by Delano Squires
September is one of the best months for sports fans. It represents the home stretch in professional baseball, as well as the beginning of a new season in professional football. One NFL pro who received some unwanted attention this summer is New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie. He was pilloried in the national media after he was seemingly unable to name all eight of his children during the taping of a reality television sports documentary series. It was the fact that his children are from six different mothers (in five states), rather than his faulty memory, however, that garnered the most attention. One sportswriter took Cromartie and other athletes to task for their seemingly casual attitude toward procreation. He also mentioned the disproportionate number of black children who are raised in father-absent homes. To be clear, father absence is not restricted to the African-American community, but the pop culture narrative regarding disconnected dads typically casts black men in the leading role. While the serial womanizing of some black athletes and entertainers makes for sensational headlines, relatively few people know about the seed scattering of some of our most well-known cultural icons, such as Clint Eastwood (seven children by five women) or Mick Jagger (seven children by four women).
Racially tinged perceptions and collective sensitivities aside, father absence is a real problem in the African-American community. A growing number of black children are growing up in homes without both of their parents, and this trend is directly linked to the decline in marriage rates among blacks. According to the National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting (NCAAMP), in 2008, only 29% of African-American children lived with their married parents, while the rate for all American children was 61%. Some scholars suggest that critiques of black men with respect to father absence are unfair and that the real issue is the disproportionate unemployment rate for African-American males. While earning potential does affect the ability of a father to provide financially for his family, it still does not fully explain why a child born one generation after slavery was more likely to grow up in a home with two married parents than a child born in 2010. I can think of very few people who would argue that the economic climate was more favorable to black men in that time period than it is today. Furthermore, multi-millionaire athletes and entertainers show that having more money does not magically equip someone with the skills, or desire, to be a good husband or parent.
Confronting this issue honestly is a daunting task. Those concerned about the state of African-American marriages and families must be very clear about their positions, motivations, and goals. Advocating for a renewed commitment to marriage and stronger families should not be used as a thinly veiled attempt to criticize single mothers or devalue their children. Many single mothers have done a phenomenal job of raising children in less than ideal circumstances, and advocates should be more interested in finding ways to constructively address the problem of father absence than in trying to assign blame to one group or another. There are policy strategies that can be implemented to support people who want to marry (e.g. tax credits for couples who successfully complete pre-marital education) but none of these will matter if we, as a community, no longer feel marriage is a meaningful institution.
I believe that cultural attitudes are just as important as policy positions when searching for solutions to this problem. That being said, black men in public life could probably do a lot to influence attitudes about marriage and fatherhood by speaking about the joys and travails of both. Men in less visible positions can also play a major role in this cultural campaign by actively engaging one another on relationship, marriage, and fatherhood issues. These conversations could take place anywhere black men congregate: barbershops, churches, sporting events, college campuses, or any other venue that serves as a safe space for dialogue. The African-American community has no problem voicing opposition to perceived racism and discrimination, but it seems as if we are much more reluctant to candidly address issues that force us to take a critical look at the things we collectively value and the cultural norms we readily accept. Studies have shown that the attitudes of parents toward marriage have an effect on the relationship outcomes of their children. Therefore, a continuation of current trends could eventually result in one segment of the African-American community where marriage and family stability are an expected norm and another where those same traits are an exception. While there are many exceptional fathers in our community, there are also some men who do not fulfill their responsibilities. The time for excuses is over; our children are counting on us.
BMWK, where do you feel father absence ranks among the most serious issues facing African Americans today? Do you feel we are afraid to honestly confront this issue? Do you think married black men can do more to show marriage and fatherhood in a positive light?
Delano Squires is currently a graduate student in Race, Ethnicity, and Public Policy at the George Washington University. His focus is contemporary African American culture, urban education, and child development. Follow him on Twitter @Mr_Squires.
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