Breaking myths about black fatherhood this Father’s Day

June 18, 2020

The inaccurate perception that African American families are devastated by absent fathers that need to return to their responsibilities informs policy and law formulation in a variety of harmful ways.

By Saeed Richardson

Donte Meeks, Sr., teaches his nine-month-old son how to walk outside their home in the Park Manor neighborhood of Chicago on April 16, 2016. Photo by Stacey Rupolo

On Jan. 15, 2018, Community Renewal Society’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Faith in Action Assembly featured an Illinois gubernatorial candidate forum. We were fortunate to have seven candidates, Democratic and Republican, answering questions about their potential futures in office. While the event featured several key moments, one of the most alarming statements came from former state Rep. Jeanne Ives in her response to the source of violence in Chicago.

“The problem is the gun violence in this city of Chicago, predominantly. And you know how you’re going to solve it? Fathers in the home,” she stated. “Fathers in the home,” she repeated, as the majority of the crowd erupted into audible disagreement.

Ives, however, was not alone. A small, but noticeable, number of attendees agreed with her comments. In fact, a significant number of people beyond the walls of the assembly also agreed with her words. As later remarked by her spokesperson, similar statements were shared by former president Barack Obama during his famous 2008 Father’s Day sermon at Apostolic Church of God. Too many sermons on Father’s Day seem to focus on the black father’s need to engage his children because he’s shirked responsibility.

This viewpoint about black fatherhood is a well-established structure of thought, with a host of supporting beliefs that reinforce it like rebar in a concrete slab: society is devastated because the majority of African American fathers are not at home nor involved in the lives of their children. The solution, therefore, is for black men to return to their responsibilities. These statements are stereotypes, fabrications and completely wrong. And the impact of these thoughts is girded in the foundations of American society, from systems of education, to access to employment, to incarceration.

Fatherlessness is not defined by living arrangement. Josh Levs’s article, “No, Most Black Kids are not Fatherless” deconstructs the “70 percent of black children are fatherless” myth. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, “Fathers’ Involvement with Their Children” (yes, the CDC tracks data and researches topics like this), verify that the majority of black fathers actually live with their children (2.5 million versus 1.7 million who don’t). Furthermore, whether living in the same home or not, black fathers are the most involved of all primary recorded race and ethnic groups.

Many fatherlessness statistics utilize marital and housing statuses as cornerstone metrics, resulting in highly inflated figures. These stats do not account for the fact that men have died or passed away, couples may live together while unmarried, couples may be divorced, and, let’s not forget, that, due to the system of incarceration, men are not only separated from their families but often even prevented from staying in the homes with their families if the housing is federally provided. The New York Times’ 2015 analysis, “1.5 Million Missing Black Men,” gave credence to this shocking reality, presenting loud and clear how our country’s mass incarceration industrial complex has claimed more men than were enslaved in 1850. Statistics about white males with a nearly 40 percent divorce rate, and significant numbers choosing to have and/or adopt children independently, are entirely immune to the views levied upon African Americans.

Research by scholars like Waldo E. Johnson Jr., Ph.D., professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, leads in efforts to re-educate about black fatherhood, and also brings notice to the men who stand in as genuine, authentic father figures for children who have lost fathers for whatever reasons. When it comes to conceptualizing African American fatherhood, stereotypes and anecdotal experience pair with inflated data to produce a dish that is as superficial as the fraudulent images of fast food we see in marketing ads. The dish is served, and sadly consumed, so often that even gubernatorial and presidential candidates eat it up and perpetually re-serve it to audiences. This must stop.

The impact of this superficiality makes its way into policy and law formation, curriculum access and discipline in our education systems, law enforcement profiling and use of force, biases in court-based custody decisions; and many more unknown and unseen implicit ways in which society perceives black males. And, rather than focusing on the root cause of structural, institutional and implicit racialization, violence, poverty and general lack is scapegoated onto the backs of black fathers.

As we approach Father’s Day, when the horrific 70 percent statistic is utilized so often, I urge our religious and congregational leaders to re-speak the narrative. Speak to the power of how millions of African American men and dozens of programs, like The Chicago Fathers and Sons Project and Real Men Cook (which I participated in for five years), are shedding light on the actual truth: most black children are not fatherless and Black American fatherhood is very much alive!