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What Black Dads Actually Think of the 'Absent Father' Myth

Politicians and pundits continue to blame the so-called "absent black father" on the police-related deaths of black men and women around the country (in Ferguson and Baltimore specifically), and the protests that have followed them.

This view is problematic because it overlooks the fractured relationship that black and poor communities have with the State. Moreover, it's glossing over the ways in which we continue to stereotype each other, which in turn has a major impact on how we see and treat each other.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention debunked the stereotype as a myth in its 2013 report, "Fathers Involvement with their Children: United States, 2006 - 2010." So why is the stereotype of the absent black father so persistent?

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The report revealed that black men were MORE involved with the lives of their children than any other racial group, not less. The report made news for a hot second when it was first released. Then everyone forgot about it for a while. Then politicians as Ferguson and Baltimore made news headlines. For instance, Republican Senator John Cronyn linked the violence perpetrated by a few protesters in Baltimore to the so-called breakdown of family structures, by tweeting, "Liberals, admit it: Baltimore riots are part of a story of absent fathers."

All of a sudden, the CDC report was back in rotation again, being cited in magazines, TV and online articles.

(The stereotype) is so powerful, you don't even have to say the word "absent."

This back and forth led me to think about what impact the label of absent black father has had on black boys and men. After all, they're the very people, who by having fathers or by being fathers themselves are most affected by this stereotype.

According to Tarik Smith, a teacher at Dymally High School in Los Angeles, this stereotype, like all other stereotypes, creates a powerful shorthand that highlights an assumed pathology. It's so powerful, you don't even have to say the word "absent":

"As soon as you bring up black fathers, the assumption is 'missing' or 'in jail' or 'dead' or 'abusive' or, you know, something negative. So, I think that speaks to the larger piece of just assumptions that are made about people of color."

But where did the idea come from in the first place? Here's a reminder from writer, FIlm-maker and father of one, Maurice Poplar:

"There were a couple of generations of black fathers who, for whatever reason, were not present in their kids' lives. I think drugs had a lot to do with it; I think the economy had a lot to do with it; I think the state had a lot to do with it. At a certain point, black fathers who were not with the mothers of their children were chased and hounded by social services to consistently give half of their earnings. (And for men who couldn't afford it) That hung over their heads."

Fathers of today have reacted to their childhood experiences by becoming very involved parents.

In short, black fathers aren't more predisposed to abandoning their children than other men. They often had to make some very serious decisions based on their economic situation. That's not to say that other factors didn't come into play. This generation of fathers can speak from first-hand experience.

For example, when Tarik hears the phrase "absent black father," he has what he describes as "cognitive dissonance." On one hand, he remembers this: "All the friends that I grew up with, there was one dad, and we'd go over to his house and be like, 'Oh that's what a black father looks like!'" Yet, on the other hand, he's a committed father to all of his four children, and he can cite many examples of committed fathers, including the father of a student at his school who works several jobs and still finds a way to attend all of his daughters' games.

In Maurice's opinion, fathers of today who are in their 30s, 40s and 50s have reacted to their childhood experiences by becoming very involved parents.

When people walk up to me and say how cute my child is, I wonder, would they give him a job?

Both men refuse to give this stereotype any power and are more focused on raising their children. "It's never got me into a situation where I felt my life was threatened," Maurice says.

But Maurice sees how strangers are influenced by the stereotype by the way they react when they see him with his son. He says these strangers are "surprised or impressed or feel compelled to give praise. They don't see [my interaction with my son] as the norm."

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It's these moments that give Maurice pause. He starts to worry how persistent stereotypes about black men will impact his child years from now.

"When people walk up to me and say how cute my child is, I wonder, would they give him a job?" he says. "So many people overlook black applicants for jobs, and they forget they were cute children. They forget that they have parents and that somebody loves them."

Image via Twenty20/bikinisunset

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