Black families have consistently been identified as problematic in both Britain and the USA (McAdoo 1988; Phoenix 1987, 1990, 1993). In particular, high rates of lone motherhood in populations of African origin have been blamed for problems ranging from educational underachievement to delinquency (see, for example, the report of the official inquiry into the underachievement of’West Indian’ children in British schools, which focuses on the high rates of lone parenthood among ‘West Indian’ families; Swann 1985). High rates of lone motherhood have been an important focus in the construction of black families as outside the British nation (Gilroy 1987). In addition, US theories of the underclass have focused on self-perpetuating groups of alienated, unemployed men who engage in criminal activities but do not participate in family life with the young women with whom they produce children (Wilson 1987). These theories have generated concern about the high percentage of ‘the underclass’ that is black. In the United States, concerns about lone mothers continue to be racialized (Morris 1994). Given the historical pervasiveness of pathological constructions of black lone mothers (Lawrence 1982), it might be expected that recent discourses of lone motherhood in Britain would be particularly aimed at black mothers of African – Caribbean origin. This is not, however, the case. In the current moral panic about lone parenting there has been, apparently, no explicit attempt to link ‘race’ and nation with lone motherhood.

The absence of discourses of black pathology in recent constructions of lone motherhood is so strikingly obvious that it requires explanation. Scott-Jones and Nelson-Le Gall (1986) argue that social issues perceived to pertain to minority ethnic groups are generally not taken seriously. If, however, white majorities start behaving in the same way, the issue comes to be seen as less problematic, but also generally gets taken more seriously. Arguably then, while lone motherhood was seen as almost exclusively a black aberration, it was censured, but constructed as due to cultural difference and the Otherness of black people (Phoenix 1990, 1991). Over the last two decades a handful of writers have argued that similar behaviours in black and white ‘young’, single mothers necessarily have different aetiologies. Thus, in a review of US literature, Phipps-Yonas (1980) pointed out that individualistic, psychological explanations tended to be advanced in explanation of pregnancies to single, white young women, whereas ‘cultural reasons’ tended to be advanced in explanation of black ‘teenage pregnancies’. The few pieces of British work attempting to explain black and white differences in rates of lone ‘teenage motherhood’ have racialized the issues in similar ways, constructing white and black lone ‘teenage motherhood’ as the result respectively of individual aberration and group cultural norms (Phoenix 1988).

Rickie Solinger (1994) argues that, while there have been historical shifts in the ways in which ‘illegitimacy’ is constructed in the United States, black and white ‘illegitimate’ babies have, particularly since the 1940s, been constructed differently. ‘In short, after World War II, the white bastard child was no longer the child nobody wanted. The Black illegitimate baby became the child white politicians and taxpayers loved to hate’ (Solinger 1994:287). Thus, black lone mothers were expected to keep their babies, while white lone mothers were expected to give up their babies for adoption. In this construction, black lone mothers were constructed as irredeemably Other, while white lone mothers could experience redemption by relinquishing their babies.

The benign neglecters began to articulate their position at about

the same time that the psychologists provided new explanations

for white single pregnancy. In tandem, these developments set Black and white unwed mothers in different universes of cause and effect…. Thus, by becoming mothers, even unwed mothers, Black women were simply doing what came naturally. There was no reason for social service workers or policymakers to interfere. Since professionals could have an impact on the immediate situation—and could not penetrate or rearrange Black ‘culture,’ it was doubly futile to consider interfering.

(Solinger 1994:298-9)

While high rates of lone motherhood seemed confined to black populations in the United States and Britain, ‘cultural’ explanations of black lone motherhood were largely unquestioned. However, as white women have increasingly become lone mothers over the last decade, the assumption of necessary black and white differences in family forms has increasingly been shown to be inadequate. Furstenberg, Brooks-Gunn and Morgan (1987) are among those who have had to re-evaluate black and white differences and commonalities in patterns of lone motherhood as white young women have started to show patterns similar to those associated with black young women:

By the mid-1980s, almost all children of black teenage mothers were born out-of-wedlock. . These dramatic changes helped create the belief that teenage childbearing is primarily a black issue. But recent trends suggest that blacks may simply have been pacesetters for the population at large.

(Furstenberg et al. 1987:5)

There is, currently, a great deal of work (from a variety of perspectives) that attempts to explain lone motherhood in black populations (see, for example, Dickerson 1995). How then can the absence of mention of black lone mothers in recent British Conservative discourses on lone motherhood be explained?

