University Offers Guidance To Black Families

Hampton University in Virginia has created a center to help African-Americans sustain healthy marriages and practice effective parenting. The center kicks off with a two day conference at Hampton University this week that focuses on the state of families. Conference organizer Professor Linda Malone-Colon says the center wants to support parents and children. And Bishop Eddie Long, who leads the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, says he wants to help bridge the psychological and political divide between black men and women.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll talk about coming out of the closet in middle school. Is this happening more often and why and how are parents coping? We will talk about this in just a few minutes.

But first, the state of marriage among African-Americans, or more to the point, decline of marriage among African-Americans. It's the subject of scholarly works, as well as popular films, advice columns, even stand up comics, and now it is the focus of a new think-tank at Hampton University. The university has created a National Center on African-American Marriages and Parenting. The center's goal is to help African-Americans sustain healthy marriages and practice effective parenting. And it begins at a two-day conference at the university starting today.

Joining us to talk about all this are conference organizer Linda Malone-Colon. She's also chair of the Psychology Department at Hampton University. And Bishop Eddie Long, he's the leader of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia. Listeners may remember he presided over the funeral for Coretta Scott King. He's one of the speakers at the conference. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Professor LINDA MALONE-COLON (Hampton University): Thank you.

Bishop EDDIE LONG (New Birth Missionary Baptist Church): Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Professor, can I just start with you. Why did you in Hampton want to create this institute? Why do you think this is necessary?

Prof. MALONE-COLON: Well, we see, you know, that there's really a crisis in marriages and parenting and family relationships in the country, with increasing rates of divorce, separation, out of wedlock births, cohabitation.

MARTIN: Let me just stop you on this question. You're saying it's a crisis. One person's crisis could be another person's lifestyle choice. And I wanted to ask you this because - should just start with some data which I think you helped us with. In 2008, for example, only 84 percent of African-American children were living in homes with two married parents, it's significantly lower than the rate for Asians, Latinos and non-Hispanic whites. I wanted to ask you why you think that discrepancy is and why is that per se a crisis? Is the discrepancy per se a crisis?

Prof. MALONE-COLON: Seventy-two percent of black children who've been born out of wedlock has some real implications in terms of educational outcomes and crime and mental health. And these rates are just increasing so dramatically, actually for all racial, ethnic groups that, you know, it's at a crisis level. Over a five-year period, we saw a 25 percent jump in out of wedlock births. And we know that children do better when they are raised in a home with their mom and dad and have the involvement of their mom and dad.

MARTIN: Bishop, you are a religious leader but this is a religiously diverse country. So, I wanted to ask you, too, if you would address all audiences. Why do you think marriage matters, both to people who may follow your religious beliefs and those who may not?

Bishop LONG: The reason why marriage matters is we have statistical data. At this moment, the back up as already stated the psychological health, the ability for a child to grow and be whole. Also, because we have had, in recent times, a younger crowd having children and not having the model of parenting or the teaching of parenting, it creates another crisis because, as a pastor, I have so many who are coming to me, we're developing classes, whether they are together or single. How do you parent, how do you discipline, how do you encourage? What do parents do?

And so, with that there is an educational crisis on just, how do you raise a child. How do you bring a child into his or her fullness? So, with that we do find very much of a crisis. And then looking at statistics, you'll find a lot of people who are finding themselves in the justice system will attest that they never had a father involved in their life. The center's statistics prove that when they do this, they're less likely to get into that system. So, there are a lot of factors that are going here that have to be addressed and dealt with.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask each of you this question. Bishop, I'll start with you. There was a recent study out of Yale on how fewer black women with post-graduate degrees are marrying and having children. At this past weekend's Congressional Black Caucus Foundation legislative weekend, Washington delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton hosted a panel discussion about the state of marriage in the black community. As we mentioned, there have been a number of, you know, popular films. These are long-term trends. We've been talking about this really over the last three decades. Why do you think there's so much energy around the subject now?

Bishop LONG: I deal with a lot of professional African-American women who will say, well, I really don't want to get married. But it's basically based of off - and this is my own personal encounters, there are men who feel very threatened because of their status in life and their ability do this and ability to do that. And it seems where there's somewhere where the men and women are missing something somewhere, where we're not growing together, we're growing to be as adversaries or competitors instead of coming together and understanding we come in agreement. And there is a process and a plan and then I would pull in my faith in on that in reference to what makes a community strong, what makes a nation strong, what makes the world strong is the strength of the family.

MARTIN: Bishop, where do you place the responsibility for this state of affairs in the African-American community? What do you think is behind it?

Bishop LONG: Well, there are a lot of factors that you could talk about. I personally put the burden of responsibility - we have a very strong men's ministry here and I like going around and speaking to men - the burden of responsibility of men starting to stand up and be true men, true leaders in their community. And even if they have don't have children, be mentors to help with those single parents, take a leadership role. And for us to stand and to equip ourselves to be able to stand with sharp, wonderful, progressive women, be not intimidated if someone is making more money than they are or whatever in those situations. There are a lot of factors that we deal with that we just have to grow and understand and work with. That it does not depreciate this macho male-ism that we've tried to project and that we all can work together to better our homes, better our communities, better society.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Bishop Eddie Long, head of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and Linda Malone-Colon, she's chair of the psychology department at Hampton University. We're talking about the launch of a new institute at Hampton to look at the question of African-American marriages and effective parenting. Professor, to what do you attribute this state of affairs?

