Harvard Educational Review
  1. A New Look at Black Families

    Fifth Edition

    By Charles Vert Willie and Richard J. Reddick

    Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2003. 184 pp. $75.00 (cloth); $27.50 (paper)

    In the fifth edition of A New Look at Black Families, authors Charles V. Willie and Richard J. Reddick continue Willie’s earlier work in their critical examination of Black families’ adaptation patterns in late-twentieth- and twentieth-first-century America. In particular, they set out to offer a more “refined answer to the question: What is it like to be Black in the United States?” (p. v) that has been presented in social science literature. Willie and Reddick explore the adaptation patterns of Black families through a well-researched analysis of alternative routes to educational excellence across family types, “power-sharing practices among spouses,” and the “cross-gender effect” of parents on their children’s achievement.

    Divided into five sections, the book opens with a context-setting review of theoretical and conceptual musings on the plight of Black families in general, and the mediating effects of socioeconomic status and attainment on achievement in particular. Informed by the work of sociologist Robert Merton, who “designed a systematic approach to the analysis of social and cultural sources of deviant and conformist behavior” (p. 11), Willie and Reddick stratify their sample by socioeconomic status, resulting in an analysis that helps readers understand the similarities and differences across and within class type in adaptation patterns. Recognizing that one “social class cannot be understood apart from the adaptation [practices] of the others” (p. 17), they hypothesize that racial groups in the United States share common core values, adapt differently to society because of social-class position, adapt differently within a social class, and complement one another through a symbiotic relationship.

    Appropriating the theory of complimentarity to a sample of Black families, Willie and Reddick present a series of case studies that offer a description and analysis of the adaptation practices of middle-class, working-class, low-income, and alternative Black families. These case studies, written by former students of Willie, capture succinctly the life experiences of Black families from diverse geographical, educational, occupational, and social locations. Taking care not to represent each social group as a monolith, they offer at least two case studies within each social class and highlight the differing pathways of adaptation to American society taken by the families under study. In the alternative families chapter, Willie and Reddick offer an interesting discussion of the pathways taken by four Black male scholars (e.g., John H. Franklin and Kenneth Clark) who have excelled in their respective fields. What is notably absent from their discussion, however, is the presence of Black female scholars who surely have been as successful as their male counterparts. The authors also limit their discussion of Black families to heterosexual couples.

    Despite the lack of appropriation of a broader definition of family, Willie and Reddick offer a rich and engaging discussion of the ways in which Black parents influence and foster success in their children. In particular, they address the cross-gender influence of mothers and fathers on their children’s development. They present case study analyses that challenge the early writings of scholars such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan and E. Franklin Frazier that pathologize the Black family and suggest that Black mothers negatively influence the development of adolescent boys. In fact, Willie and Reddick find mothers to be highly influential in the success of their male children, and that fathers positively influence their daughters. They make a distinction between being a role model and a mentor, with the latter serving more as an advocate for the child.

    Acting in this capacity, Black parents were found to demonstrate an egalitarian approach to child-rearing, which positively contributed to the adaptation patterns of their offspring.

    In Willie and Reddick’s examination of Black families and social systems, they pay particular attention to the adaptation practices and experiences of Black males. Countering the assertions of mass-media outlets and social science literature, they suggest that Black boys and men contribute positively to society and their families in spite of the social and cultural structures that often impede their progress. Willie and Reddick also present quantitative data in their examination of socioeconomic status among racial groups. Comparing data by race, occupation, education, and income status, they find that there are “more employment opportunities today than . . . a generation ago” (p. 153). Their most important finding is that “education serves the employment interest of Blacks best among those who have received a college degree” (p. 153). Further, job equity is similar between Blacks and Whites when employed in high-status jobs. Nonetheless, a discrepancy in the income received from such jobs continues and Blacks continue to be overrepresented in the service sector of employment.

    Willie and Reddick bring the fifth edition of A New Look at Black Families to a close by revisiting the issues examined in the text: the stratification of Black families and their pathways to success, their orientation toward humanistic values, and the emergence of egalitarian family forms and its implication for power relations between family members and spouses. Appropriate for policymakers, educators, and social scientists alike, A New Look at Black Families presents a broader and more complete view of Black families, as well as an understanding of Black family dimensions that contribute to success. Readers will also gain a better sense of the extent to which the social classes are interdependent for all racial groups, and further confirm the associations that exist between status attainment and family stability.

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    Book Notes

    Black in School
    By Shawn A. Ginwright

    Becoming Multicultural Educators
    Edited by Geneva Gay

    A New Look at Black Families
    By Charles Vert Willie and Richard J. Reddick

    Learning to Trust
    By Marilyn Watson, in collaboration with Laura Ecken

    I Am a Pencil
    By Sam Swope