Day: End the myth of absent black fathers
As Father’s Day approaches, it seems as good a time as any to ether an old myth in American political discourse.
The tale is a familiar one: black fathers, having no stomach for the hard labor of parenting, abandon their children in vast and unrivaled proportions.
The claim is often used as evidence of the black community’s rampant dysfunction and broader cultural decline.
As ambition takes hold of those who cling to this belief, it then spirals into a wildly incoherent justification for the black community’s economic hardship.
As a general rule, I tend to assume that public thinkers who pursue this line of argument are doing so in bad faith. Despite this, it should be engaged on the slight chance that we might someday leave it to the dustbin of history. Exposing the myth, it turns out, requires remarkably little effort.
Indeed, a 2013 CDC report found that across a range of daily measurements including reading to, playing and eating meals with their children black fathers’ rates of participation exceeded that of any other group of fathers.
Black fathers — like all fathers — are certainly capable of less than ethical behavior, but as parents they’re outperforming their counterparts. Thus, both the nation’s most recited and least compelling argument for the black community’s economic misery is reduced to rubble. We can now say with total certainty that this line of argument is the intellectual backwater of the world’s most vulgar propagandists.
But it’s important to note that it didn’t recently morph into full-blown mythic status. It has always been the fruit of spectacular historical forgery.
Context is important. The idea that two-parent households could somehow secure black families against economic misery is convenient nostalgia. Throughout the 20th century the preponderance of black communities lived in squalor compared to the rest of their country. Family stability and vague notions of “high moral conduct” did not save them from the skullduggery of American white supremacy. Entire communities were subject to racist plunder, and public policy was the author of this devastation.
Housing, education and job discrimination plundered black wealth in concert with Jim Crow’s plunder of their rights to citizenship. All the while, mass incarceration, whose history we severely underappreciate, was hard at work plundering black bodies.
A brief note on that. For starters, any discussion about America’s social condition that ignores the devastating legacy of mass incarceration really should be dismissed as deeply unserious.
Of the 1.5 million “missing” black men between the ages of 25 and 54, nearly 600,000 of them are incarcerated. Early death accounts for a great many others. This is all the more relevant in cities like Detroit where “million dollar blocks” — neighborhoods whose incarcerated population costs at least $1 million to lock up — are a staple of many communities. Six hundred thousand black men and women haven’t magically disappeared. They’ve been plundered from their communities.
The destruction of entire communities and the evisceration of generations of wealth was the predictable outcome of these policy choices. This is all available in the public record and easy to find for those who bother to look. Culture is wholly irrelevant here, something understood by everyone who even pretends to be serious.
One might expect that the myth being so thoroughly pulverized, it might forever perish from our national conversation. But this ignores our appetite for fiction.
Abstract thought experiments about moral conduct let us off the hook for our history of democratically authorized plunder. Such is the politics of misdirection, the fine art of changing the subject to avoid ever having a relevant conversation.
Eli Day is a staff writer for JustLeadershipUSA who writes about politics, public policy and social issues.