Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) called in to the radio show of conservative commentator Laura Ingraham on Tuesday to discuss, among other things, the unrest in Baltimore. And try as he might, he can't keep from having father problems.
"There are so many things we can talk about," Paul said, by way of trying to explain what had happened. "It's something we talk about not in the immediate aftermath but over time: The breakdown of family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society." He added: "This isn't just a racial thing; it goes across racial boundaries."
It's a not-uncommon argument for discussions that center around race. It's often levied as a sort of broad-brush critique, along the lines of "why don't they talk about black-on-black violence" (which we've addressed before). The implication in mentioning the absence of black fathers can be -- but isn't always -- that there is a shortcoming in the black community that leads to bad behavior among young black people. Put more simply: The reference is fraught.
Paul's brief mention of it, however, likely isn't meant to be a shorthand, but instead to be a placemark for the discussion that he himself says should result from the violence in Maryland. He's mentioned the absence of black fathers before as part of his outreach to the black community -- usually in the context of black fathers being in prison. "If we’re for families with a mother and father around, we need to be for fixing the criminal justice system," he said at an historically black college in Maryland earlier this year.
Last week, the New York Times looked at America's "missing black men" -- the gap between the number of black women and black men that is often the result of incarceration.
In 2013, the Department of Health and Human Services released a study of father-child interactions between 2006 and 2010. It looked at how often black, white and Hispanic fathers lived with and interacted with their children.
Black fathers were most likely not to live with their children.
But it's important to note that the number of households led by single mothers has increased broadly among all races. Households led by a single mother accounted for one-quarter of all households in America in total.
It's also worth noting that black fathers who didn't live with their children were as engaged with their kids as were white and Hispanic fathers -- and were more likely to talk with them multiple times a week or help them with their homework.
There are studies that correlate single-parent households to increased rates of incarceration, but the correlation overlaps with a number of other factors, including poverty.
Paul's too-quick comment missed the nuances of single-parent households that these statistics convey, and, in trying to point out that there are complex factors involved in what happened in Baltimore, oversimplifies the discussion by mentioning a controversial one without qualification.
But he deserves more credit than reducing his comments again to suggesting that he simply equated the outbreak of violence to the absence of fathers. After all, another pretty prominent politician made comments about missing fathers on Tuesday: President Obama.
In communities where there are no fathers who can provide guidance to young men; communities where there’s no investment, and manufacturing has been stripped away; and drugs have flooded the community, and the drug industry ends up being the primary employer for a whole lot of folks — in those environments, if we think that we’re just going to send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there without as a nation and as a society saying what can we do to change those communities, to help lift up those communities and give those kids opportunity, then we’re not going to solve this problem.
More nuance. Less outcry. But then, that's mostly politics.