I’m so incredibly grateful to have Hilary Beard visit us here on the blog. She is not only phenomenal writer but a powerful voice on issues of race and class.
The complaints that so many people have regarding fatherlessness in the Black community–while an issue, for sure–too often omit the impact of interpersonal, institutional, structural and systemic racism, which are foundational to the fatherlessness dynamics. Even our President regularly finds it necessary to “call out” Black people regarding the issue of fatherlessness and frankly, I find it annoying. In fact, I wish he would have these same conversations with White folks, too, since, in reality, they’re the fastest growing population with this issue.
And beyond that, they separate and get divorced, too.
And more significantly, they also raise the Masters of the Universe who do things like bring down our economy, send the unemployment rate skyrocketing and cause people of color to lose their homes.
There is a context within which Black fatherlessness plays out so since White supremacy lies at the root of much of the difficulties that Black people, in particular, are having in forming families, let’s be fair and name and call that out too!
Beyond President Obama, there are many who write and speak as though racism doesn’t exist and as though fatherlessness in Black communities is a moral failing of Black people, when, in fact, it’s a symptom of a number of complex and interrelated factors, including deindustrialization of urban centers; public assistance policies that required men to live outside the home in order for women and children to receive benefits; structural racism, such as the intentional underfunding of public education in urban areas and other areas of color; spatial mismatches in employment — Black people have America’s longest commutes because they’re trying to work; and other forces undermining the wellbeing of men of all races — the destruction of typically “male” work, etc. — within American society and indeed around the world.
We also know that the so-called War on Drugs is trained on Black and Latino communities. I wonder how many people are aware that in some of low-income neighborhoods of color where this “war” is being fought that ⅓ to ½ of the men have been locked up. And over what? The same drinking and drugging that went on and still goes on in the highly affluent suburb I grew up in as well as on the college campuses that often exist within the very same communities — think Temple and Penn in Philadelphia. Those kids get second and third chances and counseling and rehab and their mistakes overlooked. Trust and believe. I’ve seen it over and over again.
ALL of these undermine families.
So yes, there’s less marriage and more out-of-wedlock childbearing among Black people. But let’s be careful not to blame the victim here especially since there’s actually no shortage of responsibility-taking in the Black community on this issue. From pulpits to community organizations, messages about responsibility and respectability abound (more on that later).
But what isn’t addressed as much is actually a much larger issue. For one, White slavers were separating Black families since before they came to the United States. In my own family lineage, one of my great grandmothers cut off her own big toe so she wouldn’t be sold away from her children so she could keep her family together. So I think it’s important to see the Black family breakup during the transatlantic slave trade as foundational to this conversation of fatherlessness, especially since separating Black families was an essential part of the economic model of slavery. It’s actually amazing that our marriage rates were what they were back then and in the 1960s. But we never applaud ourselves for that.
The second impactful scenario is this: During the Great Migration, Black people separated from their families to migrate North to escape racial oppression, hoping to reunite later. But that didn’t always happen. Again, racism (see lynching, sharecropping, etc) drove that migration.
But that was then, this is now, right?
Okay, Let’s jump to today. Have you been in a Black church anytime recently? We get respectability messages from the pulpit almost every week — far more than I ever hear when I go to White churches. I believe that’s because we’ve, including our pastors, have internalized this racist notion that there’s something fundamentally wrong with us as Black people and that we do things that White people don’t do — which, as a health researcher, is by and large extremely inaccurate; we’re talking about human behavior. These “respectability messages” are often in direct opposition to the truth, which is this: there’s something wrong with institutions and systems that continue to produce racialized outcomes no matter what seemingly racially neutral policies they implement.
I don’t think that Black people generally blame other people for our failings. We turn these messages of Black individual failure upon ourselves because the systems that produce the outcomes are invisible — to us and, in my opinion, often to the White people that usually run them. Black women disproportionately shoulder the burdens and the responsibilities — spiritual, emotional, financial, physical, etc., and let’s not forget about the children themselves, joys and burdens that they are — associated with fatherlessness.
Well, remember what you said earlier, Hilary. Single white mothers are dealing with fatherlessness also, right?
Yes, but there are lots of reason to believe that White children born to single moms won’t be as “at risk” as Black kids: 1) they’re White and therefore aren’t subject to individual, institutional, structural or systemic racism, 2) there is no War on Drugs in White communities, 3) they have social and cultural capital that most children of color don’t have. That said, I do agree that they may be more “at risk” than they would be in a two-parent home where the relationship is healthy and functional; in a home where the parents’ relationships are jacked-up, I’m not so sure; nor am I sure where to draw that line.
Nevertheless, yes, individual choice exists all day, but within a context. Another example: it’s hard to know about contraception if you went to a school — particularly an intentionally underfunded one — where there was abstinence-only education. The evidence shows that women who receive abstinence-only education are far more likely to get pregnant outside of marriage than girls who receive comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education.
Add to this the logical conclusion that, as a result of systemic injustices, men who are poorly educated, who can’t find work, who have to resort to the illegal economy, who live in a nation where there’s no social safety net for them, are more likely to end up incarcerated because of a very targeted “war on drugs”, where their entire paychecks may be garnished if they are able to get a real job, etc….well, they are going to have a hard time being involved fathers.
There is a certain infrastructure that exists in our communities that doesn’t exist in White communities. The bottom line is this: racist systems and structures are pulling us apart–NOT, as even our own President has implied, our own intrinsic racial/cultural deficiencies.