A 100-Year Review of Research on Black Families: Q & A with Lead Author Chrishana Lloyd - Early Learning Nation

A 100-Year Review of Research on Black Families: Q & A with Lead Author Chrishana Lloyd

The last time Early Learning Nation magazine sat down with researcher Dr. Chrishana Lloyd of Child Trends, she had just completed Mary Pauper: A Historical Exploration of Early Care and Education Compensation, Policy and Solutions. Her new study delves into the work—and the biases—of her predecessors. Co-authored with Mavis Sanders, Sara Shaw, Abigail Wulah, Hannah Wodrich, Kristen Harper and Zabryna Balén, A 100-Year Review of Research on Black Families surveys social science research from 1920 to 2019. It is a sweeping account, highlighting breakthroughs as well as blind spots in the research that informs public policy.

👉 Webinar: Wednesday, May 8, 2-3:00 p.m. EST

Dr. Chrishana Lloyd

Lloyd and Shaw will highlight learnings from the recently released study, covering the historical role of public agencies and academia in supporting research on Black families; the implications; how Black family demographics have changed over time; and the ways in which research, policy and practice must shift to attend to historical and contemporary challenges important for Black families. Dr. Shauna M. Cooper (Urban Institute), Natalie Williams (American Public Human Services Association) and Dr. Brenda Jones Harden (Columbia School of Social Work) will share their responses to the findings.

Mark Swartz: How did you pick this topic for your research?

Chrishana Lloyd: I try to write the papers that I myself want to read or to cite. This project emerged from the observation that, historically, much of the work about Black families has been problem centered.

Swartz: Can you say more about that?

Lloyd: A lot of the work has been funded by the government, and the government has an interest in ensuring the well-being of citizens, so when you examine research about Black families, you’re seeing papers about poverty, crime, that kind of thing. Someone is saying, “We’ve got these Black people who are not doing very well, and what can we do to fix it?” That’s certainly the case with the 1965 [Daniel] Moynihan Report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Sometimes that has worked against the interests of Black families. A lot of times, actually.

Swartz: Research costs money. How do funding issues influence research?

Lloyd: The resources shape and set the tone of what gets researched and how it happens. The money has to run through organizations like universities and think-tanks, and those entities have or bring people in to do the research.

As a result, the voices of the communities often get lost. I am very intentional in my work to ensure this does not happen. For example, in a current project, I am collaborating with a community member who is a primary investigator with me. We’ve worked side-by-side on everything from conceptualizing the research design to the final stages of the project.

👉 Download the Executive Summary
Download Volume I (1920-69)
Download Volume II (1970-2019)

Swartz: What’s the alternative to focusing on families and their problems?

Lloyd: W.E.B. Du Bois wrote The Philadelphia Negro in 1899, which precedes volume I of this review and he set the stage. He started teasing out systemic issues and noted that societal norms, values and social standards were based on the lives and experiences of white America. There was an idea of what a family is and what it should look like, and that was the ideal. When you didn’t fit that ideal, you had a problem.

Swartz: Stereotypes lead to bad research, which leads to bad policy—is that right?

Lloyd: Yes. Historically, a lot of our social policy is based on research on and ideas about one type of Black family: urban, poor and matriarchal. And that certainly is not what all Black families look like.

👉 Squaring Up with History: Child Trends’ Chrishana Lloyd and Julianna Carlson Dig Deep on the Value of Care

Swartz: The U.S. census is a valuable research dataset, if only to shed light on the biases in its design.

Lloyd: It definitely shows us that racial categories change over time. In 1920, the options were white, black, mulatto, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Hindu, Korean and “other.” The census taker, known as an enumerator, would show up say, “Okay, there’s a Black guy, or there’s a white guy.”

I discovered that I have a great-great-grandmother, an indentured servant, who was white, but everybody else in that home identified as Black. So if she had been the one to answer that door for the enumerator, that family would have been counted as white.

Swartz: You highlight a number of scholars, Black and white, who put forth iconoclastic perspectives on family issues. Who are some we should know about?

Lloyd: Melville J. Herskovits identified commonalities between African and African Americans back in the 1930s, an uncommon perspective that at the time was refuted.

And Oliver Cox conducted research around marriageable Black men, anticipating the work of William Julius Wilson in many ways. Cox was phenomenal in his thinking and his rigor. He actually drove people crazy. In the education space, there were scholars such as Horace Mann Bond, Cecil Sumner and Charles Henry Thompson who challenged the accepted notions around intelligence testing.

Swartz: Much of the work you discuss takes place against the background of major historical trends such as the Great Migration and the Civil Rights movement. How do researchers gain perspective on what’s going on in their present time?

Lloyd: You could say the same thing about Covid today. It will take years or decades to come to terms with what we lived through, but including community voice is one important way to ensure context is not neglected.

Swartz: How does examining past research help point to a way forward?

Lloyd: We’re looking at the type of research that was happening as well as the people who were conducting it. And I just had an interesting epiphany, because I also do some work with a group of young Black scholars at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). I was at Tougaloo College, and heard about faculty members who wear so many hats in addition to being scholars.

I went to an HBCU myself, and I’ve seen this firsthand and I have also experienced it. Mentoring students and staff, taking on administrative responsibilities, serving as the equity representation all things that take time and are typically are unfunded. Understanding this fact in the context of the research that gets produced is important. Black scholars have been key in putting forth broader perspectives of Black family life, including examination of systems that are barrier to their progress.

Swartz: They have one hand tied behind their back.

Lloyd: Research requires the luxury of sitting back and reflecting and coming together as a collaborative. It took about 18 months for this project to be completed because of other demands. We got there and tried to model the reflection and collaboration with this project, but it was not easy.

Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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