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Exploring the Resilience, Challenges, and Triumphs of African American Families Through History

By Darius Spearman (africanelements)

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The African American family has a long, complex history, marked by resilience and adaptability in the face of adversity. Through the years, various laws and policies have actively constrained the growth and development of Black families. From the institution of slavery to Jim Crow segregation to the current era of mass incarceration, African American families have adapted and evolved to confront obstacles to their survival and flourishing (Gutman 1976; Franklin and James 1997). This article delves into the values of African American families, the importance of black history for children, and the impact of legal milestones, welfare policies, mass incarceration, and the foster care system on African American families. We will also explore how the War on Drugs and the juvenile justice system have shaped the African American family experience.

The Power of Kinship: A Pillar of African American Family Values

In examining the values that have guided African American families through these challenges, it becomes clear that solid kinship bonds have always been a cornerstone (Stack 1974). Kinship structures refer to the social relationships and connections between family members, both biological and non-biological. Often, these kinship structures were extended, including immediate family members and extended family members such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. These extended family members played essential roles in providing emotional and economic support to the family unit, especially during times of hardship and adversity (Hill 1999). African American families often formed kinship through blood ties, adoption, and informal arrangements. They were central to the survival and resilience of Black families throughout history.

Finding Strength in Family Bonds Amid the Atrocities of Slavery

African American families have always valued strong kinship bonds, even during the era of slavery. The institution of slavery systematically disrupted African American families, forcing enslaved people to live under brutal conditions and endure the trauma of being separated from their loved ones (Blassingame 1972). Despite these challenges, enslaved people could form families and create kinship structures that allowed them to survive and thrive under challenging circumstances.

The Apprenticeship System: A Legacy of Exploitation and Separation

Even with the abolition of slavery, new challenges emerged that threatened the well-being of the Black family. As a result, many African American families continued to rely on extended family kinship structures in post-Civil War America to provide support and security in a society that was hostile to their aspirations (Gutman 1976). One such hostile system was the apprenticeship system. The apprenticeship system, a practice that emerged following the Civil War, saw many African American children taken from their families and placed into forced labor arrangements (Litwack 1998).<figure>

Often disguised as education or training programs, these arrangements were a form of indentured servitude that allowed white employers to exploit the labor of African American children. The apprenticeship system was particularly damaging to African American families, disrupting kinship networks and creating economic and emotional stress (Litwack 1998). Children were taken away from their parents and placed with white employers, often far from their homes, making it difficult for families to maintain contact with and support each other. It also made it harder for parents to protect their children from abuse and exploitation.

African American families vigorously resisted the apprenticeship system and fought to protect their children’s rights. They formed community organizations and worked with sympathetic white allies to challenge the system in court and the public sphere (Litwack 1998). Over time, their efforts paid off, leading to the eventual abolition of the apprenticeship system. However, in a striking parallel, the modern foster care system echoes the troubling legacy of the apprenticeship system.

Foster Care and the Modern-Day Challenges for Black Families

The foster care system disproportionately impacts African American children due to systemic poverty, housing instability, and inadequate access to resources (Roberts 2002). Foster care, which often separates children from their families for extended periods, can disrupt family bonds and lead to poorer outcomes in education, mental health, and future stability for these children (Roberts 2002). The foster care system has been criticized for being racially biased, as African American children are more likely to be removed from their homes and placed in foster care than White children (Hill 2006).

The Evolution of Welfare Policies and Their Impact on African American Families

In addition to the challenges posed by the foster care system, the evolution of welfare policies has also had a significant impact on African American families. Founded in 1935, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) provided financial assistance to low-income families with children. The Flemming Rule, established in 1960, required states to include children of unemployed parents in AFDC, thus expanding its reach to more African American families (Quadagno 1994). The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (1996) replaced AFDC with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which included stricter work requirements and time limits (Haskins 2001). Perhaps not coincidentally, The “Welfare Queen” stereotype emerged during the period between the Flemming Rule — which expanded African American families’ access to welfare benefits — and the punitive policies of the 1996 welfare reform measures (Nadasen 2015). The “welfare queen” was a derogatory term to describe African American women who allegedly abused the welfare system, perpetuated negative misconceptions, and further stigmatized recipients. It is important to note that as government assistance to children and families became more associated with people of color, welfare policies have become more punitive and stigmatizing (Chappell 2010).

Critics of Welfare policies have pointed out the various ways the system contributes to the destruction of the Black family. Some argue these policies create disincentives for family stability and self-sufficiency (Murray 1984; Edin and Kefalas 2005).

