The myth of the absent Black father

If you confront any conservative pundit or politician with the reality of institutional racism, you will almost certainly hear about how absent Black fathers are the cause of most racial disparities—not the government, not society, not nearly half a millennium of enslavement, segregation, and disenfranchisement—but Black fathers. According to them, it is the irresponsibility of Black men that has caused racial inequities in incarceration, education, housing, and wealth.

But much in line with American conservative ideology, the myth of the absent Black father ignores not only reality but the structure of the modern family and the implicit effects of American society on Black lives.

The go-to statistic that these folks refer to is that 70% of Black children are born to unmarried mothers. But through the distortion of social media and political spin, many believe that 70% of Black children do not have present fathers. That is simply untrue.

What many people fail to consider is that some families have unwed parents who cohabitate, single fathers, stepfathers, noncustodial visitation, and children being raised in stable homes even though one or both parents are absent. It also overshadows the fact that a majority of Black fathers live with their children. Those Black fathers who live with their children are actually more involved and active in their children’s lives compared to white and Hispanic fathers.

It would be remiss to also ignore some economic factors involved. For example, many people (specifically 23% of the U.S. population, the majority of which are white), access public assistance for food, healthcare, and/or housing. For some families, it makes sense to stay unwed to better provide consistent basic needs for their children.

To be a legitimate family, people are not required to have a certificate from the state or have two parents, two kids, a dog, and a picket fence. While that might be ideal for the conservative—or even many typical Americans in general—it is not a requirement for love, stability, and prosperity.

The degenerative, untrue tropes of the scary Black man and the Black welfare queen have created an environment where it is acceptable among some groups to imply or even outright say that Black culture and people are inferior to whites. The lies and distortions about Black fathers and the Black family are part of the same ugly pattern. 

What is most egregious is that these narratives mimic what, throughout history, has foreshadowed, defined, and driven racism and even genocide in places around the globe. It the same ole song and dance, and for good reason: because painting these negative portraits is effective in silencing the grievances of the oppressed. It also empowers unaffected parties to remain apathic or even malicious.

The Black family has always been disrupted by racism. Overcriminalization, housing, and employment discrimination are all driven by these damaging stereotypes and distortions. A major component of the legacy of slavery (and incarceration) even includes breaking up Black families, not respecting their integrity and value. Next time you are confronted with these ridiculous characterizations of Black fathers—even if it is out of the mouth of a Black person (see: Candance Owens)—remember it is a ploy and a justification for cruelty. Black fathers and mothers love and support their children the same as any other race.

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Black, LGBTQ and influential

Bayard Rustin was an expert community organizer and played key role in the March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.” He mentored Dr. King and taught him tactics of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience.  His philosophy was inspired by Gandhi and labor leader A. Philip Randolph. Arrested on numerous occasions for standing up for his beliefs, he spent two years in jail for refusing to register for the draft during wartime. In 1947, he was sentenced to work on a chain gang for several weeks after protesting the segregated public transit system. In 1953, he was arrested for being a homosexual and spent 60 days in jail. Despite that, he continue to live as an openly gay man until his death in 1987.

American novelist, poet, and social critic James Baldwin launched his career after publishing the acclaimed novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. He is best known for his poetic and poignant commentary on race, spiritually, and humanity. Baldwin was the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1954 and soon after wrote Giovanni’s Room, a story of an American living in Paris. The novel was groundbreaking and controversial for including scenes of homosexuality. Baldwin was open about his relationships with men and women though he believed focusing on labels limited freedom.  He believed that human sexuality is more fluid and less binary than often expressed in the U.S.

Audrey Lorde wrote technically exceptional poems with themes that covered civil rights, feminism, and black female identity. Her volumes of poetry include works such as Cables of Rage, which she wrote after teaching a workshop on poetry at a Mississippi college and witnessing the harsh racism of the Deep South. The collection of poems cover topics of love, deceit, and family, and also discussed her own sexuality in the poem “Martha.” Lorde had a decade-long battle with breast cancer during which time she wrote The Cancer Chronicles, he last project before her death in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1992.

Often credited with inciting the Stonewall Riots 1969, Marsh P. Johnson was a transgender women who championed LGBTQ rights and worked as a staunch advocate for trans women of color. She was founder of Street Transvestite (now Transgender) Action Revolutionaries, also known as STAR, whose mission to this day is to help homeless transgender youth in New York City. Aside from her activism and advocacy, she was known for her kind heart, serving as a “drag mother” to many young people struggling with homelessness and poverty.

Stormé DeLarverie, a musician and pivotal activist in the inception of the modern-day LGBTQ movement, has also been credited with igniting the Stonewall Riots in 1969. DeLarverie was known as the guardian of the lesbian. Legally armed, she regularly patrolled The Village checking in on local lesbian bars to make sure that her “baby girls” were safe from harm. Quoted in the New York Times in 2014 shortly after DeLaverie’s death, her friend Lisa Cannistraci was quoted as saying, “She literally walked the streets of downtown Manhattan like a gay superhero. She was not to be messed with by any stretch of the imagination.”

Scholar, author, and activist, Angela Davis is known as an unabashed advocate for social and economic justice. While enrolled in graduate school at the University of California, Davis became a member of the all-black Che-Lumumba, an arm of the U.S. Communist Party. During that time she was also associated with the Black Panther Party. Davis was wrongly accused of murder and spent 18 months in jail as a result. To this day, she continues to be an advocate for prison and criminal justice reform, racial justice, and women’s rights.

Courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski

Miss Major is a transgender activist who serves as executive director of the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project. The transgender powerhouse was born on the South Side of Chicago in 1940 and grew her passion against oppression after experiencing the queer bar raids of the ’50s and ’60s. Miss Major is known for her advocacy for women of color and for her work on criminal justice reform. She was present at the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969 and since been a warrior for justice and equality.

Kristin Little Photography

Alicia Garza is an activist and, together with her friends, co-founded the #BlackLivesMatter. In a Facebook post, she provide the inspiration behind the movement, “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter, Black Lives Matter.” She is an activist and writer who works against racism and police violence. She currently serves as Director of Special Projects at National Domestic Workers Alliance.

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Segregation isn’t ancient history; it hasn’t even really gone away yet

Anyone who’s attended school after the 1960s was taught that segregation was abolished thanks to the efforts of Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists. Social studies books cite Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia as sweeping Supreme Court decisions that ushered in full integration across the nation. The conclusion of these lessons is clear and simple: segregation is over and has been for decades.

But, as with most things that are too good to be true, the illusion of desegregation is only skin deep. Segregation, like many other historical systems of racial oppression, persists into the modern era, albeit subtler than before. And while many people might argue that today’s segregation is based on personal choices about where one decides to live, evidence suggests that segregation is still maintained by government policies.

Children along the Detroit wall shortly after it was built (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The Detroit Wall is a glaring example of the extent to which segregationists worked to keep Black folks out of white neighborhoods. Soon after World War II, the government set its sights on the Green Mile area of Detroit, where they hoped to build public housing. Fearing that poor Blacks would drive their property values down, whites in one neighborhood constructed a 6-foot-tall, one-half mile long wall to “protect” them from their Black neighbors. Today, the wall doesn’t act as a segregator anymore. Black families now live on either side. But thoroughfares like 8 Mile Road and Tireman Avenue serve as new invisible walls in the city of Detroit, emblematic of the implicit, underground racism of today.

The University of Virginia aggregated 2010 US Census data and placed it on to an interactive map that shows individuals by race. Each dot on the map represents one person. The results of the project showed that even though segregation has been officially outlawed, it endures in most American cities. In some areas of Detroit, the segregation is almost absolute.

Red line is approximately 15 miles

Red line is approximately four miles

Consistent with these findings, a recent report from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that the practice of  redlining was still happening in cities across the country (including Detroit). In fact, the study of 31 million mortgages—which controlled for income, neighborhood, and six other social and economic factors—found that the loan approval gap between whites and Blacks was nearly 2 to 1, despite applicants having the same income, applying for the same mortgage product, and looking for homes in the same neighborhood. In one of the worst cases, the study found that Black applicants in Mobile, Alabama, were 5.6 times as likely to be denied a conventional home mortgage as white applicants. (Please click here to learn more.)

These issues persist even though Congress passed the The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) in 1977. The regulation “is intended to encourage depository institutions to help meet the credit needs of the communities in which they operate.” Essentially, the law establishes a rating system which rewards banks for lending to low-income people and putting banks in minority communities.

This January, the Trump Administration, under the guidance of the American Bankers Association, a powerful bank lobbying group, proposed that the law be weakened, an act that would surely exacerbate the modern redlining problem.

But the problem not only persists in mortgage lending; segregation and racial disparities are still happening in public education, considered ground zero in the fight for desegregation.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office conducted a study of K-12 schools to identify where the government could be more effective in closing the racial education gap.

The study found that the percentage of schools with high populations of poor, Black and Hispanic students grew from 9 to 16 percent between 2000 and 2014 based on Department of Education data. These schools were the most racially concentrated, with student populations that were 75 to 100 percent Black or Hispanic. Among these schools, there were great disparities in math, science, and college preparation compared to more integrated school districts.

What’s unfortunate is that the Department of Justice could have helped prevent the rise in segregation but it was negligent in monitoring  the 178 desegregation cases to which it is party and for which it is responsible.

Once we get a clearer picture of how segregation continues to thrive, we begin to realize that it isn’t the result of some sort of sick social lottery or elective but rather the result of careless and, at times,  malicious public policy.

Richard Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and a senior fellow at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California School of Law. In 2014, he wrote an analysis on the problem of modern day segregation, saying:

“We cannot desegregate schools without desegregating these neighborhoods, and our ability to desegregate the neighborhoods in which segregated schools are located is hobbled by historical ignorance. Too quickly forgetting twentieth century history, we’ve persuaded ourselves that the residential isolation of low-income black children is only ‘de facto,’ the accident of economic circumstance, personal preference, and private discrimination. But unless we re-learn how residential segregation is ‘de jure,’ resulting from racially-motivated public policy, we have little hope of remedying school segregation that flows from this neighborhood racial isolation.”

It seems that the “bootstraps” narrative perpetrated by politicians and citizens alike flies in the face of the facts. Many people would like to you to believe that the condition of some Black neighborhoods such as those in Detroit are the result of personal preference, choice, and some sort of natural manifestation. But the evidence shows that there are forces in place—promoted by public policies and corporate carelessness—that are dead-set on keeping Black families in poverty and without access to the privileges many white families enjoy.

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