Whether you’re reading the news or watching television today, you’re likely to find Black fathers shown in a bad light, especially in the United States. In this post, we examine and put to rest the myth of the missing Black father. We look at statistics, like the percentage of absent fathers in America, and how the media has distorted the public image of Black fathers. What has happened between Black families now and Black families in the 1950s? Read on for enlightenment.
How does the media affect our perception of Black men?
It’s virtually impossible today to flip through TV channels or scroll through social media without being bombarded by stereotypical images of Black men. If you were an alien from another planet who had recently arrived on earth, you might be persuaded that Black men could follow one of only a handful of professions: professional athlete, rapper, or gangster. There are few nuanced depictions of Black men portraying them as white men are — complicated, individual, and not put in a box by their race.
While the media today do Black men in the US no favours, this isn’t anything new. Since The Birth of a Nation and the sensationalist pro-slavery journalism of the 19th century, Black men have been painted with a broad brush as dangerous, lazy, and largely missing from their children’s lives. We know the first two are wrong. But are perceptions about their family absence really accurate?
What percentage of Black children grow up without a father? If you look at straight numbers, a little less than half. But those misleading numbers have been skewed to perpetuate the myth of the absent Black dad. The statistics on the percentage of absent fathers by race don’t take into account things like:
Fathers can have children in multiple households (different mothers).
Marriage and cohabitation don’t define fatherhood or presence.
Fathers’ addresses are often not counted as children’s “official” addresses, and the mothers’ are used instead.
Part-time visitation of children by Black fathers is more likely to be considered “absence” than the same situation with white dads.
In cases of actual absence, incarceration plays a large role, but Black men are statistically imprisoned more often and longer for the same crimes than white men.
Many Black fathers are actually solo dads in households where the mother is absent either full- or part-time due to factors ranging from divorce to military deployment.
What is the importance of Black fathers in the home?
The importance of the father’s role in a Black family is on many levels the same as in any family, regardless of race. Having two parents is proven to be beneficial. Two parents can split child-rearing and household duties and model collaborative behaviours for their kids. That in no way implies a single parent cannot raise a successful child, but it does come with increased risk of children going down the wrong path.
There are more possibilities to reduce financial and time stress too. Both parents can work full-time, they can split half-time jobs with home responsibilities, or one parent can work and another can stay home. If one is sick, there is someone to provide care and pick up the slack until their partner is better.
Across all races, having a father in the home is associated with a number of benefits, including:
Better school performance
Decreased likelihood of participation in crime, including gun use
Reduced drug and alcohol abuse
Lower poverty levels
Decreased probability of the child eventually becoming an absentee parent
However, with Black fathers, there is another important responsibility to consider: being an example for children at a time when there is a dangerous uptick in racial violence perpetrated against people of colour. In the United States, in particular, there has been an increase in police brutality, with statistics showing that Black people are killed by law enforcement at a significantly higher rate than white or Hispanic people (more than double white people).
Sadly, many notable Black fathers have recently gone public about having to have “the talk” with their kids about how to navigate these dangerous waters. What do you do when pulled over by a cop? How should you act if someone is trying to provoke you? What are some things you can do to stay out of violent and dangerous situations? It’s a tough tightrope to walk between trying not to make a bad situation worse and being overly subservient — what some Black people would call undesirable “Uncle Tom” behaviour that feeds into stereotypes.
Some dads have taken to social media to bear witness to violence. It’s vital for everyone to observe that the Black victims of violence were not acting the way they are often portrayed by the media, implying that they somehow deserved detention, arrest, or brutality. Once again, the conversation circles back to distorted media portrayals of Black people, usually men.
What are the traditional African American family values?
Traditional African American family values haven’t really changed since Black families in the 1950s tried to grab the brass ring that was the post-war housing and economic boom for the middle class. Those values include family closeness, communal worship, local solidarity, and respect for others. Though many have Black families have flourished despite systemic racism, it’s been a struggle for many others to embody their traditional values, not for want of trying but for several factors stacked against them.
What has changed since the 1950s? A lot while not much at the same time:
Continued oppression, racism, and segregation
Jim Crow mentality becoming more pervasive across the country, not just the South
Difficulty achieving middle-class status compared to white Americans
Fewer higher education opportunities
Loss of blue-collar and industrial jobs for those with less formal education
Societal changes regarding women working and feminism (not a negative but a contributor nonetheless)
Acceptance of unmarried cohabitation and parenting but usually with a double standard for white couples
“Suburbification” of America, with people moving out of cities and becoming more dependent on automobiles
Crime laws of the 1980s — embraced by both sides of the political aisle — that increased the incarceration of Black people
Erosion of social and financial safety nets from the 1990s to the present as Black people were pushed further into poverty
Infiltration of white supremacism in law enforcement at all levels
And, of course, what did the media do while all these "changes" were happening? They doubled down on stereotypes and tried to lay the blame for crime and urban decay at the feet of African Americans without laying out the facts about who put the drugs on their community corners and the guns in their hands. Yes there are Black criminals, there are degraded communities, and there are broken homes. But they are not the majority and they are the group we're all collectively working to uplift.
While Black people are responsible for their own morals and families, society at large needs to dispel untrue myths about Black people, especially Black fathers. It starts with having frank and uncomfortable conversations about what you don't know. Are you ready to try it? Get in touch to schedule a meeting and get the ball rolling.