The Effect of Marriage, Family, and Religious Ties on African American Suicide Ideology

Article excerpt

Work on the incidence of suicide, and more generally crime and deviant behavior, has tended to neglect racially disaggregated empirical research (e.g., Peterson & Krivco, 1993; Sampson, 1987). As noted by Wilson and Aponte (1985), up to the 1980s, sociologists tended to shy away from race as a point of departure for research. With respect to the field of suicidology, race has been perhaps the most understudied basic demographic variable (for reviews, see Lester, 1992; Stack, 1982). For example, a recent book on suicide risk factors lacked a chapter on race (Maris, Berman, Maltsberger, & Yufit, 1992).

A recurrent issue in theoretical work in deviant behavior is to what extent, if any, theories that were built on the experience of the White male majority will replicate for other groups (e.g., Peterson & Krivco, 1993; Smith & Paternoster, 1987). Often there is a dearth of systematic research on these issues due to considerations such as the unavailability of race-specific data.

The present study explores the link between marriage and family ties and suicide beliefs or ideology among African Americans. While these ties have been used extensively to explain suicide and suicide beliefs among Whites (e.g., Stack, 1990; Stack & Wasserman, 1992; see review in Stack, 1992; Trovato & Vos, 1990), it is not clear if they are as applicable to African Americans. While marriage and family ties have often been alleged to be key aspects of the African American "survival strategy" against racism-a strategy that can offer protection against suicide (e.g., Davis, 1980a; Swanson & Breed, 1976)--there is little empirical work testing this assertion. The existing work on the influence of marriage and family ties on suicide among African Americans has been restricted largely to marital, but not family, ties. Further, it has been marked by conflicting results (e.g., Davis, 1980a; Davis & Short, 1979). In addition, it has tended not to control for a key covariate of marriage and family ties, religiosity (Stack, 1985). The present study contributes to the literature on marital factors and suicide by testing the extant theory with national data on African Americans, employing both measures of marital and family ties, and by including a control for religiosity levels.

The present study employs data on suicide beliefs or ideology. It does not use actual mortality data on completed suicides. In this sense, the findings need to be taken with some caution before generalizing them to the correlates of completed suicide. However, research indicates that the same variables that predict completed suicide also tend to predict suicide beliefs or ideology (e.g., Stack & Wasserman, 1992).

RACE, MARRIAGE, FAMILY, RELIGION, AND SUICIDE

Considerable work in the 1960s and 1970s documented a rise in Black suicide (e.g., Davis 1980a; Peck & Litman, 1973; Seiden, 1972; Woodford, 1965). However, the ratio of the suicide rate of African Americans relative to White Americans has remained largely the same. The most systematic analysis of trends in suicide by race concluded that no significant change in racial differences has occurred since the 1950s, or is likely in the near future. Any reduction in the gap between racial groups that has occurred is more the result of a reduction in rates among Whites than an increase in rates among Blacks (McIntosh, 1989). While there was an increase in the suicide rates of young African Americans (e.g., Davis, 1980a), overall the ratio has stayed the same.

A common explanation of relatively low rates of suicide among African Americans is overt racism. Racism produces both stress and a kind of "survival solidarity" among African Americans (Davis 1980a, p. 57; King 1974; Woodford, 1965). Sometimes part of this survival strategy involves lower occupational aspirations, a social factor that can protect persons from the anomie associated with failure in the occupational system (Swanson & Breed, 1976, p. …