Open season on Black fathers

The media pundits decrying the "crisis" of Black fatherhood are engaging in the worst kind of "blame the victim" finger-pointing, explains Jen Roesch.

Adrian Peterson (Mike Morbeck)Adrian Peterson (Mike Morbeck)

WHEN A father's 2-year-old son is brutally beaten and killed by the mother's boyfriend, the proper response is sympathy. Period.

Minnesota Vikings running back and last year's NFL MVP Adrian Peterson, however, was given no time to grieve his loss before professional commentators rushed in to hold him up as an example of the presumed moral failings of Black fathers.

First, just two days after the boy's death, there was New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick. In a screed against Peterson, he attacked the football player for his "absentee, wham-bam fatherhood," and then implied that this was somehow an explanation for his son's death: "Maybe Peterson's son is just one more stands-to-reason murder victim, just another child born to just another 'baby mama,' one more kid who never had a shot anyway."

While the Post is well known for its sensationalist racism, the ensuing revelation that Peterson had multiple children by different women led more columnists to jump on the "personal responsibility" bandwagon. The Baltimore Sun ran an op-ed piece by Susan Reimer asking why there isn't more "outrage" at Peterson. Reimer defends her right to sit in judgment by arguing, "While the death of a young child is a horrible tragedy, that doesn't disqualify us from considering Mr. Peterson's casual approach to parenthood."

But it was Black CNN pundit Don Lemon who directly connected the dots between the campaign of personal responsibility and the Peterson tragedy. In a column at Black America Web, Lemon said Peterson is "more MIA than MVP" and speculated about the player's intentions and efforts to meet and provide for his child. "I'm not judging, I'm just asking," he assures us.

But then he goes on to warn that children in single-parent households are more vulnerable to abuse. After telling people to plan parenthood or not have children "out of wedlock," he states: "Don't take my word for it: the silence of that little 2-year-old boy, that little dead boy, speaks volumes."

But don't worry, he's not judging.

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THE FACT that popular figures--like sports stars, celebrities or, for that matter, politicians--might have children by multiple women should hardly come as a surprise to us in this day and age. And, frankly, by all accounts, Peterson has acknowledged and provided support for all his children.

But this story isn't really about Peterson. Instead, it's become a stand-in for the common idea that there is an epidemic of "absentee fatherhood" and "deadbeat dads" that is responsible for a host of social ills ranging from high-school dropout rates to drug use, physical abuse and crime.

While Adrian Peterson is a rich football star, the attack on him is part of a "culture of poverty" narrative that is really directed at blaming poor people for their situation. This narrative is particularly insidious when it is directed at Black people and used to explain high Black unemployment and incarceration rates.

And yet the statistic that 64 percent of Black children are growing up in homes without fathers is frequently deployed for just such purposes. So, when President Obama visited the south side of Chicago as it suffered the highest murder rate in the country, he began by emphasizing the need to "do more to promote marriage and encourage fatherhood."

In reality, this is a "blame the victim" approach that scapegoats Black families and has its roots in the 1965 Moynihan Report, which described the Black family as a "tangle of pathology." The reality is very different. Poor and Black fathers in this country do make real efforts to be involved in the lives of their families and children. But these relationships are structured and constrained by poverty, racism and the criminal injustice system in ways that are rarely discussed.

Any real discussion of Black fatherhood has to start by debunking the myth that there is a generation of men who are missing in action and don't want to take on the responsibilities of parenthood. While a majority of Black children live in single-parent homes, this does not mean their fathers are not involved in their lives.

Studies have shown that unmarried Black fathers are highly involved in their young children's lives, with the majority seeing their kids three to five times per week. Combining this figure with the fathers who live with their children, it means that almost three-quarters of Black children have a father present in their lives. This is hardly the crisis level that we hear about in the media so frequently.

Moreover, multiple studies have shown that Black fathers are more involved in certain aspects of parenting. For example, Black men are more likely to provide physical care for their children, including preparation of meals, bathing and help with getting dressed. A Boston College study found that Black men were more likely than any other racial or ethnic group to remain in contact with their non-residential children. In fact, 99 percent of unmarried fathers state a desire to be in their children's lives, while 93 percent of mothers want them involved.

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THIS THEN begs the question of why many fathers do find it difficult to remain involved in a stable and long-term way. The answer to this has to begin with the reality of the high levels of Black unemployment and poverty. A 2007 study found that the ability of Black fathers to provide the majority of the financial support is the key determinant of whether he stays in the home.

This cannot be understood, as it is frequently portrayed, simply in terms of masculine pride. The financial reality is that mothers are often able to more easily obtain services and financial help--as well as support her children--without an unemployed man in the house.

Fathers who do not live with their children and are unable to financially support them are frequently labeled "deadbeat dads." The implication is that these men are skipping out on their financial responsibilities. The reality is much more complex. Almost 40 percent of unmarried Black fathers make less than $10,000 per year, and 70 percent of uncollected child support payments are owed by men making less than $10,000 per year.

Nonetheless, researchers have found that poor, unmarried Black fathers make substantial efforts to provide for their children. The majority of these fathers contribute physical necessities such as diapers, clothing or school supplies. Because they are likely to be unemployed or have irregular work, they also provide support in the form of homework help and childcare so that mothers can work, go to school or run errands. Unlike state-mandated child support payments, these activities involve fathers directly and visibly in the care of their children.

In fact, the state-mandated system of enforced child-support collections frequently impacts both mothers and fathers negatively. Women who received state assistance are required to provide information on the father of their children. The state can then enforce judgments to collect this support--even in cases where the father has little or no ability to pay. These judgments can have huge consequences. If a man falls behind on his payments, he can have his driver's license taken away, his bank account attached and can even be sent to jail.

All of this makes it harder for a father to then secure work and financial resources that can be used to help his family. Researchers have also found that when fathers are paying state-mandated child support, they have less money available to buy tangible items for their children. This tends to lead to a decrease in the amount of time these fathers spend with their children.

And while the pursuit of "deadbeat dads" is often framed as a defense of poor, overworked single moms, the reality is that it often does little to actually give assistance to the mothers who need it most.

Half of the more than $100 billion in child support collected in this country each year goes to reimburse the state for welfare and collection costs. In half the states, mothers on welfare receive none of the child-support payments made by fathers. Others receive a minimal amount each month. So desperately poor fathers are struggling to make payments that do nothing to actually support their children.

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ALONG WITH poverty, the other factor shaping Black fathers' relationship to their families is the criminal injustice system. There is something fundamentally obscene about lamenting the lack of Black fathers while supporting policies that give these parents long sentences for committing nonviolent crimes.

In fact, it is almost too convenient to label Black men as absentee parents who've abandoned their responsibilities. Because then you can pretend that the hundreds of thousands of these fathers in prison weren't torn from families that love and need them.

But they were. According to Bureau of Justice statistics, nearly half of imprisoned fathers lived with one or more of their children immediately prior to incarceration. More than half of these fathers were also their kids' primary source of financial support prior to incarceration. It is not absentee fathers, but the system of mass incarceration that has torn a hole in the lives of the children of these men.

Once in prison, fathers often make attempts to maintain relationships with their children, but the location of prisons far from urban centers and the emotional hardship and expense of prison visitation make this extremely difficult.

The oft cited and alarming statistics showing that children raised in single-parent households are more likely to commit crime, drop out of school or go to prison mistake correlation for causation. Absent fathers don't cause these issues. In fact, the same factors that make it difficult for poor, Black fathers to be consistently involved with their children--racism, poverty and mass incarceration--are also the ones that diminish the hopes and life chances of those children.

When it is easier for a white man with a criminal record than a Black man with a college degree to get a job, having a father tell you to pull up your sagging pants doesn't help you much. When policies such as New York City's stop-and-frisk put the majority of Black youth in contact with police on a regular basis, having a father tell you to play by the rules doesn't protect you. And when schools are segregated, overcrowded and underfunded, having a father help you with your homework is a drop in the bucket.

All children deserve adults in their lives that love and care for them. But the racist scapegoating of Black fathers has nothing to do with meeting those needs. Instead, by shifting the discussion to one of personal responsibility, it makes it easier for politicians to avoid a discussion of social responsibility.

Black children are growing up in a society that tells them Black lives don't matter. And that has nothing to do with fathers. It has everything to do with a system based on profound racism and social inequality. That public figures feel comfortable exploiting the tragic death of a Black two-year-old to promote a narrative of personal responsibility only shows how twisted the logic of that system is.