This week New York Times columnist Charles Blow rehashed selective data to combat the claims that black men are bad fathers. Underlying his effort is the desire to ignore family issues when trying to understand why black youth exhibit behavioral problems and poor academic performance. For liberals like Blow, those outcomes are a function of racist school disciplinary policies and weak financial support for inner-city schools and have nothing to do with home environments.
The defense of black fathers was invigorated last year with the publication of Doing the Best I Can, by Kathryn Edin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins, and Tim Nelson, a lecturer at Hopkins’s school of public health. Edin apologized for her previous work in which she had harshly criticized black men. She said that “everything I thought I knew was wrong.” The new book is based solely on interviews with black men. She now finds that they are loving and caring fathers who are kicked out of the house by the mothers of their children solely because they are unable to earn enough to support the family.
One glaring shortcoming of the latest work is that the authors refuse to present any evidence on the behavior of these fathers. Moreover, Edin’s new position on the issue of partnership breakups conflicts with data she analyzed from the Fragile Family Studies and with her previous interviews with mothers.
No problem. Reporting data presented in Josh Levs’s book All In, Blow castigates those who promote the “mythology”-loaded “stereotype that black men are pathologically prone to desertion of their offspring.” It would have been interesting if Blow had referenced someone who has claimed that the so-called stereotype is true, but more at issue are the data he presents. He cites CDC (Centers for Disease Control) data indicating that, when you look at children in two distinct categories — children living with a father, and those living without one — black fathers are just as likely to be involved their children as white fathers are with theirs.
Many studies document how a child’s abandonment by his father leads to serious education and behavioral problems.
Fatherly involvement decreases dramatically among both black and white fathers when they are no longer living with their children. Many fathers have limited relationships with their non-custodial children, as Pew Foundation and CDC surveys have confirmed. More than one half of men reported that they had not shared a meal with their non-custodial children in the last four weeks, while nearly two-thirds had not read to their children four years old and younger, and three quarters had not done homework with their children five to 18 years old.
But there is a problem: The same data show a dramatic difference in the share of black and white fathers who did not live with their children. Among white children five to 18 years old, 21.6 percent live in a fatherless household; the figure for black children is 42 percent. Among children up to four years of age, the figures are 9.2 percent for whites but 31.4 percent for blacks.
These racial differences reflect the much larger share of black than white women who have children with more than one partner. Sociologist Cassandra Dorius has estimated that, over their lifetimes, 59 percent of African-American mothers, 35 percent of Hispanic mothers, and 22 percent of white mothers will have given birth to children by more than one father. Many studies document how a child’s abandonment by his father leads to serious education and behavioral problems.
Maltreatment of children in a household with a single mother is three times more likely when she lives with a man other than the child’s father than when no man is present. In single-mother households without a man, child-maltreatment rates are actually lower among blacks than among whites. Where a partner is present, however, the rates on all three measures of child maltreatment — emotional, physical, and endangerment — in black households are almost double the white rates. In a recent study with a colleague, Chun Wang, I find that child-maltreatment rates are directly related to male joblessness. Black men suffer more joblessness than white men so, on average, are more likely to bring related frustrations into the family.
It is about time that liberals like Charles Blow take more seriously the problems created by the chaotic and sometimes violent home environments that many black children experience. Reducing school suspensions and increasing school funding may be helpful measures, but unless the family environment changes, serious developmental problems with persist. A focus on pathways to direct employment for young black men can help break the cycle by providing them with the skills necessary to sustain both long-term employment and lasting relationships.
— Robert Cherry is Stern Professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.