Growing up, the lesson was everywhere: Every major problem in black America can be solved if we addressed the problem of missing fathers.
“No longer is a person embarrassed because they’re pregnant without a husband,” disgraced comedian and alleged rapist Bill Cosby said in 2004. “No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father of the unmarried child.” When a police officer was killed in Jersey City, in July 2014, a local television news reporter said on air that “the underlying cause” of the “anti-cop mentality that has so contaminated America’s inner cities” was “young black men growing up without fathers.” A Reuters headline from 2007 proclaimed, “Father absence ‘decimates’ black community in U.S.”
President Obama has been one of the biggest advocates of this idea. In a 2008 speech delivered on Father’s Day at a church on Chicago’s South Side, the first viable black candidate for president of the United States chastised black fathers. Too many black fathers, he said, are missing from too many lives and too many homes. “They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. We know the statistics — that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison,” Obama said. “They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.”
It became a staple in his speeches delivered to majority- or all-black audiences. As recently as last year, Obama said at a poverty summit, “I am a black man who grew up without a father and I know the cost that I paid for that.”
However, responsible fatherhood only goes so far in a world plagued by institutionalized oppression. For black children, the presence of fathers would not alter racist drug laws, prosecutorial protection of police officers who kill, mass school closures or the poisoning of their water. By focusing on the supposed absence of black fathers, we allow ourselves to pretend this oppression is not real, while also further scapegoating black men for America’s societal ills.
In 1965, then-New York Sen. Patrick Moynihan’s published “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” It argued that the number of women-led households in black communities was the largest obstacle to black people achieving economic and political equality. Since then, the issue of “missing black fathers” has been a top priority for black intellectuals, activists and community leaders, as well as a favored retort from people seeking to deflect from conversations about structural racism.
The thinking goes like this: The high rates of poverty and incarceration and low levels of educational achievement in black communities can be traced in part back to the high number of black babies born out of wedlock and subsequently raised in single-mother homes. It’s a patriarchal twist on the mythological magical Negro. Black fathers could supposedly stem the devastating effects of oppression imposed from the classroom to the workplace to the court system. If black men just showed up in the homes of their children — acted like men instead of boys — black families and communities would fortify themselves and our long-held problems would simply wither away.
Of course, there are studies that show that children who grow up in two-parent households perform better in school, are less likely to commit crime and have higher future earning potential. What these studies often don’t take into account is the impact of depressed wages, chronic unemployment, discriminatory hiring practices, the history of mass incarceration, housing segregation and inequality in educational opportunity, not just on family structure but on the resources available to black families to produce results similar to their white counterparts.
And there are other problems with romanticizing the family structure. Black nuclear families have been torn apart since the days of slavery, and since then we have also reimagined the family structure. Where the biological parents haven’t been available, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, and a host of family friends and play cousins have stepped in to do the work of raising children. Today, as prison removes more and more black men from their homes, we do the same.
To say that these other family formations are inherently deficient because there isn’t a father is to say no one else is capable of providing adequate love to a child, while also teaching the children who grow up without that idealized nuclear-family model that their lives are somehow wrong. Raised to believe that they missed something vital, it’s no surprise if children without fathers in their homes have more behavioral problems. And that families with women-led households are more likely to live in poverty speaks less to the necessity of fathers and more to the fact that a single income is no longer sufficient to support a family in this country, that our economy undervalues the work of women and that outside child care is a prohibitively expensive luxury. An economic shift to real living wages for women’s labor and a total societal investment in the well-being of all children would solve a number of the problems we think are only alleviated by fathers.
Even with the presence of fathers in the home, the persistently high black male unemployment rate would do little to close the existing and increasing racial wealth gap, which is at a place where it would take 228 years for black households to catch up.
It’s hard to put this inadequate philosophy to rest. It’s hard because the “missing black father” has caused so much pain. That hurt runs through the rhetoric of every well-meaning person who has ever admonished black fathers for not being in their children’s lives. It’s the foundation of Obama’s first book. The pain of missing a father is real and can’t be discounted.
But so long as it is the only way we see this issue of the black family, the myth will continue to entangle us and prevent us from reckoning with what’s real. The damage isn’t done by the absence of a father but from the feeling of abandonment. If black children were raised in an environment that focused not on bemoaning their lack of fathers but on filling their lives with the nurturing love we all need to thrive, what difference would an absent father make? If they woke up in homes where electricity, running water and food were never scarce, went to schools with teachers and counselors who provided everything they needed to learn, then went home to caretakers of any gender who weren’t too exhausted to sit and talk and do homework with them, and no one ever said their lives were incomplete because they didn’t have a father, would they hold on to the pain of lack well into adulthood?
This isn’t an argument in favor of deadbeat fathers, but a call to detach ourselves from the myth that the only and best way to raise a child depends on the presence of a man we call a father.
So far, Obama has refused to break with the myth. In response to the killing of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman, his plan of action was a partnership between nonprofit organizations and corporations to provide increased mentorship for young black men, called My Brother’s Keeper, which has recently enlisted the star power of rapper Kendrick Lamar and NBA guard Stephen Curry.
There is nothing wrong with promoting mentorship. There is something wrong with a president who told us for years that he was not the president of Black America but all of America, as if black people were not part of America, now putting forth his first racially specific program, and it not being any policy, but rather a spate of philanthropic endeavors. It was insulting, but right in line with his philosophy.
As if he had been elected to be mentor-in-chief. As if mentors are all black boys need to survive. As if what he really meant was mentor as a stand-in for father. As if he could save black boys by becoming their surrogate father. As if we can afford to continue believing the myth. Trayvon Martin had a father. Jordan Davis had a father. Michael Brown had a father. Tamir Rice had a father. Having a father won’t protect black boys from America.