WaPo Columnist Misses the Boat on Causes of Fatherlessness

April 2nd, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Two weeks ago, Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy penned this article about “the missing black father.” (Washington Post, 3/18/12).  Milloy was using the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida as a springboard for his argument that African-American fathers are too seldom present in their children’s lives.  According to Milloy, they should be out protecting the community from people like George Zimmerman who shot Trayvon Martin.  In his column, Milloy used some pretty bizarre claims to back up his thesis.

In so many instances, it is the mother who leads the most desperate fights to protect their sons. Mothers cry the longest at their slain sons’ funerals and mothers cheer the loudest when their sons march across the stage in caps and gowns to get their high school diplomas.

Really?  I wonder how he knows that and what difference it’s supposed to make.  Milloy doesn’t let on.  He just uses the claim as a segue to President Obama’s similar assertion that African-American men are, as a general rule, irresponsible.  According to that theory, if men were just better, the problem of fatherlessness would vanish and society would be much improved.

I’ve pointed out before the irony of an elected official’s saying that the cause of fatherlessness is irresponsible men.  That’s ironic because such a claim is itself irresponsible.  There are a great many obstacles between fathers and their children, and many of them could be removed by responsible people in elective office, but far too often, those officials prefer to do nothing while hiding behind the claim that the only thing that needs to change is the debased nature of men.

Not surprisingly, Milloy got a torrent of negative responses to his column.  So, to his credit, he wrote a second one here (Washington Post, 3/25/12).  He actually apologized to two fathers he thought he might have offended and admitted he needed help to understand the problem of fatherlessness among African-Americans. 

Neither father asked for an apology, but the response from readers — and a subsequent conversation with [one of the fathers, Chad] Shumate — helped me to realize that I owed them one. So I have written letters to both men and offered my condolences to the Martin family. May justice be done.

Some readers also asked what was the point of the column if not to make black men look bad.

“This strange distinction between the response of black mothers vs. that of black fathers is so bizarre and unnecessary that I can’t even figure out what might be going through Milloy’s head to make him write a whole column about it. . . . Something is eating at him [and] it’s messing with his ability to do his job,” one reader said.

Actually, I could use some help.

 To which I say, “well done, Mr. Milloy.”  It takes a strong person to publicly admit his failings and seek help.  But that just makes the rest of the article all the more disappointing. 

Milloy tries to come to grips with his own preconceived notions about the absence of African-American fathers from their children’s lives.  He actually questions Chad Shumate who gives him the exact information he needs to sort out his muddied thinking, and Milloy ignores it.

If there is any good to come out of that flawed column about black men last week, it may be a conversation I had with Shumate after it was published. He reminded me how complex relationships between parents can be these days, especially if they are separated or divorced. How much time a father can spend with his children is not always up to him.

There it is Mr. Milloy.  “How much time a father can spend with his children is not always up to him.”  That’s the answer in a nutshell to the problem not just of black fatherlessness, but fatherlessness generally.  It’s there in black and white; Milloy typed the words with his own fingers.  So what does he do with the information?  He ignores it, returns to his theme of mothers being the ones to oppose injustice and ends with the question he started with “Where are the fathers?”

I can only tell him to go back and talk to Chad Shumate again, but this time actually listen to him.  If you’re a father, the time you spend with your child isn’t always up to you.  As much social science tells us, fathers of all races and ages passionately desire involvement in their children’s lives, but the obstacles in their way are many – sometimes too many to overcome.

Maternal gatekeeping is one.  That’s the phenomenon of mothers dictating to fathers the extent of their participation in childcare.  Likewise, if a child’s mother is unmarried, as 70% of them are among African-Americans, the father finds himself sidelined not only by her, but also by any subsequent boyfriend she has.  The more boyfriends, the more remote Dad becomes to his child.  That’s what sociologists call “parenting as a package deal” in which mother and child are the package and the father is a kind of vestigial appendage to the family.

Then of course there’s the family court system that’s happy to marginalize fathers in its own insidious ways.  Even if a man can afford to asssert his rights in court, they can be easily trumped by the mere fact that he’s a man and she’s a woman.  That fact alone accounts for much of the distance between fathers and children.  Allegations of abuse, whether real or made up, are a potent weapon in every mother’s arsenal and, even if Dad does get some form of minimal visitation, Mom is free to ignore it if she wishes.

And in the African-American community particularly, prison is one of the big things standing between fathers and children.  Astonishing numbers of black men are either in prison or under the continuing jurisdiction of criminal courts via their parole or probation status.  Often as not, those are for minor drug offenses that, were the person white and/or female, would never send them to prison.

So what Chad Shumate said is correct; fatherlessness is often not up to the father.  But everyone from Courtland Milloy to Barack Obama refuses to notice the fact.  That’s because it interferes with the preferred narrative of masculine fecklessness and indifference to children.  That narrative, so patiently reiterated time and again, is not only factually wrong, it’s part of the problem.

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