Criticisms of Welfare Policies

  1. Financial disincentives for marriage: Some welfare programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), consider a household’s total income when determining eligibility. Income consideration can create a disincentive for marriage, as combining incomes may result in the loss of benefits (Mincy and Huang 2001). Critics argue that this discourages the formation and stability of two-parent households in the African American community, as couples may choose to remain unmarried to maintain their eligibility for benefits.
  2. The “welfare trap”: The welfare trap is a term used to describe a situation where individuals or families become reliant on welfare benefits, making it difficult for them to break free from poverty and achieve self-sufficiency (Murray 1984). Critics argue that some welfare policies create dependency by offering few incentives or opportunities for recipients to gain skills and education while disincentivizing them from seeking employment income for fear of losing benefits.
  3. Stereotyping and stigmatization: Welfare policies have often perpetuated negative stereotypes of African American families, particularly the aforementioned “welfare queen” stereotype (Nadasen 2015). This image of a single Black mother who abuses the welfare system to live a life of leisure has been widely debunked but continues to influence public opinion and policymaking. Such stereotypes stigmatize African American families who receive welfare assistance and may further isolate them from social and economic opportunities.
  4. Racial bias in policy implementation: Studies have shown that racial bias can influence the implementation of welfare policies, with African American families more likely to be treated unfairly or harshly by caseworkers and other officials (Soss, Fording, and Schram 2011). Implicit bias can lead to increased surveillance of Black families, harsher penalties for non-compliance, and an overall negative experience for those seeking assistance (Eubanks 2018).

The separation of Black families disrupts their support structures while perpetuating cycles of trauma and disadvantage. Nevertheless, the devastating effects of systemic racism on African American families extend beyond the realm of welfare policies. The War on Drugs and the ensuing era of mass incarceration ushered in many other forms of physical separation that have also plagued Black communities.

The War on Drugs: A Catalyst for Mass Incarceration and Disruption of Black Families

The War on Drugs, which began in the 1970s, disproportionately targeted African American communities, resulting in higher arrest rates, incarceration, and family separation (Alexander 2010). Mass incarceration has left many children without their parents, leading to increased poverty rates and emotional trauma (Wildeman and Muller 2012). As a result, African American families continue to face significant challenges in the contemporary era, particularly in the realm of criminal justice.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and African American men are disproportionately represented in the prison population (Nellis 2016). In addition to the criminalization of Black bodies and the dehumanization of African American men, mass incarceration has profoundly impacted African American families. Removing fathers and sons from the household for extended periods has disrupted family dynamics and economic instability (Geller et al. 2012).

The School-to-Prison Pipeline: How Education Policies Impact African American Children

The Adultification of African American Children

Policies that impact Black families are present at all phases of family formation. In the realm of education, the school-to-prison pipeline has become a significant issue in many communities. The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the tendency to funnel children out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems (Heitzeg 2009). African American children are disproportionately represented in this pipeline, as they tend to be “adultified” more often than their white counterparts (Epstein et al. 2017). Adultification is the inclination to treat children, particularly African American girls as if they are older than they are. Adultification can lead to harsher school punishments and increased contact with the juvenile justice system. As a result, they are more likely to be disciplined harshly and suspended from school than their White counterparts, having lasting effects on their educational and familial outcomes (Losen and Skiba 2010).

The Role of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 introduced several measures that contributed to the school-to-prison pipeline, including funding more police in schools and expanding “zero-tolerance” policies (Simon 2007). These policies disproportionately affected African American students, increasing their chances of entering the juvenile justice system (Advancement Project 2010).

Conclusion: Celebrating the Strength and Resilience of African American Families

African American families have a complex and resilient history reflecting Black Americans’ challenges and triumphs in the United States. Despite the ongoing challenges of racism, economic inequality, and systemic oppression, African American families continue to adapt and evolve in ways that reflect their cultural values and commitment to creating a better future for their children. By understanding the impact of various laws, policies, and social issues on these families, we can work towards creating a more just and equitable society for all.


What does African American culture value in family?

African American culture values strong kinship bonds, often including extended family members. Traditional gender roles have also been a key aspect, though they have evolved over time.

What is the importance of black history to children?

Black history helps children develop a strong sense of identity, pride, and belonging. Understanding their ancestors’ struggles and achievements also instills resilience and empowerment.

How are families affected by mass incarceration?

Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts African American families, leading to higher rates of poverty, family separation, and emotional trauma for children left without their parents.

How are families affected by the foster care system?

African American children are overrepresented in the foster care system. Foster care can disrupt family bonds and result in poorer outcomes in education, mental health, and future stability for these children.

How has the War on Drugs impacted African American families?

The War on Drugs disproportionately targeted African American communities, resulting in higher rates of arrest, incarceration, and family separation. This has led to increased poverty and emotional trauma for affected families.

About the author

Darius Spearman is a professor of Black Studies at San Diego City College since 2007. He has authored several books, including Between The Color Lines: A History of African Americans on the California Frontier Through 1890. You can visit Darius online at

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