Opinion

Deadbeat black dads aren't the cause of Baltimore's riots

Listen up, Rand Paul. You may learn something.

No sentient being is confused about why Baltimore's black residents are upset about the death of Freddie Gray, who received unexplained fatal spinal wounds in the back of a police van after being detained for apparently flimsy reasons. That this is the latest death of a young black man at the hands of police in the U.S. adds fuel to the fire. But people, I think, are generally baffled about the looting and arson and destruction in "Charm City."

There are a lot of reasons, and they're complicated, hard to fix, and rooted in history. At The Associated Press, Juliet Linderman has the Cliff's Notes version: "In a startlingly segregated city struggling with failing schools, failing infrastructure, a failing economy, and a police department under federal investigation, it seemed only a matter of time before this side of Baltimore boiled over." People, especially young black people, are hopeless, unable to get jobs, and feel harassed.

Rioting and arson are counterproductive, of course. "They're destroying and undermining businesses and opportunities in their own communities that rob jobs and opportunity from people in that area," President Obama said on Tuesday.

There are also a lot of reasons being floated that are bunk, seemingly concocted out of casual racism, lazy ignorance, or a desire to contain the blame in a hermetically-sealed, 81-square-mile tract of bruised asphalt, shuttered row houses, and failing schools. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) hit the trifecta on Tuesday.

"There are so many things we can talk about," Paul told conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham when she asked him about the Baltimore riots: "The breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society." He quickly, unconvincingly, added that "this isn't just a racial thing — it goes across racial boundaries." Ingraham's listeners knew what Paul was talking about. So did Paul. And everyone else. A dog whistle this was not.

When it comes to blaming the purported scourge of absent black fathers, Fox News bloviator Bill O'Reilly is selling something. Rand Paul is only selling himself, and he's marketing himself as a "different kind of Republican." He's been working on this. He should know better.

So here are some numbers. First, yes, more black children are raised in single-parent families than other racial groups — 67 percent, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's KIDS COUNT data, versus 25 percent of white children. According to a 2011 Pew study, 44 percent of black fathers live away from their kids, versus 21 percent of white dads and 35 percent of Hispanic fathers.

But that's hardly the whole story: According to a December 2013 survey by the federal National Center for Health Statistics, black fathers who live with their children are more active in their kids' lives than white and Latino dads, and black fathers who live apart from their children are at least as involved, often more, than white and Latino fathers in similar situations. They also stay involved with their offspring for longer than their peers in other races.

That doesn't mean the high rate of black children being raised by single mothers isn't a problem — children do better with two parents in the house. But you can't pin that all on black men, either.

"More than two million men are now imprisoned in the U.S., and roughly 40 percent of them are African-American," Ralph Richard Banks, a black Stanford Law professor and author, explained in 2011 in The Wall Street Journal. "At any given time, more than 10 percent of black men in their 20s or 30s — prime marrying ages — are in jail or prison."

Paul knows those statistics — he's given speeches and written op-eds citing them. So he knows why a certain number of black fathers are "absent." But when you talk about the "breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society" in reference to black communities — especially on conservative TV news and talk radio — you're talking about the stereotype of the shiftless black dad who abandons his family.

"In the entire recorded history of the planet, there has never been a greater voluntary abandonment of men from their children than there is today in black America," Bernard Goldberg told O'Reilly on Fox News in 2012. "I mean, when men went off to war, they had to go off to war. That wasn't voluntary. But never as great of voluntary abandonment of children by their fathers than in black America today."

It's not just white conservatives who criticize the absent black father — Obama and Bill Cosby have taken their hits, too. This narrative casts the black dad as a deadbeat and the black mom as a victim. It's a lot more complicated than that.

The same systemic factors that send black men to jail at such high rates — bad schools, police and prosecutorial racial favoritism, the grind of poverty and unemployment — are also detrimental to black marriage.

In his Wall Street Journal essay on why so many black women are single, Banks notes the incarceration rate and education gap (black women way out-perform black men in higher education and professional degrees), and makes what should be an obvious point: Marriage is a two-way street.

These problems translate into dimmer economic prospects for black men, and the less a man earns, the less likely he is to marry. That's how the relationship market operates. Marriage is a matter of love and commitment, but it is also an exchange. A black man without a job or the likelihood of landing one cannot offer a woman enough to make that exchange worthwhile. [Wall Street Journal]

Black women, already out-earning black men, are often willing to support children on their own, but they may not be all that keen on supporting a husband, too.

In a 2012 national survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Washington Post, only 40 percent of black women said being married was "very important," versus 55 percent of white women and 47 percent of black men. Meanwhile, 62 percent of both black women and black men said having kids is "very important," versus 75 percent of white women and 57 percent of white men.

Absent fathers are a problem, as are absent mothers. Black men don't have that market cornered, by any means.

Look, I don't have a solution to Baltimore's problems, or violence by (and against) police in black communities, or the structural reasons that inhibit black marriage. But we won't collectively be able to tackle those problems if we keep misdiagnosing them. And it's time to take "deadbeat black dads" off the list of talking points.

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