The myth of the absentee Black father really needs to die, and the so-called “flaws of Black families” are not the reason our communities and children continue to be shortchanged
By CHARLES T. CLARKCOLUMNIST FEB. 26, 2021 5 AM PT
You want to know what it was like the first time my dad met my first grade teacher? It was a couple weeks after the start of classes at my Catholic school in Minneapolis. My dad, a Black doctor, came with my mom to meet my teacher — a nun we’ll just call Sister M. The first thing Sister M said to my dad, the very first thing she said upon meeting this man for the first time, was, “Are you the real father?” “Are YOU the real father?”
My dad was in his 30s at the time, a sharp dresser and very well spoken. He had practiced medicine for over a decade, performed hundreds — maybe even thousands — of surgeries, and beyond all that, he was and is a very good dad. A dad who was and is present, compassionate and fun, even as he never hesitates to call me out and hold me accountable. Yet in spite of all that, my teacher’s first reaction to meeting him was to make this weird, offensive assumption about him and my mom. Now some of you might not get why that is such an insulting comment to make, so let me put it simply. I was the only Black kid in my grade and that question wasn’t asked of other fathers there. It was only asked of my dad because he is Black, and being a Black father comes with certain connotations. I bring this story up because earlier this week the U-T’s Kristen Taketa did a story about a recent San Diego State University study that found that Black students in California, and Black boys in particular, were suspended, expelled, restrained and secluded at a higher rate than their classmates from other racial groups. It was well reported and written and clearly spelled out the findings as well as the insights of some researchers who credited the racial disparities in school discipline to educators’ biases. Some of our readers didn’t like that explanation, so instead they resorted to a rationale that made them feel more comfortable: the tried and true stereotype — and to be blunt a racist refrain — that this is another problem caused by absentee Black fathers. “Boys without fathers is the problem here,” one reader wrote. “The complete breakdown of the black family is the primary driver of black student defiance in the classroom, not racism,” wrote another. And then there was this gem from another reader, “The other way to interpret this information is that ‘Black’ students don’t have the same family value as other races.” The idea that Black fathers are missing in action is a pervasive stereotype that’s existed for decades, perpetuated by news media, Republican and Democratic politicians, and pop culture figures like Maury Povich and convicted rapist Bill Cosby. The people who hold this belief frequently reference U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data that showed that 71.5 percent of Black, non-Hispanic children in 2013 were born to unmarried women, compared with 29.3 percent of White, non-Hispanic children, 53.2 percent of Hispanic children and 17 percent of Asian or Pacific Islander children. Those figures craft a comfortable, simple narrative for some that makes them feel justified in doing what Americans often love to do: ignore the complicated continued impact of racism in our society and instead blame those darn Black fathers. If only those Black fathers would get it together they wouldn’t see their kids disproportionately punished in schools, they wouldn’t see Child Services disproportionately snatch away kids in their communities, they wouldn’t see their children gunned down by police because Black kids would “know how to respect authority.” Again it’s a comforting narrative for some, but it’s also a very inaccurate one for a whole lot of reasons, some complicated, others not so much. Those CDC statistics lack context and are inherently flawed because of the simple fact you can still be an active parent and a presence in a child’s home without being married. I’d also note that “being unwed” is not necessarily the same as being single because there are a lot of folks in this country who are couples for decades but may never marry for whatever reason. In his book “All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses—And How We Can Fix It Together,” author Josh Levs noted that nearly 60 percent of Black dads — about 2.5 million Black men — live with their children. Again, not being married does not equate to being absent from a child’s life. It’s also worth noting that a Time magazine story in 2018 put the divorce rate in the U.S. around 39 percent, so even if you start as a wedded mother, that may not necessarily be the case for the entirety of your kid’s childhood. Additionally, did you know that when Black dads live with their children they do “dad stuff” at a higher rate than their White and Hispanic counterparts? I know that because in 2013 the CDC also published a report that showed that Black fathers are more likely than White and Hispanic fathers to feed, eat with, bathe, diaper, dress, play with and read to their children on a daily basis. This issue goes beyond that CDC statistic, though, because what folks are doing by focusing on that single, flawed narrative is ignoring the larger, complicated context going on here. It ignores the fact that even in the absence of a father, there are many other supports within some Black families: grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles who may step up. It also ignores why there may have been an absence of Black fathers to begin with, something that the history of mass incarceration, over-policing, disparate health outcomes and life expectancy all contribute to. Now this isn’t to say there are no bad Black fathers. Of course there are. But it is unfair and wrong to hold those folks up as if they are representative of all Black fathers. That’s part of the reason you have groups of Black men coming together to shatter these stereotypes, groups like The Dad Gang and Dope Black Dads. But let’s get real about why people love to bring up that flawed CDC statistic and blame Black fathers: it’s convenient and comfortable. It is far easier to blame Black fathers as being responsible for issues facing people in the Black community than it is to acknowledge that racism and bias are pervasive in our society and then begin the hard work of combatting it. We have centuries of historical record and plenty of medical and social psychology research that attest to the impact of bias and racism in our society. But whether the issue is about the disproportionate rate at which Black children are disciplined by educators, the way Black folks get unjustly killed by police, the centuries long wealth gap between Black and White families, the fact that Black people have been hit far more acutely by the COVID-19 pandemic than others, or the fact that regardless of socioeconomic status it is simply bad for your health to be Black in America, some people just don’t want to reckon with the fact that systemic racism continues to rear its ugly head. They have the luxury of living in that denial. I and millions of Black people across this country do not. So stop blaming Black fathers in order to avoid talking about the real ways racism is shortchanging Black children everywhere.