Repeat After Me. “It’s NOT the Absentee Fathers!”


Look, everyone. We live in a society in which the structures that guide our lives are imbued with racism. Racism was a founding element of our nation. Almost none of us are proud of that fact. We would much rather think that our nation was founded on principles of equality, justice, and freedom. Yes. Those principles were and remain important. But behind these principles was always the ugly scar of racism.

White Americans would much rather think that racism is something we put behind us. Martin Luther King had a dream. He made speech. We’re good. And then something happens that puts the continuity of racism back in our faces.

When this happens, we want to believe that there must be some other explanation than racism. There must be some explanation that helps us preserve our incorrigible proposition that America is based on these core principles of equality, justice, and freedom–that everyone who is willing to do the work has a fair shot at the American Dream.

Usually, preserving our incorrigible propositions about a color blind America involves making some pretty racist assumptions. Blacks are just more criminal inclined. If they would just do what they were told, none of this would happen. Just stop resisting arrest. Blue Lives Matter!

So it’s almost like clockwork that the standard justifications find their way into the discourse whenever activists and protestors try to bring America’s carefully curtained racism into the mainstream consciousness.

One such fallback into “reasonable” sounding scapegoating of black communities is the claim that the real source of the problem is absentee black fathers. If black fathers would just stop impregnating black women and then leaving their children behind, they might be able to teach their sons to be respectful to authority, to follow the rules, and, of course, to pull their damn pants up!

This is presented as the crisis of black fatherhood. It’s one of those discourses that sounds perfectly reasonable and not at all rooted in racism. After all, fatherhood is important. When children lack a father figure in their lives, that increases the risks of negative outcomes. There’s plenty of scientific evidence to support this. Furthermore, everyone knows that black men are notoriously neglectful of their children and families. After all, almost a quarter of black men live apart from at least one of their children. This is only true for 8% of white men. Clearly there’s a crisis of fatherhood in the black community.

That this claim plays into our preconceived notions of black men as sexually voracious, irresponsible, lazy, and abusive is only a side effect. This explains the curious response when black men die at the hands of white officers that the background and family history of the black men is up for debate, but not the same for the white officer. After all, we’re sure Officer Chauvin has a wonderful and supportive family because…well…you know.

That this discourse spreads so easily despite being a myth only confirms the Racist America thesis. For confirmation of the Myth of the Absentee Black Father one needs look no further than the very source I cited two paragraphs up. Though it is true that a quarter of black fathers do not live with at least one of their children, this does not, in and of itself, indicate absenteeism. According to the data black fathers are just as involved in their children’s lives as are white fathers, if not more-so. This, despite the fact that white fathers are more likely to actually live with their children.

To demonstrate, I took the data from the tables at the end of the National Health Statistics Report 2013, the source most often cited from what I’ve seen. I looked at the race comparisons for key indicators of participant fatherhood. I then combined the numbers under the categories “Several Times a Week” and “Every Day” under a single column “At Least Several Times a Week”. The results are revealing.

For fathers with children under 5, a higher percentage of black fathers participate with their children in every category than do white fathers except when it comes to reading.

Do you see the crisis in black fatherhood in these graphs? Neither do I…

For children between the ages of 5-18, a higher percentage of white fathers report eating with their children than do black fathers. In all other categories, however, black fathers are comparable or have a higher participation rate than white fathers.

Can’t find this mythical crisis here, either. Maybe it’s a unicorn!

Of course, none of this is to suggest that there isn’t a crisis in fatherhood. An argument can be made that it’s not good enough for only half of fathers to play with or talk with their children. Perhaps. Arguing for or against a general crisis of fatherhood goes beyond the goals of this post. What is clear is that there is no crisis of fatherhood specific to black families that cannot also be attributed to white and Hispanic families in equal or greater measure.

Therefore, a crisis of fatherhood does not explain the disproportionate use of violence against black men. This discourse is a distraction.

Also Relevant

Okay, Andoscia. You may be right about black families as a whole, but what about poor black families. Maybe there is a crisis of fatherhood in poor black communities…

There’s some evidence to support this with regard to older children. On the other hand, an NIH study on father involvement with toddlers revealed that “Nonresident White fathers were less involved with their children than African-American and Latino fathers.” The study went on to explain that “These findings support the hypothesis that nonresident fathers’ resources (i.e., education and employment), mother-father relationship status, and mothers’ household structure will predict father involvement and explain differences by race and ethnicity.” Now we are adding layers of complexity that come with poverty rather than just absentee fatherhood.

Furthermore, since race and poverty overlap, we are still dealing with the original sin of racism.

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