I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve had conversations with people who recited some version of “The real problem with the Black community is all those unmarried Black mothers. Kids need father figures to be raised right!” at me.
It’s incredibly frustrating to frequently encounter this kind of message when discussing Black poverty, injustice, and crime.
Not because “the truth hurts” as some would say, but because it’s a mythic trope that both ignores and derails any meaningful conversation concerning root issues affecting the Black community.
About 70% of Black children are born to single mothers. With the national average hovering around 40% in a society still clinging to orthodox views of marriage and male-centered households, the wide discrepancy causes much disapproval and even hostility towards Black women and their children.
Really, it’s incredible how far people will go to connect random or unrelated dots to support their anti-black view of the world. This type of thinking creates stereotypes, or ideas that describe a group of people in oversimplified and unfair ways.
Single Black mothers face sexist and racial prejudice from all corners of our society.
This includes criticism from Republican Presidential candidate Ben Carson who recently declared, “It is very clear that intact, traditional families with traditional, intact values do much better in terms of raising children.”
Even though his message is ambiguous, we get it. And there are many who agree that the ideal way to raise a family is with a mother and a father working together under one roof to nurture and develop their children.
But Carson doesn’t stop there. He went on to say:
“We need to face the fact that when young girls have babies out of wedlock, most of the time their education ends with that first baby. And those babies are four times as likely to grow up in poverty, end up in the penal system, or the welfare system.”
Which target demographic do you think he’s singling out here?
Without saying it directly, Carson went out of his way to defend stereotypes that place responsibility for Black economic suffering and crime on the shoulders of unwed Black mothers.
Carson’s so soft-spoken that the harm dispensed may be seen as innocuous. But then I recall the words of American academic, Robert McKee, who said, “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.”
I shudder to think about how many people Carson has misled with his backward, genteel narratives.
On the heels of Michael Brown’s murder last year, Carson shared more of the same condemnation for out of wedlock parenting. The retired neurosurgeon reasoned that, if “inner city” youth (Ferguson’s a suburb) had father figures (Brown did), cases like Michael Brown wouldn’t happen. He then got more emphatic: Carson blamed the entire state of the Black community on the lack of father figures.
But this is where things prove more depressing. If I were just using Carson as an extreme example, it’d be pretty simple to dismiss his verbal assault against Black women as the ramblings of a religious right fanatic.
But his views aren’t distinctly conservative. Unfortunately, the heart of this belief transcends political affiliation and is deeply embedded in our nation’s psyche.
Propaganda faulting single Black motherhood for any imaginable social ill related to Black America is rooted in the intersection of racism and sexism.
And the perfect conduit for mass marketing propaganda is the media.
Our main means of mass communication like the Internet, television, and radio play a major role in our everyday lives. Social media has quickly become the connective tissue our culture takes for granted.
When it comes to Black America, we’re accustomed to being continually bombarded with negative associations to “ghetto culture,” intra-racial violence, the welfare queen myth, and Black criminality. Chief among these is the tale of how disastrous single Black motherhood is for our whole race.
Most stereotypes are either shallow or sensationalized memes of Black culture. Like virtually all films merely based on a true story, people are more enchanted by pulp fiction than facts. Worse, it doesn’t matter how untrue an invented story is once it’s repeated enough and uncritically accepted.
Such is the case here.
This is how propaganda works: When a subculture is constantly stigmatized, the popular view becomes a part of our mutual understanding of ourselves – regardless of evidence.
And because this false advertising provides an answer to Black America’s perceived failings without referencing the influence of systemic oppression or discrimination, it’s a convenient lie.
For some, it makes sense to think: “Why does it seem like Black America’s in such disarray? It must be because Black women aren’t correctly raising these kids on their own. How else could you possibly explain all of these issues?!”
Here are some of the more popular claims that have become lodged in the everyday conscious of our culture. I’ll discuss why they are not only oppressive, but completely incorrect.
1. ‘Black Women Can’t Properly Raise Children by Themselves’
This is a very common assumption.
