Voices Raised Against Unmarried Childbearing in the African-American Community

This is a good article and one that needed to be written (Houston Chronicle, 11/6/10).  It’s about the horrifying fact that 72% of African-American children are born out of wedlock.  72%.  That’s almost three out of four.

I say the article is good because it doesn’t pretend the problem of out-of-wedlock childbearing in the African-American community is simple either in origin or solution.  Wisely, it touches on the many causes of unmarried childbearing, from hundreds of years of racial oppression and second-class citizenship, to the legacy of welfare that took fathers out of the homes of mothers and children, to the everyday decisions of individuals.

I say the article is needed because, as it says itself, there is mostly silence in the African-American community about the problem.  Even churches, long one of the mainstays of African-American culture, have little to say on the subject.

The article revolves around the experiences of Houston obstetrician/gynecologist, Dr. Natalie Carroll who, over many years has devoted herself to caring for poor mothers.  As the article opens, there are 12 expectant mothers in Carroll’s waiting room… and one father.

Caroll herself is clear on the subject of unmarried childrearing.

“The girls don’t think they have to get married. I tell them children deserve a mama and a daddy. They really do,” Carroll says…

“A mama can’t give it all. And neither can a daddy, not by themselves,” Carroll says. “Part of the reason is because you can only give that which you have. A mother cannot give all that a man can give. A truly involved father figure offers more fullness to a child’s life.”

The article fills in just what that means.

Children of unmarried mothers of any race are more likely to perform poorly in school, go to prison, use drugs, be poor as adults, and have their own children out of wedlock.

In short, what started decades ago has proved to be self-perpetuating; children born to single parents tend to grow up to be single parents.  That goes a long way toward explaining why child births to single parents have increased among African-Americans from 24% in the 1960s to its current shocking level.

Mothers cite the absence of marriageable men and surely there is truth to what they say.  Growing up fatherless is not a prescription for becoming a good ‘catch’ as a man.  But what’s also true is that the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study centered at Princeton finds far more nuance in the drama of intimacy, childbirth and parenting.  Harvard researcher Kathryn Edin does as well, as I’ve reported before.

What they find is that fathers, even very poor, very young fathers are highly motivated to care for their children.  Edin points out that fatherhood provides those young men a sense of purpose in their lives that they otherwise wouldn’t have.  They see themselves as needed protectors and guides of their children and they honor that role.

But the single women who are the mothers of their children don’t tend to stick with one man, even though that man is the father of her child.  And when a new man comes into the picture, the child’s father becomes less involved in the child’s life.  Edin finds that that dynamic serves to inexorably push fathers of children born to single mothers out of their kids’ lives.

But the absence of African-American men from their children’s lives is far more complex than simply the choices made by mothers.

The legacy of segregation, the logic goes, means blacks are more likely to attend inferior schools. This creates a high proportion of blacks unprepared to compete for jobs in today’s economy, where middle-class industrial work for unskilled laborers has largely disappeared.

The drug epidemic sent disproportionate numbers of black men to prison, and crushed the job opportunities for those who served their time. Women don’t want to marry men who can’t provide for their families, and welfare laws created a financial incentive for poor mothers to stay single.

Still, reading the comments of the young mothers in Dr. Carroll’s waiting room, it’s hard not to see that they cite, not what they can do for their children, but what their children can do for them, as important.  But marriage?  Paternal involvement?  Not so much.  As one young woman said, “It’s an obligation I don’t need.”

What halting efforts have come from the African-American community have been met with savage backlashes.  One such effort entitled No Wedding No Womb was assailed as simplistic, anti-feminist, conservative and lacking in solutions.

Doubtless it was many of those things, perhaps all.  But attacking a proposed solution is not the same as solving the problem or even proposing a solution of one’s own.  As the person who organized NMNW pointed out,

“We’ve spent the last 40 years discussing the issues of how we got here. How much more discussion, how many more children have to be sacrificed while we still discuss?”

Or, as I would ask those who attack the solutions of others, but offer none of their own, “how’s that working out for you?”  Is the African-American community so free of problems that it really need not concern itself?  And if that’s not the case, what is your solution?  If refusing out-of-wedlock childbearing one woman at a time isn’t the answer, what is?

The article gives law professor Amy Wax the voice of authority.  She said,

“The black community has fallen into this horribly dysfunctional equilibrium” with unwed mothers, Wax says in an interview. “It just doesn’t work.”

“Blacks as a group will never be equal while they have this situation going on, where the vast majority of children do not have fathers in the home married to their mother, involved in their lives, investing in them, investing in the next generation.”

“The 21st century for the black community is about building human capital,” says Wax, who is white. “That is the undone business. That is the unmet need. That is the completion of the civil rights mission.”

Fathers married to mothers with children.  That’s the future of a healthy community of any race.  How African-Americns get from here to there I don’t know, but it will take African-American leaders and probably female leaders to turn the ship in the right direction.  African-American churches tend to be dominated by women, so that looks like a good place to begin.

And speaking of African-American leaders, the President of the United States isn’t helping much when he intones the mantra that irresponsible fathers are solely to blame for the absence of men in the lives of children.  Surely that’s part of the problem, but anyone, including the president, who pretends that fathers are its alpha and omega is worse than wrong.  He begins to look like he’d rather score cheap political points with a certain constituency than solve the most grievous problem facing 40 million Americans.  And that’s worse than irresponsible.

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