Demography may be argued to provide one explanation for the lack of racialization of discourses of lone motherhood. For black lone mothers currently constitute a tiny percentage of all lone mothers. In fact, on the basis of figures from the 1991 British census, about half of black mothers of African-Caribbean origin in Britain are lone parents at any one time (C. Owen, personal communication 1995). However, people of African-Caribbean descent constitute less than 1 per cent of the British population. There is also more employment among black women than among white women (D. Owen 1994), making black lone mothers less likely than white lone mothers to be dependent on state provision. As a result, there is little point in aiming censure particularly at black lone mothers if government aim is to reduce welfare payments. The appeal has to be wider, going beyond black mothers. However, governments are not noted for paying particular attention to demographic trends or always using statistics accurately and responsibly when formulating policy decisions or making rallying speeches. This is evident in the debate about the figures cited by John Redwood to warrant his concern about high rates of single parenthood on the St Mellon’s estate in Wales in 1993. These figures were reproduced in a BBC Panorama programme on lone mothers. A complaint was subsequently made by the National Council for One Parent Families (NCOPF) which included a refutation of the figures used by Redwood and Panorama. The NCOPF cited research commissioned by South Glamorgan Social Services, and conducted by Pithouse et al. (1991) at the University of Cardiff, to argue that less than 20 per cent of parents in the area Redwood was talking about (St Mellon’s) were actually lone parents (compared to the 65 per cent that Redwood claimed). Despite the accusations of having used inaccurate figures, neither Redwood nor the Panorama programme retracted their statements. In addition, as Seidman and Rappoport (1986) argue, it is common for the construction of social problems to be characterized by ‘generalizations from extreme samples’. In keeping with this, black lone mothers have frequently been stereotyped as ‘typical’ lone mothers (Ziegler 1995).

A further explanation could be argued to be the disruption of the assumed link between family structure and the lawless behaviour of black male youth of African-Caribbean descent. The disruption of this link is important to a consideration of lone motherhood, since it has been commonplace for social scientists as well as politicians to blame the perceived ills of black young people (poor educational attainment as well as lawlessness) on ‘female-headed households’ and ‘father absence’.

The point implied in much of the literature is that a lot of the culturally ‘abnormal’ behaviour of minority groups can be traced back to supposed family deficiencies. Additionally, the problematic black family background is often implicated in explanations for unrest, decay, and violence in the inner cities.

(Brittan and Maynard 1984:34)

Scarman’s discussion of the black community in the Brixton area [following his official inquiry into the Brixton ‘riots’]…begins with a section on the family which reproduces the stereotyped image of black household beset by generational conflict and torn asunder by antagonism between authoritarian parents.. The pathological character of these households is established in the text by a discussion of the effects of male absence and of male presence.. According to Scarman, the resulting ‘matriarchy’ undergoes ‘destructive changes’ under the impact of British social conditions and the disintegration of this basic structure of life is part of the chain reaction which ended in the Brixton riot.

(Gilroy 1987:104-5)

In the 1990s, various clashes between the British police and public have made it less tenable to assert that modern urban disorder is only the province of young black masculinity. The clashes have occurred on predominantly white council housing estates in Newcastle, on mixed estates in Luton, with Asian youth in Bradford, with white young people attending rave parties and with travellers. Despite this, however, the assumed link between ‘race’ and crime has not disappeared. A letter from the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Condon, to black ‘community leaders’, leaked to the British press in July 1995, argued that most muggings are committed by ‘very young black people. excluded from school’. However, it made no mention of black families, lone or otherwise, as causally responsible. Nor has the debate generated by this leak focused on the black families from which these ‘muggers’ come. Is it then the case that Conservatives have not censured black lone mothers because it is no longer plausible to suggest that black families are mainly responsible for urban unrest? Has the space created by the silencing of discourses on the deviance of black lone-parent families been filled by discourses on the deviance of some white families, in particular those headed by lone mothers?

Such a conclusion is unwarranted. Michael Keith in discussing a London newspaper’s 1990 description of ‘typical muggers’ argues that their description is racialized although there is no explicit statement about ‘race’. The identikit rioter, the alienated criminal, the designer mugger; there is no need to say they are Black because we already know it’ (Keith 1993:248). In a similar way, the fact that there are long-standing and pervasive linkages between black lone-parent families and black male crime in discourses of ‘law and order’ makes it unnecessary for black young men’s assumed criminality to be blamed explicitly on black family structure. The link has already been made and so is already known. The historical location of ‘the problem’ of lone parenthood is such that ‘we already know’ that the worst offenders with regard to lone motherhood are black lone mothers. The already established ‘commonplace’ no longer needs to be spelled out (Billig 1991). While Conservative discourses would probably not be taken seriously by white lone parents if they were aimed specifically at black lone parents, it is extremely easy for old racialized constructions to become evident and, hence, to be demonstrated to be still in operation. Ziegler (1995) illustrates this with a high-profile example from the United States where, in 1992, Dan Quayle, then the Republican vice­president, attacked ‘Murphy Brown’, a character in a television soap opera, for choosing to become a lone mother:

It is ironic that Quayle chose to pick on TV character Murphy Brown, who is portrayed as a single woman with an annual income of more than $50,000 who made the choice to be a single parent, because Murphy does not fit the typical stereotype usually associated with single parenting, primarily and often profiled as an African American female who is on welfare. As a matter of fact, on the evening of the sitcom’s 1992 fall premiers where Murphy struck back at the vice-president, Quayle selected a group of African American single parents in Washington DC, to view the program with him to serve as a symbol of his support for single parenting. Unfortunately, Quayle’s choice of this racial composition for the audience opened the door for more comments regarding his motives.

(Ziegler 1995:81)

Quayle’s choice of black lone mothers to view the programme with him was widely interpreted as a blunder. For while he had never explicitly criticized black single parents, his gesture was interpreted by many to give a coded racial message about who he considered as ‘typical’ lone parents.

