inadequate housing, poor academic achievement, and a host of other community problems, including rioting.
Abram Kardiner and Lionel Ovesey confirmed, with clinical data, the gender- and family-related damages that had been cataloged by Frazier on a sociological level. For Kardiner and Ovesey, however, personality was the primary. source of institutional reform and psychology the crucible of social change. In spite of their significant departure from the direction of causation in Frazier's work, Kardiner and Ovesey's The
Mark of Oppression was deeply indebted to Frazier's study. They took to heart Frazier's cue about the black family and its destruction under the conditions of slavery. They incorporated his concern with the disorganizing clash between black matriarchy and the patriarchal norms of the majority. white society. Finally, they showed how far explanations of U.S. racial identity. and race relations had moved in psychological directions by the early 1950s, and how serious psychological experts were about seeing their theories turned into practical plans for "social engineering" in the area of race.
Based on twenty-five clinical case studies and the results of their subjects' Rorschach and TAT test results, psychiatrists Abram Kardiner and Lionel Ovesey developed a psychoanalytic perspective on black personality development that displayed sensitivity to sociological factors, like class differences, which had been illuminated in the research of Bettel-heim and Janowitz. They treated class differences extensively. They explained why, for example, black middle-class families were more likely to achieve patriarchal norms than their poor counterparts. Nevertheless, the case studies led them to view caste (i.e., racial barriers), rather than class, as the unifying, psychological reality that left a "mark of oppression" on all black Americans, male and female, poor and well off, rural and urban.
Kardiner and Ovesey understood gender and family as the most important vehicles through which the mark of oppression was reproduced. As critics of the looseness and superficiality with which World War II-era experts like Margaret Mead and Geoffrey Gorer had treated patterns of childrearing in their profiles of national character, Kardiner and Ovesey offered psychoanalytic principles as the preferred alternative. They substituted new terms ("basic personality" instead of "national character"), elevated the status of unconscious motivation, and applied the theory to black Americans instead of German or Japanese citizens. The result was a psychoanalytic variation on the environmental theme offered by Otto Klineberg and others during the war years. What had previously appeared to be racial differences in personality were not. If black American personality seemed different, it was a product of shared social circumstances, especially the pressures of institutionalized racism. Discrimination had constructed differences. Aggressive, antidiscriminatory policies could therefore eliminate them.
Among the social variables that produced black personality were black men's difficulties finding and keeping jobs and black women's tendency to "hold the purse-strings" and conduct their affairs indepen-
dently of men. Psychologically speaking, Kardiner and Ovesey noted, this type of family pattern bred disrespect, emotionally and sexually unsatisfying relationships, an unnatural dominance of "loveless [female] tyrants" exerting harsh discipline over children, and an epidemic of social disorganization that flowed outward from the domestic sphere.
In addition to being impoverished, discriminated against, and ghettoized, black Americans led wretched inner lives. Hostility and aggression were, according to the projective tests administered by Kardiner and Ovesey, the most typical traits in their subjects' personalities. Considering the immense frustrations caste threw in the way of the release of black feelings, was psychological damage really such a shocking re-suit? Instead of expressing their rage directly, it was channeled inward against the self, producing oceans of self-loathing that caused more and less severe instances of emotional incapacity. "The Negro," they concluded, "has no possible basis for a healthy self-esteem and every incentive for self-hatred."
Kardiner and Ovesey were straightforward in their expression of sympathy for the plight of black Americans and direct about their anti-racist intentions: "Obviously, Negro self-esteem cannot be retrieved, nor Negro self-hatred destroyed, as long as the status is quo. What is needed by the Negro is not education, but re-integration. It is the white man who requires the education. There is only one way that the products of oppression can be dissolved, and that is to stop the oppression ." "Stopping the oppression" and liberating the black personality clearly involved changing the attitudes of white Americans. It did not, however, involve any reassessment of what normal gender roles or families were like in spite of the fact that Kardiner and Ovesey considered the pressure to conform to white ideals "a slow but cumulative and fatal psychological poison."
It was Kenneth Clark who put the final touches on the equation between the pathology of the ghetto and the destructive "cycle of family instability" in his famous 1965 study of Harlem, Dark Ghetto . Making the same gendered assumptions that Frazier, Kardiner, and Ovesey had made before him, Clark wrote that, because of slavery's legacy, "psychologically, the Negro male could not support his normal desire for dominance." Nothing about this statement—in particular its contention that male domination was "normal"—required any explanation. As we have seen, the disabilities of black masculinity had been a constant refrain since before World War II. Attacking dismal rates of black male un- and underemployment was, for Clark, simply the obvious way to correct what was wrong with the black family.
Kenneth Clark, before and during the 1960s, was always sensitive to the many and complex aspects of ghetto life. In his concern for issues of self-image and identity, he never lost sight of the realities of institutional power, and he had only sharp words for proposals that did not include the redistribution of material wealth and political authority. His view that matriarchy had created a "distorted masculine image," damaging men far more than women, however, reinforced the rationale that men were the primary concern of psychological theory. Women's psychological state was considered only secondarily, and usually as a by-product of the male experience.
By the 1960s, policy's impact on male self-esteem would become a significant and official indicator of government's success or failure, even when social welfare programs specifically targeted women and children. That self-esteem became such an important factor in policy calculations, and in such a gendered fashion, can be attributed to the persuasiveness of the postwar experts reviewed in this chapter, the progress of the civil rights movement, and a social context hospitable to turning psychology into public policy for a variety of reasons, several of which are considered below.