Contemporary mass media puts forth a dismal portrait of Black fatherhood. News outlets, statistics, and movies alike suggest that the Black community is rife with single mothers struggling to raise their children in the face of an absent Black father. Even politicians leverage this stereotype on the campaign trail to appeal to voters. Black women have been blamed for Black socioeconomic lethargy and saddled with stereotypes of ghetto culture for decades. The persistent idea that most Black mothers are struggling to raise their children alone has haunted the conceptual Black family for just as long.
However, research has shown that this widely accepted narrative is incorrect: Black children are not fatherless, as misleading statistics suggest. In fact, Black fathers are often more involved in their children’s lives than men of other races. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) demonstrates that Black fathers living with their children are more likely to engage in a variety of activities with their children on a daily basis over white and Hispanic fathers sharing a household with their children. Furthermore, despite commonly held beliefs, the majority of Black fathers live with their children.
The myth of absent Black fathers stems from misleading statistics about marital trends in the Black community. Proponents of the pervasive misconception surrounding Black fatherhood cite the fact that 70 percent of Black children are born to unmarried mothers to defend their claim. In doing so, marriage rates and paternal involvement are falsely equated. Dallas Police Chief David Brown proliferated this fallacy in 2016 by stating that “70 percent of the African American community is raised by single women.” Although Black women are half as likely to be married at the time of childbirth than white women, the idea that being unmarried is equivalent to being single contributes to stereotypes about fatherlessness in the Black community.
A growing number of young Americans are choosing to live with their partners and delay marriage. Serial cohabitation rates have increased at especially high rates among low-income Black families. Studies that fail to account for these trends underestimate paternal involvement by assuming that children of unmarried women do not have a relationship with their fathers.
The CDC’s findings defy stereotypes about pervasive fatherlessness in the Black community.
The study found that Black fathers are more likely to participate in activities such as feeding, bathing, and dressing their children every day. Black fathers are also more likely to read to their children and help them complete homework. Even when Black fathers do not live with their children, they typically maintain a higher level of involvement. Sixty-seven percent of Black fathers who don’t live with their kids still see them every month, compared to 59 percent of white dads and 32 percent of Hispanic fathers. Black and white fathers are equally as likely to believe it’s important to provide emotional support and guidance for their children, while Black fathers are even more likely than white fathers to believe it is important to provide financial stability for their kids.
Clearly, lower marital rates in the Black community have not prevented Black fathers from playing an active role in their children’s lives.
The myth of absent Black fathers has acted as a scapegoat to explain away real problems facing the Black community. The absent father acts as a “convenient stock story to make sense of the complex lives of black males,” according to a column published by The University of Texas at Austin. This false narrative “helps to explain Black male school performance, incarceration, unemployment, and any other social ill black males are facing,” the authors go on to say. In 2008, then Senator Barack Obama pinned Black issues on Black fathers who “are MIA” and reinforced personal responsibility as a mode of overcoming racial disparities. Although it’s not the majority, 1.7 million Black fathers do live apart from their children.
However, in a nation marked by mass incarceration and neighborhoods segregated by race and class, many so-called “absent” Black fathers could be more adequately described as stolen.
Stolen Black fathers have not simply or willingly “abandoned their responsibilities,” as former President Obama put it. Forty percent of all incarcerated parents are Black, and that same year — 2008 — one in nine Black children had a parent behind bars at some point in their childhood. These high rates of incarceration are only fueled by a justice system that routinely serves Black men harsher punishments for committing the same crimes as white men. Black men receive sentences that are 20 percent longer than white men who committed the same crime. Unfortunately, this pattern of inequity forces incarcerated Black fathers to spend more time away from their children. Innocent Black people are also 12 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of drug crimes than innocent white people.
Stereotypes about fatherlessness in the Black community aren’t just misleading but dangerous.
This myth normalizes absent fathers and characterizes Black men as irresponsible and uncommitted to their families. Counteracting decades worth of these harmful narratives will require intentionality and awareness. Positive examples highlighting Black fatherhood in action help to heal a community inundated by negative stereotypes. Russell Hornsby has been praised for his portrayal of Maverick, the strong, protective and attentive father in the 2018 film The Hate U Give. In Queen Sugar, Kofi Siboroe’s Ralph Angel Bordelon struggles to provide for his young son and free himself from his criminal past. These images are empowering, and send messages to the Black community and beyond about Black families and fatherhood.
Simultaneously, positive portrayals of Black fathers relieve Black mothers of their decades-long perception as struggling underdogs. Furthermore, dismissing the myth of the absent Black father prevents this fictional pattern from becoming the scapegoat for Black issues, and makes room for the real problems impacting the Black community to be addressed.
About the Author
Niara Savage is a Fisk University student and a political correspondent for The Nashville Voice online newspaper. Her debut novel, The Killing of Gregory Noble, was published in 2018 and explores American police brutality. She is passionate about social justice issues relating to education and healthcare, and plans to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology.