Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Nation: Some Implications for Black Family Studies

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Nation: Some Implications for Black Family Studies

Article excerpt

Much social science research defines race, class, gender and nationality as descriptive variables attached to individuals who are then reinserted into existing theoretical models on the family. In contrast, intersectional approaches view institutionalized racism, social class relations, gender inequalities, and nationalism expressed on both sides of state power as analytical constructs that explain family organization in general, and Black family organization in particular.1

Scholarship in the 1980s and 1990s increasingly focused on uncovering connections among systems of oppression organized along axes of social class, gender, race and nationalism. Within paradigms of intersectionality, any specific social location where such systems meet or intersect generates a distinctive group history or experience. For example, Black family organization can be seen as shaped by the intersections of multiple systems of oppression as well as locations where such systems are reproduced. In this sense, Black family organization reflects multiple, synergistic and contradictory relations of how systems of oppression converge. This convergence constructs the distinctive social location which frames contemporary Black family organization.

How might moving toward paradigms of intersectionality inform the field of Black family studies? This article takes up this question by briefly outlining some suggestive directions raised by three such intersections, namely, those of race and social class, race and gender, and race and nationalism. The analysis is not meant to be comprehensive, but instead presents potentially fruitful directions that might infuse Black family studies with some important ideas raised by scholarship examining each of these areas of intersectionality.


Social science research in the United States generally views social class less as a cause of other social phenomena, such as family structures and dynamics, and more as an outcome of such phenomena. Moreover, a long history of scientific racism insisting on the primacy of biological and/or cultural explanations for all aspects of Black behavior has meant that structural features such as social class received much less emphasis than approaches confirming deeply entrenched notions of Black biological and/or cultural deviancy (Baca Zinn, 1992). As a result of these factors, cultural and psychological values have long been emphasized as central to understanding Black family organization instead of economic and political phenomena, such as industrial and labor market trends, employment patterns, migration histories, residential patterns, and governmental policies.2

Moreover, this emphasis on culture with a corresponding underemphasis on social class has been aggravated by the dominant conceptualization of social class permeating American social science research. In particular, American social science empirical research retains a narrow focus on social class as a descriptive system of individual classification. This approach sees social class as a fixed, static system of social locations created by capitalist development operating in ahistoric fashion according to its own natural laws and rules. Viewing social class via this lens fosters two interrelated approaches to the treatment of social class in research on Black family organization. One approach explores Black family distribution across an allegedly static social class system with the intended aim of explaining and, in some cases, of fostering Black upward social mobility. The wealth of statistical information on phenomena "such as the growth of middle-class families and the intractability of Black poverty" illustrates this emphasis. A second approach investigates the internal dynamics of Black family households of varying social class configurations. Studies examining topics such as marital relations within families by social class background and socialization patterns of children in middle-class Black families versus those in poor families reflect this emphasis. …

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