Do Black Fathers Matter? by Maggie Gallagher

© 1998 Maggie Gallagher

Reproduced under the Fair Use exception of 17 USC § 107 for noncommercial, nonprofit, and educational use.


 

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November 23, 1998 "I'm old, and I'm tired," William Raspberry told a distinguished group of (mostly) black scholars and community activists at a recent historic conference co-sponsored by Morehouse College and the Institute for American Values. "And some things I just don't want to debate anymore. One of them is whether black fathers are necessary for their kids."

The applause was thunderous. For decades the debate over the decline of marriage has been hampered by fears that "fatherless families" were just code words. As Dorothy Roberts, a law professor at Rutgers University, put it in a new book, "The Politics of Fatherlessness": "Even when race is not mentioned, powerful images of promiscuous Black mothers and their shiftless partners shape the debate about fatherlessness."

In this "revisionist" view so beloved by a certain type of liberal, African-American males' increasing defection from family life is not a crisis but merely a successful cultural adaptation to harsh circumstances.

But while they were defending black single-parent families, such advocates failed to notice they were also sending a different troubling racial message: Black kids are somehow different from white kids; they don't need fathers. And black men are somehow different from white men: They can disappear from the family without leaving a hole in their kids' hearts.

The conference is one sign that many African-American men and women are no longer content to frame the question in this way.

Not that there isn't plenty left to debate, even after conceding Raspberry's point. In 1960, for example, three-quarters of black babies were born to married couples, and eight out of 10 black wives married for life.

Today, 70 percent of African-American kids are born out of wedlock, and more than half of black marriages end in divorce. How did it happen? And what, if anything, can be done about it?

Are cultural change or global economic forces more to blame? Is reviving marriage a realistic possibility, or should we concentrate our efforts on helping "fragile families" — poor, unwed mothers and fathers?

The Ford Foundation's Ron Mincy argued for a "marriage-plus" over a "marriage-only" strategy, emphasizing the large role that economic factors play in pushing young black men away from marriage. Eighty-six percent of never-married black men make less than $18,000 a year, compared to about 68 percent of never-married white men. Even more strikingly, 71 percent of divorced black men make less than $18,000 a year, compared to just 44 percent of divorced white guys. Declining male wages is certainly an important part of the story of the collapse of marriage.

Boston University's Glenn Loury points out that even if fatherlessness is to a large extent a "moral" problem as much as an economic one, that doesn't mean we have no obligation to help. For culture, he points out, is not an individual achievement but a communal one. "Otherwise we are expecting kids to be heroes," he said, to pull themselves out of deformed situations by their own unassisted efforts. He invites us, in other words, to exercise our own moral imagination: Suppose you are a young black teenager in a jobless, gang-ridden neighborhood with bad schools, raised by a mother, dearly loved, who nonetheless struggles alone perhaps with episodic bouts of depression, drug addiction and welfare dependency. How effective would you be at pulling yourself out of poverty?

All of us Americans, warned Raspberry, and not just the black community, are in danger of "making the norm what people do." The problems besetting African-Americans are just an intensified version of the family fragmentation all Americans are experiencing.

The solutions may be difficult, but perhaps at long last we can agree on the shape of the problems.

To the question, "Are African-American fathers necessary?" the only possible answer, as Raspberry concluded, is "Damn straight we are."

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| EJF Home | Find Help | Join the EJF | Comments? | Get EJF newsletter |

 

| Families And Marriage Book | Abstract | Family site map | Family index |

 

| Chapter 6 — Fathers And Mothers Today |

| Next — Disenfranchised Father Syndrome by Gerald L. Rowles, Ph.D. |

| Back — Female Life Cycle —PMS, Perimenopause, and Menopause by Charles E. Corry, Ph.D. |


 

Added January 31, 2006

Last modified 4/11/15