Erika D. Smith

The truth about black fathers? They’re not all MIA

Erika D. Smith and her father, Michael E. Smith
Erika D. Smith and her father, Michael E. Smith esmith@sacbee.com

At 69 years old, I doubt my father remembers the conversation we had the afternoon of my high school graduation, but I think about it every Father’s Day.

The year was 1995, and the weather was hot and disgustingly humid – typical for Ohio at that time of year. We were in the driveway, unpacking food and booze for the guests who would be arriving any minute for my graduation party, when it occurred to me just how grateful I was to have him in my life, even after he and my mother had split up.

“Thanks for sticking around. I mean, like in my life,” I said sheepishly. “I know you didn’t have to.”

His brown eyes flashed from confused to bemused to offended. I decided it was probably a good thing that he had just finished a calming glass of whiskey.

“Yes,” he said pointedly, “I did. You don’t have to thank me.”

Oh, the shame.

I like to think I have no idea why I thanked him that afternoon. But deep down, I know I was unwittingly parroting the stereotype of the missing black father.

Everybody knows it. Black men, so the stereotype goes, usually have multiple children by multiple women and never get married. Then these “baby daddies” disappear, never to be seen again, leaving their children to be raised by single mothers, often in poverty, like Ronald Reagan’s mythical welfare queen.

Indeed, there’s some data to back this up. Year after year, about 70 percent of the black women who have babies aren’t married, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And indeed, there is reason to care about this data. Multiple studies show that kids who grow up in two-parent households do better in school, are less likely to end up in jail and are more likely to have a lucrative career when they grow up. In California, where percentages of poverty and unemployment remain higher than average for black residents, such advantages are especially important.

But this tired trope about missing black fathers is overblown, overly simplistic and, most of all, corrosive to the black community and society at large. It lets America off the hook for the social ills that come along with systemic racism, while sticking African Americans with a guilt trip.

It has worked, too. Go into any black beauty shop in this country and you’ll hear blacks complaining about how “black men never take care of their kids.” Or take a look in the right corners of social media and you’ll see black mothers wishing other black mothers a Happy Father’s Day.

Even for me, the only child of upper middle class parents who lived at opposite ends of the same suburb. Somehow, as a teenager, I got it into my head that I should expect black men to abandon their kids – and if, by some chance, they didn’t, that should be reason for praise. Just think about how messed up that is.

Thankfully, life has exposed me to more than just statistics.

Sure, I have cousins who have kids by black men I’ve never met or even seen tagged in a Facebook photo. And, yes, I have friends who had to drag their ex-boyfriends into court just to get the most basic of child support.

But I also have cousins who wouldn’t dream of living apart from their wives or children. And I have friends who not only take care of their own kids, but other people’s children, too, determined to be a stable father figure to black boys who desperately need it.

After all, the CDC also found that black dads made and ate more meals with their kids, took them on more outings and helped them with homework more often than white or Hispanic fathers.

So it’s true that black fathers get a bad rap, particularly now that Barack Obama and his daughters Malia and Sasha are out of the daily spotlight. But the bigger truth is that there’s only so much even the best of black fathers can do for their kids.

They can’t make systemic racism go away. They can’t prevent police officers from killing their sons, the way former Minnesota cop Jeronimo Yanez killed Philando Castile for the most bogus of reasons. They can’t stop juries from acquitting those cops, or eliminate implicit bias among prosecutors and judges. They can’t remove the temptation of drug addiction. They can’t wave a wand and create jobs that pay a wage high enough to support a family.

And we can’t talk about black fathers being missing unless we talk about the 1.5 million black men who are literally missing from their communities. An analysis by The Upshot found that for every 100 black women, 25 to 54 years old not living in jail, there are only 83 black men in the same boat. Lengthy prison sentences are often to blame. These are the black men who find themselves trying to rebuild relationships with their adult children after years away from home.

Luckily, that wasn’t the case for my dad. And wasn’t for many, many other black fathers either.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith

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