A new model for the black family

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Kai and Tony Landis are a model couple among their friends, most of whom are divorced or have never married.

In one respect, the Landises of Reynoldsburg and their 13-month-old son, Grant, have more in common with Barack and Michelle Obama and their daughters, Sasha, 7, and Malia, 10. Both the Landises and the Obamas are traditional nuclear families, minorities among African-Americans. "They project a positive image," Mr. Landis, 36, said of the new first family. "As black people, we don't have enough positive images."

The Landises consider their marriage of seven years a commitment not only to each other, but also to their child. "Because of the difficulties the black community faces, it's imperative" that parents are together, said Mr. Landis, 35. "Having this commitment will benefit our son. We want him to be the best he can be, and it helps to have both parents in the home."

Among black children, 38 percent live with both of their parents, according to a 2004 census report. Seventy-eight percent of white children live with two parents, compared with 87 percent of Asians and 68 percent of Latino children.

The Obamas will provide an image that could change the way some Americans view black families, and also how black families see themselves, experts say. "Right now, Barack and Michelle represent being on the top," said Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, a psychiatrist at the Judge Baker Children's Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston. He also co-wrote Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors with entertainer Bill Cosby. "Some people will see that as ideal," Poussaint said of the Obamas. "A lot of people will want to mimic it if they can."

Because of the disproportionate number of black children living in single-parent homes, the image of the Obama family will resonate with African-Americans, said Allen Huff, who works with families as president and chief executive of the Neighborhood House, a settlement house on the Near East Side. "They need to see something different," Huff said of black families. "It will make them think that this is real; this isn't the Cosbys or Tyler Perry."

The Cosby Show, a sitcom that ran for eight seasons, offered one of America's most prominent images of a black nuclear family. It shattered stereotypes of African-Americans and offered all of America a model, said Poussaint, a consultant for the show. Because the Obamas are real, they will "maybe be a more powerful effect," Poussaint said.

The presence of Michelle Obama's mother, Marian Robinson, in the White House also will demonstrate the importance of the extended family to blacks, Huff said. But if the nuclear family is held to be the standard, it could cause single women heading households to feel inadequate, Poussaint said. "The emphasis needs to be on good parenting," he said. "We know a lot of successful people come out of single-parent homes, including Mr. Obama."

He and former President Bill Clinton are both products of female-headed households. They can help change the perception that success is possible only for those raised in a nuclear family, said John A. Powell, director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University.