Prof. MALONE-COLON: The fact that there are considerably more African-American women than there are African-American men. So, there is this unequal sex ratio, if you will.

MARTIN: You mean in birth? You mean there are more women being, girls being born?

Prof. MALONE-COLON: There are more, there are fewer living African-American men than there are women between a certain age group. And then when you look further at those who are available to marry, if you will, with such high rates of men being incarcerated and black men being unemployed and underemployed and therefore feeling that they're not marriage material, then that puts the numbers even lower. And in any society where you have more marriageable women than you have men, then the men are less likely to commit and they're more likely to be unfaithful when they do.

MARTIN: The other part of this equation is parenting, as you mentioned earlier. There are currently almost four million black children living in homes headed by single mothers who have never married. What will the institute be doing to address the concerns of these people? And I also wonder if you worry at all that children who are in single parent headed households now will get the message that they are somehow lesser or not as appreciated? Do you know what I mean, are you at all concerned about that?

Prof. MALONE-COLON: I know what you mean and this is - well, of course we are. This is why we are developing the National Center on African-American Marriages and Parenting because we want to give out the message that we care about supporting parents, whether they are married or not, and supporting children. We don't want to send out the message that a child who's raised in a single parent household is somehow less than a child who is raised in a married parent household.

The reality is that child is more at risk. And the reality is also when we do, you know, when surveys are done to ask African-Americans if they want to marry, most African-Americans say that they want to marry and that they value this institution. But what is happening is that we're losing hope that we can have healthy marriages. So, what we want to do is to help inspire hope again by providing resources and information that will help African-Americans to have, many of them, what is their hearts' desire.

MARTIN: What about same sex marriages?

Prof. MALONE-COLON: I think that's a whole different issue that requires, I would say, maybe its own summit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MALONE-COLON: But the masses of African-Americans are heterosexual and that's where we're seeing a real problem that's having an effect on our children. So that's where I choose to and where I've been called to, if you will, give my attention.

MARTIN: Bishop, final thought from you. You mentioned your pastoral work with members of your own congregation, your efforts to lead in ministry, as well as your kind of broader concern as a citizen. And are there ways in which the institute can be immediately helpful to you in doing the work you're doing or what do you hope it will do, to support…

Bishop LONG: Well…

MARTIN: …you and your work?

Bishop LONG: One of the greatest things that happened through the institute is bringing sharp minds together who are focused on really looking at the issues. We've had these kind of summits before, but they were more like huddles. The football game, we huddle up and we talk about things and then we break the huddle and go sit back on the bench. I'm fairly convinced that this is bigger than that. It's where we're going to get advice and the benefit of some great training, research, data, et cetera. And some very committed folk, who understand that this is a crisis, this is a challenge that needs to be addressed.

And when the summit is over, it's not over because now we have a center, a place that is giving directives and giving the benefit to those who need it. And that's exciting for me that we're coming together on something that's much needed.

MARTIN: And finally, Professor Malone-Colon, how, what - what's the first thing you hope to accomplish at the institute?

Prof. MALONE-COLON: Can I address what we hope to accomplish at the summit?

MARTIN: Sure.

Prof. MALONE-COLON: What I really hope that we'll accomplish is to just raise awareness about the weakening of family relationships, that we will inspire hope that we can do something substantive about strengthening the relationships among family members. We'll be releasing a U.S. marriage index that can be used to measure the health of marriage. And as Bishop has said, we'll be forming some new relationships to expand this really important work that we're trying to do here.

Let me say, too, this is a very diverse group religiously. We've got a Hindu leader, Muslim leaders, Christian leaders. We've got people on the left, on the right, black, white, men, women. We're very deliberate in ensuring that we're bringing together a group of people who are very diverse coming together for a single cause.

MARTIN: Linda Malone-Colon is the chair of the psychology department at Hampton University. She was kind enough to join us from WHRO in Norfolk, Virginia. Bishop Eddie Long is the leader of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia. And he was kind enough to join us from his office. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

(Soundbite of music)

Bishop LONG: Thank you.

Prof. MALONE-COLON: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: If you want to find more about the conference, we'll have links on our Web site. Just go to npr.org, go to programs and click on TELL ME MORE.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up, (unintelligible) school chancellor Michelle Rhee take no prisoners approach to improving D.C. school has earned her national acclaim, legions of fans and many critics. One writer wanted to know what's really behind that tough exterior.

Mr. MARC FISHER (Columnist, Washington Post): I wanted to find out if this is just an act that she puts on to get her way, to be politically successful or if there's really someone out there who is as tough and frank as she is.

MARTIN: So which is it? We'll try to find out. That's coming up next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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