When Ben Carson states lots of boys in “inner cities” grow up without father figures and, as a result, never learn to respect authority, what he and many others like him are doing is two things.
One, he’s encouraging others to think negatively about how Black women are rearing children.
Two, he’s pointing to the authority figure’s sex, which is irrelevant so long as the child respects their parental influence.
Because we generally don’t see this said of single white mother households, I can’t help but wonder what triggers this double standard.
It’s no secret that Black women are among the most exploited and vulnerable members of US society. Patriarchal contempt for women, exacerbated by racist ideas collated into the fabric of our society, have destined Black women to experience an exclusive form of misrepresentation.
Because of this, Black women continue to be a frequent “whipping boy” within a system that both prefers men and despises Black identities.
History is our friend. We must remember that, as the US neared the abolishment of slavery, racist stereotypes became more pervasive.
To oppose social and political advancement for Blacks, white social scientists, theologians, and journalists dreamed up justifications for the “natural inferiority” of Blacks and their subordination to whites.
In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, there was an intensified propaganda campaign from scholars and writers to paint Blacks as ignorant, lazy, immoral, and criminal.
Institutional slavery ended, but the damage was done.
These beliefs continue to be the tradition of this nation. Tropes declaring Black women can’t properly raise children by themselves springboards from this legacy of deceit. And it’s from these fabrications that we see the responsibility for Black oppression, poverty, and criminalization placed at the feet of our women.
It’s an outright lie that denies the rigorous work Black women do to care for their families and communities in often hostile or non-supportive spaces.
2. ‘Fatherlessness Leads to Inner City Youth Delinquency’
If it isn’t already obvious, saying “inner city youth” is racially coded language targeting minorities without being straightforward. In this context, it’s a more discreet way of referring to Black people as “poor” and “ghetto.”
It’s extremely unrealistic to imagine a father is enough to obliterate a racial group’s criminal element. This unjustified overgeneralization excludes factors that contribute to instances or cycles of hardship that would account for the issues people blame on single Black mothers.
You can’t take a correlation as cause while neglecting the more common causes.
Claiming the absence of fathers causes lawlessness in Black youth is misleading when the available evidence is only a superficial connection. There are numerous events or statistics that happen to coincide with each other, but that doesn’t mean there’s a cause and effect relationship.
For example, swimming pool drownings and ice cream sales both increase in the summer, they share a relationship – that doesn’t mean eating ice cream leads to drowning!
It just means two, independent events have a superficial connection based on other factors. In the case of drownings and ice cream, it’s the change in weather, a factor that greatly influences the cause and effect.
You can’t conclude “this causes that” if you don’t examine the relationship beyond surface appearances. Anyone who says otherwise is either misinformed or trying to sell you an agenda.
In order to say two events are related, there needs to be consideration for all possible factors that affect whatever outcome that’s being observed. There needs to be significant, consistent, specific and plausible information that proves what we see is something more than a coincidence and that there aren’t other circumstances creating or affecting the relationship.
The routine criminalization of people of color, the school-to-prison pipeline, and racial profiling are three examples of overlooked factors that hugely affect Black America in particular. These issues would persist whether or not a positive male role model were present.
People who oversimplify the cause and effect process are usually searching for anything that proves what they already believe to be true, rather than determining what the information actually says with a more honest approach.
3. ‘Black Children Need a Father Figure to Be Reared Correctly’
The only thing children need to ensure they’re properly raised is food, shelter, clothing, affection, and lessons in how to navigate through this world.
It isn’t about sex or gender. It’s about how an adult can effectively shape a growing mind.
When I hear people say things like this, I can almost taste their disgust, even when it’s said casually. That’s why I don’t think it can be understated how much racism and male supremacy distort our views of Black women.
The Republican platform advertises and exploits what they term “traditional family values.” However, their views don’t deviate much from the overall social mores of this country that support the idea of heteronormative, male-headed households.
Black women being considered incapable of properly raising children without a man’s presence erases “non-traditional” and queer households – as well as reinforcing toxic attitudes about Black women in particular and the inferiority of women in general.