The implicit racialization of discourses of lone motherhood intersects with the racialization of insider-outsider status with regard to the British nation in a way that contributes to explanations of the absence of ‘race’ in recent discourses of lone motherhood. Black families have long been constructed as outsiders in the British nation. A central tenet of ‘new racism’ in political discourses has been the counterposing of threatening hordes of often lawless black people, who, if allowed, would ‘swamp’ British society, with the construction of Britain as consisting of a homogeneous culture (Barker 1981). The discourses and policies aimed at black people that result from these constructions are related to immigration controls and rights of citizenship. A statement from Margaret Thatcher, in the period just before her first election as British Prime Minister, which was delivered in a television interview, clearly constructs black populations as a threat from without. ‘People really are rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture’ (Margaret Thatcher, Daily Mail, January 1978).

There have been recurrent demands by British politicians and the media that ‘foreigners’ and outsiders should be excluded from claims to British social security payments. Some lone mothers, who cannot be positioned as outside the nation, have also been subjected to proclamations that they should be prevented from making ‘dishonest’ welfare claims. Peter Lilley, the Conservative Social Security Secretary, has repeatedly advocated a ‘crackdown’ on ‘fraudulent’ welfare claims made, according to him, by one in five lone parents living on welfare (Brindle 1995b). Highlighting the lawlessness of large numbers of lone parents is a strategy for generating consensus about the problematic nature of lone mothers. However, such pronouncements cannot be applied to those lone parents who are ‘insiders’ in the British nation, and who claim only those benefits the state has decreed that they are entitled to receive. In that context, it makes little sense to include those constructed as necessarily outside the supposedly unitary British culture in discourses of lone motherhood. Outsiders’ claims are constructed as unauthorized in other ways. Instead, lone parents, particularly those who attempt to defraud the British state, have been constructed as the threat from within the British nation:

Children are in danger of seeing life without the father, not as the exception, but as the rule. This is a new kind of threat to our way of life, the long term implications of which we cannot grasp.

(Margaret Thatcher, Speech to the National Children’s Home, 1990)

The discourses of black and of white lone motherhood thus do not converge and cannot easily be reconciled. On the one hand, discourses about black lone mothers construct those who have been held to be responsible for many of the ills considered to beset black people and white society as Other and outsiders from British society. Their high rates of lone motherhood are thus constructed as the threat from outside the nation. On the other hand, white lone mothers are insiders in the British nation, but are constructed as constituting a threat from within, outsiders with regard to ‘normal’ and responsible parenting behaviour. Solinger (1994) found a historical differentiation in the United States between constructions of black and white ‘illegitimacy’:

Black, unmarried mothers, in contrast, were said to offer bad value (Black babies) at a high price (taxpayer-supported welfare grants) to the detriment of society, demographically and economically….The fact that it was, overwhelmingly, a buyers’ market for Black babies ‘proved’ the valuelessness of these children, despite their expense to the taxpaying public. White babies entered a healthy sellers’ market, with up to ten couples competing for every one adoptable infant.

(Solinger 1994:300)

The incompatibility of the discourses of insiders and of outsiders provides a central reason that black lone mothers have not been targeted in speeches designed to reduce support for welfare provision for lone mothers. It is insiders, whose belonging to the nation cannot easily be challenged, who are the targets in such campaigns. The omission of lone black mothers in this instance still renders them pathological since it indicates that they are not genuinely British. Leaving ‘race’ silent in recent discourses of lone motherhood thus does not signify the deracialization of such discourses. As such it leaves open the possibility that ‘race’ can be directly invoked, when necessary, in future discourses of lone motherhood.


The ways in which the British Conservative government of the mid – 1990s focused on lone motherhood as a social problem has not produced fruitful solutions. This is partly due to the failure to distinguish between different groups of lone mothers while making the most dramatic case by treating all lone mothers as if they are young and single: generalizing from extreme samples. Inappropriate solutions have resulted from the narrow constructions favoured by

Conservative politicians and have, in addition, reduced popular support for government pronouncements. Assumptions that it is easy to appeal to ‘commonplaces’ about ‘the family’ have proved un­founded, as lone motherhood has proved to be a contested terrain characterized by contradictory social constructions.

Over the last three decades there have been both demographic and ideological shifts related to lone motherhood. It has proved difficult for a government that has asserted itself strongly with regard to policies on ‘the family’ to accommodate to changes in discursive constructions, particularly since ‘the family’ is a favoured site for policy implementation. This makes contradictions and conflicts in government discourses and policies apparent. Inadequate definitions of what is problematic about lone motherhood have led to simplistic and ineffective solutions that often perpetuate the problems they were designed to solve, rather than alleviating the poverty faced by the majority of lone mothers and addressed in various studies.

The absence of specific discourses on black lone mothers in recent Conservative government discourses appears welcome, but results from the targeting of those constructed as problematic within the nation. Since black families are constructed as outsiders in the nation, their current absence from discourses against lone motherhood is indicative of the exclusion of black families from Conservative constructions of the British nation.