The University Record, January 25, 1993

Barbarin: 25 years later King’s dream unfulfilled

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

A quarter of a century after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, society has failed to attain the slain leader’s dream of brotherhood, racial harmony and equal opportunity, according to Oscar Barbarin, director of the Center for the Child and the Family. Barbarin led off a U-M panel discussing “The Unfinished Dream: Issues in the Study of Children and Families of Color” last Monday.

The seminar was co-sponsored by the Center for the Child and the Family, the Center for Human Growth and Development and the Department of Psychology. Panelists, in addition to Barbarin, were psychology Prof. John W. Hagen; Vonnie C. McLoyd, professor of psychology and of Afroamerican studies; and psychology Prof. J. Arnold Sameroff.

Barbarin highlighted recent research findings linking income, academic performance and emotional health. It is, he noted, a link that begins to explain why almost 20 percent of African American children of all ages fail in school.

In one study Barbarin and his colleagues conducted, the emotional distress poverty inflicts on children was particularly striking. Researchers assessed the emotional health of two groups of mostly poor African American children. One group had a life-threatening disease and the other group had no serious physical problems. Children with cancer and sickle cell anemia were no more depressed than the children who were well, Barbarin found.

McLoyd presented an overview of her recent research on Black female-headed families in the context of the socioeconomic changes of the last decade.

“Close to one Black child in every two is living in poverty today,” she noted. In 1990, 51 percent of the Black children lived in female-headed households, and more than 70 percent of those children were poor. “The economic quest for equality has very much eluded us,” McLoyd said, adding that the psychological costs of poverty are high.

Sameroff discussed the latest findings from his 18-year study of various risk factors for cognitive and emotional development. Among those risk factors are poverty and minority status. “The news is bad,” Sameroff reported. “When life is difficult to start, it tends to stay difficult, and it doesn’t change much over the years, except to get worse.”

Offering a more optimistic perspective, Hagen provided an overview of recent changes within academia. “While most of the subjects of academic research over the last quarter century have been white and middle-class,” Hagen said, “real improvement has been made in the last few years.”

He pointed to Child Development, the journal published by the Society for Research in Child Development, a 5,000-member professional group for which he serves as executive director. He noted that more than 50 percent of the studies published in the last half of 1992 or scheduled for publication in the first half of 1993 use either minority groups or international samples.

“I’m more proud of what people in academia have done over the last 25 years than I am of what society as a whole has done,” Hagen said.