It’s misogynistic and patently false.
For whatever reason, there are certain people who believe that if you come from a “certain” background, raised in a “certain” environment, that you will always get a “certain” result. This is what’s implied by Ben Carson’s indistinct statements. That’s just wishful thinking.
It doesn’t matter who the parents are. They could be remarkable and provide their children with the best opportunities – their children are still self-directing human beings who ultimately make their own life choices. Sometimes people from good upbringing make poor decisions.
4. ‘Single Black Mothers Are to Blame for the State of Black America’
Victim blaming has always existed, but fifty years ago it became the hallmark of a controversial and exceptionally male-centric report titled, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”
Daniel Moynihan, then Assistant Secretary of Labor and author of the report, was a well-meaning, lifelong liberal. Still, his ham-handed, months-long research concluded Black America was caught in a, quote, “tangle of pathology.”
The sickness? High rates of families headed by single Black mothers. He faulted Black women for the social and economic failure of an entire racial group.
Moynihan’s work was so incredibly flawed that psychologist William Ryan coined the phrase “blaming the victim” and, in 1971, published Blaming the Victim. This book was intended to be a refutation of the Moynihan Report, which Ryan described as a composition of victim blaming that sustained order in favor of those in power (that is, white males).
While the Moynihan Report has greatly shaped government programs, perhaps only the occasional reader is familiar with it. A worthwhile piece with rich context that explores the problems arising from Moynihan’s conclusions can be found in The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.
Using single Black mothers as a scapegoat instead of examining the recurring social, economic, and political deprivations that contribute to the “inferior” condition of Black America is simply absurd.
Black unemployment has consistently been twice that of whites for over fifty years. The rate got so ridiculous in 2010 that it received an investigation from the United Nations.
Once employed, Blacks are paid less than Asians and whites across almost all industries according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There’s a major wealth gap due to race even with Black college graduates that can only be characterized as embarrassingly racist.
The point: Race affects wage and economic opportunities.
It isn’t that single Black mothers are failing the community – it just so happens that institutional racism is this nation’s way of life.
Even within the sexist scheme that stipulates a man ought to helm a household, the argument still fails when applied to the Black community in this specific way.
At no time did Black women orchestrate a movement that rejected Black men.
Black men didn’t magically disappear.
“By 2000, more than 1 million black children had a father in jail or prison—and roughly half of those fathers were living in the same household as their kids when they were locked up.”
These unique circumstances – and not the failings of Black mothers – are associated with behavior problems.
Some think Blacks drawing attention to when and how we’re subject to mistreatment is an attempt to exploit the existence of racism when it doesn’t really apply. However, addressing the ways Blacks are marginalized isn’t an excuse to universally pardon our misfortunate or misconduct.
We must face facts: The way we as a society think about racial differences plays a significant role in suggesting single Black women are seriously responsible for the degradation of Black America.
Propaganda stating single Black mothers can’t properly raise children is wrong, hurtful, and harmful. These myths endure because themes of a male-centered and white-dominated culture remain this nation’s preferred default setting.
In reality, single Black mothers are the unsung pillars of the Black community.
They show strength of character like Kelley Williams-Bolar, who defied the system to enroll her daughters in a highly ranked school outside her district of residence.
They show courage like Tamar Manasseh, who organized MASK (Mothers Against Senseless Killings) to self-police neighborhood violence.
They’re advocates for a brighter future shown by all those affiliated with the Black Lives Matter Movement fighting for racial equality against what’s really destroying Black communities: white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and the institutions that sustain it.
Sincere Kirabo is a writer, activist, and the Social Justice Coordinator with the American Humanist Association. He’s a self-described philosophile with a high regard for Sikivu Hutchinson, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Shirley Chisholm, and James Baldwin. When he isn’t writing, Sincere enjoys road trips, trying to beat Super Mario Bros with his son, and learning about history. Sincere’s work can also be found on The Humanist and Patheos. Follow him on Twitter @sinkirabo.