Mychal Denzel Smith Wrong on the Value of Fathers

January 22, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

The tide of public opinion has long been turning toward recognition of the terrible toll fatherlessness takes on children, adults, society generally and the public purse. The social science and the data supporting it give an imprimatur to what the great majority of people already know – that kids do better with two biological parents than with just one. Or one biological parent and a stepparent, or two adoptive parents, or kinship care, or foster parents, etc. And when kids do better, they grow into adults who are more likely to be employed, out of prison, off drugs, etc. That means they’re less of a burden on the criminal justice system, the public health system, etc.

This is generally well known. Of course the message hasn’t reached the ears of family court judges, family lawyers, the domestic violence establishment, and others, but maybe we’ll get there. It also hasn’t reached the ears of one Mychal Denzel Smith who recently took to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post to decry the notion that kids need fathers (Washington Post, 1/10/17).

Now, Smith’s main topic is the black family and one of his main points is that we can fix the black family all we want, but black people in America will still suffer the various forms of racism they deal with every day.

However, responsible fatherhood only goes so far in a world plagued by institutionalized oppression. For black children, the presence of fathers would not alter racist drug laws, prosecutorial protection of police officers who kill, mass school closures or the poisoning of their water.

He’s likely right about that. After all, there are plenty of well-educated, black people, responsibly raised by two parents who still find themselves targeted unfairly by the police. (Remember Henry Louis Gates’s run-in with Cambridge, MA campus police, despite being a professor at Harvard?)

But, fair as Smith’s point may be, it scarcely argues against two-parent families, whatever he may think. No one has ever claimed that growing up in a two-parent family is a cure for everything that ails us. Oddly enough though, Smith claims that that’s exactly what’s happened.

Growing up, the lesson was everywhere: Every major problem in black America can be solved if we addressed the problem of missing fathers.

No, actually, no responsible person has ever said or suggested any such thing. Smith’s claim is a straw man, pure and simple. What we have said and will continue to argue till the cows come home is that children do better with both biological parents to raise them. We say that because the science on the matter is essentially unquestionable. Strangely, Smith never grapples with that most basic of facts.

No, kids with two parents in their lives have problems too. No one has ever suggested otherwise. Bringing black fathers back into the home will not cure all ills. But it will cure the ills it can cure. And those include higher crime rates, lower high school graduation rates, greater rates of substance abuse, lower incomes, shorter lives, lower rates of employment, higher rates of mental health problems and more. In seeking to distract his readers from those and many other benefits of dual parenting, Smith can only be seen to be complacent about and complicit in the terrible dysfunction we find in all too many aspects of black communities.

Even Smith’s own argument bears the point out. Again, his main argument is that blacks will suffer from white racism regardless of their upbringing. To the extent that’s true though, the dysfunctional behaviors associated with kids without fathers only gives that racism the excuse it needs to continue. When kids really don’t finish high school, when they really do seek father figures in gang leaders, when they really do get involved with illegal drugs, when they really do commit crimes, when they really don’t have jobs, it’s all too easy for power structures that are typically in the hands of white people to act against those kids and the adults they become. That may stem from racism, but it unquestionably stems from the behavior of those people that everyone, including the perpetrators, well knows to be legally wrong and personally destructive.

Smith’s argument in favor of fatherless families is an argument for allowing the very racism he claims to oppose to continue in the guise of perfectly legitimate law enforcement.

Beyond his absence of logic and apparent willingness to tolerate anti-black racism, Smith just flat gets a lot wrong.

The thinking goes like this: The high rates of poverty and incarceration and low levels of educational achievement in black communities can be traced in part back to the high number of black babies born out of wedlock and subsequently raised in single-mother homes. It’s a patriarchal twist on the mythological magical Negro.

Uh, no. “The thinking” doesn’t go like that at all. It goes like this: fatherlessness is bad, on average, for every child, regardless of race, regardless of sex, regardless of class, regardless of education, etc. It has nothing to do with patriarchy or mythical magical Negroes. If Smith cared to read just a tiny bit of the science on the matter, he’d know that. Unfortunately, his agenda doesn’t permit him to address facts that undermine it.

Of course, there are studies that show that children who grow up in two-parent households perform better in schoolare less likely to commit crime and have higher future earning potential. What these studies often don’t take into account is the impact of depressed wages, chronic unemployment, discriminatory hiring practices, the history of mass incarceration, housing segregation and inequality in educational opportunity, not just on family structure but on the resources available to black families to produce results similar to their white counterparts.

Wrong again. In fact the body of scientific literature on the issue of fatherlessness indeed does take into account variables like race, class, income level, religion, geographical area, etc. That is the very reason it’s so persuasive. One of the early criticisms of the literature on fatherlessness was that it failed to account for other variables. But over the years, study after study began to control for those other variables and the truth was revealed: across all those variables, fatherlessness remained the one associated with those various dysfunctional behaviors. Smith bemoans what he sees as the ubiquitous message on fatherlessness, but never pauses to ask himself why it’s so widespread. It’s so widespread because it’s true. It’s passed every test social science can give it.

Where the biological parents haven’t been available, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, and a host of family friends and play cousins have stepped in to do the work of raising children. Today, as prison removes more and more black men from their homes, we do the same.

To say that these other family formations are inherently deficient because there isn’t a father is to say no one else is capable of providing adequate love to a child…

Again, that’s just flat wrong. Many people are capable of loving children and giving to them the things they need. But again, those “other family formations” Smith extols overwhelmingly tend to turn out kids who aren’t as healthy or happy or productive as those raised by biological mothers and fathers. Generally speaking, kinship care, adoptive care, stepparent care, etc. do a poorer job of raising kids than does dual parent care. Smith doesn’t want to hear it, but it’s true.

It’s true for a very simple reason. Like a few other social mammals, we humans are bi-parental.  Children bond with their mothers and fathers and their parenting is incomplete when either is missing. The facts demonstrate the need for fathers and, if Smith would care to take a brief peek at the black community today, he’d see what so many others have seen so often and so clearly.

But he won’t take that peek because he’s got his story and he’s stickin’ to it. That he argues for policies that would unquestionably redound to the detriment of his own community shames him. No, curing the black family won’t cure everything that ails the black community any more than putting a father in the family has cured all the ills of any group. What it will do is mightily improve matters.

You’d think someone like Smith would want to do that.




National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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