Last week, the Baltimore police union tweeted out a video of a group of black teens dancing with guns in their hands and singing the chorus of a rap song with the caption “This is what our Cops are facing under the current administration #CityInCrisis.” The local news reported that the kids were shooting a music video and the guns were fake, but the tweet had already gone viral on conservative Twitter.
In response, came a familiar refrain.
This sort of rhetoric isn’t exclusive to fringe conspiracy bozos like Mark Dice or random racist trolls—it’s common among all segments of the right. By crying crocodile tears about “fatherlessness” in the “black community,” conservatives posture like they care about problems affecting black people while absolving themselves of any responsibility for addressing them.
An article titled “The War on Black Men” in the National Review is typical in how it reduces everything to “fatherlessness.”
Author Lee Habeeb invokes Chicago, which is conservative shorthand for a violent hellscape engendered by liberal dysfunction. To him, Chicago isn’t a city with concentrated racialized poverty; it’s simply one of many “fatherless cities.”
The problem isn’t that education itself remains highly segregated and unequal. Instead, Habeeb argues, white suburban “kids go to public schools that work, and work because having two parents matters when it comes to schools and the culture of schools.”
Pieces like this invariably include an oft-repeated but highly misleading statistic: “Men need fathers, and need them desperately, but the out-of-wedlock birth rate in black America is 75 percent.”
It should be noted that being born to unwed parents doesn’t mean “fatherless.” About 60 percent of black men live with their children, and according to data from the Centers for Disease Control, black fathers are just as likely to be involved in the day-to-day tasks of raising children if they share a home.
“Fatherlessness” works well as a conservative “silver bullet” that explains every ill that befalls black folks. At the same time, the only policy prescriptions that can “solve” the problem just happen to perfectly align with the Republican agenda of destroying the welfare state.
In conservative lore, the welfare programs introduced in the 1960s were nearly as destructive to black families as slavery. The Heritage Foundation’s Kim Holmes wrote: “The welfare state … substitutes a check for a father, a social worker for a caring mother or grandmother, and a slew of civil rights organizations for the neighborhood church.”
While there is pretty solid evidence that growing up in a single-parent household negatively affects a child’s life outcomes, it’s spurious to attribute “fatherlessness” to the welfare state.
Much of the case relies on commonsensical arguments based on the idea of incentives for bad behavior. To quote Heritage Foundation President Kay Cole James:
Now, ask yourself: What if I took that kind of “welfare” policy and implemented it in your family? If I said to your sons, “Sweetie, you don’t have to work; I’ll take care of everything,” and if I said to your daughters, “Sugar, you go ahead and have as many babies as you want; I’ll give you more money to take care of them,” what do you think your family would be like in 20 years?
One study put this theory to the test. The authors looked at 25 years of data and discovered that welfare policies had no significant effect of black women’s decision to get married. They found that the “statistical driving force” behind the increase in woman-headed households was the “decline in the supply of black males.”
So what happened to the “supply of black males?”
While the connection between the welfare state and the decline of the black family is tenuous at best, the relationship between mass incarceration and black “fatherlessness” is straightforward.
According to a report in the New York Times, for every 10 black women there are only eight black men who aren’t in prison. To put that in absolute terms, prison takes approximately 1.5 million black men, many of whom are of marriageable age, off the dating market.
The epidemic of mass incarceration can’t entirely explain “fatherlessness”—the destructive effects of poverty and other sources of social strain play a part as well—but it’s a major contributor. One study by the Department of Justice estimated that there were approximately two minor children on the outside for every adult prisoner, and this has stayed fairly consistent over time.
With one-quarter of the world’s prison population, the United States has an incarceration rate comparable to that of North Korea (There aren’t exact figures for the DPRK but both are estimated to be north of 700 per 100,000.) So given a prison population of 2.3 million, a conservative estimate of children with a parent in prison would be about 4 million.
Due to racial disparities in arrests and sentencing, the explosion in the prison population over the last half-century has disproportionately affected black Americans. According to sociologists Sara Wakefield and Christopher Wildeman, about one in four black children born after 1990 saw their fathers locked up by age 14. Of those whose father didn’t finish high school, it was about one out of every two.
Research shows that growing up with a dad in prison is measurably more harmful than other forms of “fatherlessness”—especially to young boys. One study found that children of incarcerated parents were far more prone to behaviors associated with poor performance in school and future criminality, such as aggressiveness and short attention spans.
The study’s authors recommend intervention by social workers, teachers, counselors and other caretakers to help children cope with their parent’s incarceration. In other words, their prescription is the exact opposite of that recommended by conservatives, who merely use “fatherlessness” as a pretext to gut social services.
To the extent that “fatherless” communities do exist, they do not materialize out of thin air. According to the Casey Foundation, just four neighborhoods in Atlanta, accounting for 11 percent of the city’s population, are home to 25 percent of its returning prisoners. These neighborhoods also happen to be the areas where poverty is the most concentrated.
While “intellectual conservatives” have an agenda in mind and a critique of supposed liberal policy failure, most uses of “fatherlessness” aren’t that sophisticated. It’s a way of ascribing black problems to an intrinsic failing rather than four centuries of white supremacy.
Chalking things up to “fatherlessness” or a “culture of poverty” avoids allegations of racism by eschewing a biological explanation in favor of a nominally “cultural” one. But the racism is barely concealed.
Let’s circle back to that tweet by the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police. In response, you had a lot of people cheering the Baltimore City Police’s (BPD) heroic struggle against these “fatherless” hordes of “wild animals.”
Ironically, few police departments exemplify the criminal practices that rob so many black kids of their fathers better than the BPD, which is currently under a federal consent decree for widespread discriminatory and unconstitutional policing in black neighborhoods.
Multiple Baltimore police have been caught planting drugs and guns on suspects. A 2016 report by the US Dept. of Justice found that BPD routinely used excessive force against black people, the mentally ill and fleeing suspects. The FOP works to keep as many of these so-called “bad apples” on the streets as possible.
In arguing for “fatherlessness” as the key to solving black problems, conservatives frequently cite the 1965 report “The Negro Family: A Case for National Action” by Daniel P. Moynihan, which first raised the alarm about the rise in black single motherhood.
But the “Case for National Inaction” might be a more apt subtitle. When asked what the government could do to address the problem, Moynihan once said “If you think government can restore marriage, you know more about government than I do.”
“Fatherlessness” is a non-answer that implies only a non-solution, hence it is perfect for the right, whose answer for everything is for the government to do as little as possible.
There is no cure for “fatherlessness,” generally speaking, but there is a clear policy fix for a specific kind of “fatherlessness” that disproportionately affects black children: top-to-bottom criminal justice reform.