One of the most persistent statistical bludgeons of people who want to blame black people for any injustice or inequity they encounter is this: According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2013 in nearly 72 percent of births to non-Hispanic black women, the mothers were unmarried.
It has always seemed to me that embedded in the “If only black men would marry the women they have babies with” rhetoric was a more insidious suggestion: that there is something fundamental, and intrinsic about black men that is flawed, that black fathers are pathologically prone to desertion of their offspring and therefore largely responsible for black community “dysfunction.”
There is an astounding amount of mythology loaded into this stereotype, one that echoes a history of efforts to rob black masculinity of honor and fidelity.
Josh Levs points this out in his new book, All In, in a chapter titled “How Black Dads Are Doing Best of All (But There’s Still a Crisis).” One fact that Levs quickly establishes is that most black fathers in America live with their children: “There are about 2.5 million black fathers living with their children and about 1.7 million living apart from them.”
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“So then,” you may ask, “how is it that 72 percent of black children are born to single mothers? How can both be true?”
Here are two things to consider:
First, there are a growing number of people who live together but don’t marry. Those mothers are still single, even though the child’s father may be in the home. And, as The Washington Post reported last year:
“The share of unmarried couples who opted to have ‘shotgun cohabitations’ — moving in together after a pregnancy — surpassed ‘shotgun marriages’ for the first time during the last decade, according to a forthcoming paper from the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
Furthermore, a 2013 CDC report found that black and Hispanic women are far more likely to experience a pregnancy during the first year of cohabitation than white and Asian women.
Second, some of these men have children by more than one woman, but they can only live in one home at a time. This phenomenon means that a father can live with some but not all of his children. Levs calls these men “serial impregnators,” but I think something more than promiscuity and irresponsibility are at play here.
As Forbes reported on Ferguson, Missouri:
“An important but unreported indicator of Ferguson’s dilemma is that half of young African-American men are missing from the community. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, while there are 1,182 African-American women between the ages of 25 and 34 living in Ferguson, there are only 577 African-American men in this age group. In other words there are more than two young black women for each young black man in Ferguson.”
In April, The New York Times extended this line of reporting, pointing out that nationally, there are 1.5 million missing black men. As the paper put it: “Incarceration and early deaths are the overwhelming drivers of the gap. Of the 1.5 million missing black men from 25 to 54 — which demographers call the prime-age years — higher imprisonment rates account for almost 600,000. Almost 1 in 12 black men in this age group are behind bars, compared with 1 in 60 nonblack men in the age group, 1 in 200 black women and 1 in 500 nonblack women.” For context, there are about 8 million African-American men in that age group overall.
Mass incarceration has disproportionately ensnared young black men, sucking hundreds of thousands of marriage-age men out of the community.
Another thing to consider is something that The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out in 2013: “The drop in the birthrate for unmarried black women is mirrored by an even steeper drop among married black women. Indeed, whereas at one point married black women were having more kids than married white women, they are now having less.” This means that births to unmarried black women are disproportionately represented in the statistics.
Now to the mythology of the black male dereliction as dads: While it is true that black parents are less likely to marry before a child is born, it is not true that black fathers suffer a pathology of neglect. In fact, a CDC report issued in December 2013 found that black fathers were the most involved with their children daily, on a number of measures, of any other group of fathers — and in many cases, that was among fathers who didn’t live with their children, as well as those who did.
There is no doubt that the 72 percent statistic is real and may even be worrisome, but it represents more than choice. It exists in a social context, one at odds with the corrosive mythology about black fathers.
Contact Mr. Blow at firstname.lastname@example.org.