Father’s Day and Juneteenth fall on the same day this year. Academics and activists might seize this as an opportunity to push the false narrative that Black fatherlessness is rooted in slavery. Or they might take a different approach, as we have seen recently in the Black Lives Matter movement, and dismiss the importance of family structure by calling for “disruption” to the nuclear family model.
Both of these approaches depend on false premises. Historical data undercuts the narrative that fatherlessness is a vestige of slavery. Instead, bad cultural trends and misguided public policies have contributed to the deterioration of the family structure and robbed so many black youths of fathers and role models who shape children into productive members of society.
Black men are essential to keeping children out of trouble and out of poverty. In fact, they are the key to unlocking higher earnings potential for our black boys.
Slavery ended over a century and a half ago, with the last slaves emancipated in Texas, hence the holiday of Juneteenth. Post slavery, most Blacks were poor and illiterate. Within two lifetimes, we have an expanding Black middle class, Black billionaires, Black Supreme Court justices, and a Black former U.S. president.
Systemic racism of the Jim Crow and segregation eras is gone thankfully, though embers of racism still flare up. Black Americans have more personal agency and opportunity than perhaps at any time in America.
Yet disparities between Black and white Americans persist in employment, educational attainment, health, income, wealth, and other areas. These disparities have led to downward mobility for many Black Americans whose ancestry is rooted in slavery. Pathologies such as dropping out of high school, gang involvement, and crime, which stem from fatherlessness, keep many Black Americans locked in cycles of poverty and hopelessness.
This need not be so. Black families have not always been fragmented. From 1880 to 1960, fewer than one in three Black children nationwide were raised in a household with one parent. Today, that parenting arrangement has been flipped. Surely, the impacts of slavery weren’t delayed a century only to emerge around the time that government welfare stepped in and mass incarceration accelerated.
The consensus in social science is that children flourish educationally, socially, and economically in intact, two-parent households. By following three steps known as “the success sequence,” young people can avoid ending up in poverty. Popularized by Brookings Institution scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, the success sequence proposes young people stay in school and earn at least a GED, get a job, and get married before having children. A whopping 97 percent of millennials who followed this sequence were not poor by adulthood.
Opponents of this view latched onto a 2018 study by Stanford economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues, which concluded that family structure doesn’t explain the Black-white racial income gap between boys or the economic mobility of black boys.
But a closer reading of the study confirms a few important takeaways: Black boys’ household income as adults and their economic mobility are influenced by their family structure growing up. Black boys’ employment rates are significantly higher if there was a Black father present in their childhood, and they are significantly less likely to be incarcerated. The presence of Black fathers in the household is economically and socially critical for the trajectory. (This does not include men who are abusive or addicted.)
Moreover, Black boys’ economic mobility is influenced by the family structures in their neighborhood growing up. If a father is absent but a boy grows up in a neighborhood with other Black fathers present in their homes, he experiences a positive spillover effect. He observes patterns of behavior among responsible men such as going to work, caring for their families, and treating women with respect. This becomes normal for this boy and serves as his model to emulate.
Unfortunately, many of our young, Black men are not only growing up in single-parent households, but they live in neighborhoods void of other father images. How can we be surprised by the destructive behaviors too many of them are engaged in?
I am reminded of a friend who changed the trajectory of his family by getting married to his wife before their child was born. He was the first in his family to marry the mother of his child. Growing up in Washington, D.C., he never saw those examples of manhood or fatherhood until attending a new church that promoted this view. With a son of his own and a daughter, both he and his wife work full-time jobs and they own their own home, also a pioneering step for him.
There’s hope that Black men are stepping up. But it will take a cultural shift to move the Black community to once again embrace the two-parent family structure, especially since groups like Black Lives Matter have been committed to “disrupting” this model.
Fathers are essential to getting these boys off the streets, into jobs, and into the lives of their children one day. Let’s commit to these children this Juneteenth and Father’s Day.