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Black on Black Crime: The “Fatherless Men” Trope

In a recent interview on CNN, radio and television personality Larry Elder was debating Marc Lamont Hill [a CNN correspondent and Huff Post Live host] about violence in black communities, as well as white supremacy in the U.S.

Not surprisingly, Elder, a conservative rich black dude, feels as though racism doesn’t exist in this country [even though the KKK is helping to support Officer Darren Wilson, the cop who shot Michael Brown] and blames fatherless black men for black on black crime. Despite the fact that the CNN interview was about Ferguson and Michael Brown, Elder kept asserting that the REAL problem is black on black crime which he claims “no one” seems to be doing anything about, despite the fact that black people have been organizing FOREVER on this issue.

People with trite scripts who always derail conversations say that Obama, Holder, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson [the only black men in the universe apparently] don’t do anything about black on black crime, but these critics don’t look at work being done on the community level. If you need examples because googling is just too hard, look at the True Star foundation in Chicago, Incite!, and Dream Defenders. There was even a recent documentary called “The Interrupters” which focused on community-centric efforts to stop gang violence. Ameena Matthews took center stage as a community activist and was awarded for her efforts at the Black Girls Rock ceremony.

However, these examples probably wouldn’t quell Elder’s dissent considering black on black crime is ONLY brought up when people don’t want to talk about white supremacy and racism in the U.S. To the detriment of my health and sanity, mainstream outlets don’t seem to seriously want to engage in discussions about the ways white supremacy aids in constructing dangerous, poor conditions for black people. People like Elder only bring up black on black crime to showcase how “dangerous” them “negroes” is which has absolutely nothing to do with the actual conversation.

Elder is a white supremacist’s dream. This is probably going to be the ONLY time racists listen to a black man. The words of one black man who is being paid to be in denial about his blackness is seemingly more relevant than the thousands upon thousands of black voices that have been shouting out about their collective dehumanization. Makes sense, huh?

I would argue that our culture is chronically uncritical, meaning that we routinely fight over symptoms of problems rather than examining the root to understand how the issue began.

A lot of people who know nothing about systemic oppression tend to blame absent fathers for crime in black communities as you can see in this horrible news report. The reporter acts like he’s as rogue as Woodward and Bernstein.

To look at the massive amount of black-on-black crime without a historical context wipes white supremacy’s “hands” clean. There is a historical tradition of oppressors and colonizers writing the mainstream narrative of history, unfortunately casting themselves as the heroes and martyrs, and everyone else as the villainous characters.

Displaced groups who are struggling today because of historical and contemporary genocide, colonization, and war are individually blamed for being lazy, unmotivated, and inherently deviant.

Many of these groups today deal with alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, and depression because of traumas that are largely overlooked by the white mainstream media. 

We see this in Elder’s horribly uncritical attempt to make sense of the crime-saturated communities many black people live in. If only we treated white supremacy as a social ailment in the ways we treat violence and drugs.

Elder’s focus on “fatherless black men” is a trope that is consistently brought up in discussions about violence in black communities, and I want to briefly explain why I think it’s problematic to center our discussions about violence on absent fathers:

(1)    If you were really concerned about fatherless black men in the black community, you would ALSO have a problem with the white supremacist prison industrial complex which feeds off of black skin for fuel. In the video, Elder says that the number one preventable cause of death for black men is homicide, versus car accidents for white men. If black men are being killed or sent to prison en masse, chances are fatherhood might be a bit difficult. While white men can avoid driving, and can in fact improve their driving skills, black men can’t STOP being back…so I would rephrase Elder’s comment to say that the number one unpreventable cause of death for black men [in a white supremacy] is their blackness.

If you think black on black crime is rampant, you have to understand the history of white america’s colonization and violence towards black people to understand why the conditions are the way they are now. It’s not a coincidence that inner-cities and many predominantly black areas are poor and disheveled, and 30 minutes down the road there are tons of white people living in suburbs. This is a strategic setup.

When a group of people are being oppressed in similar ways, you should always look to the systemic forces in place for blame, rather than assigning a lower value to the oppressed subjects DNA. 

(2)    No one is really answering where the connection lies between black men committing crimes, and not having fathers around. Like, are we trying to say that if black men had active fathers, they wouldn’t commit crimes, or that they wouldn’t be the target of violence in the U.S.?

How does your family configuration factor into your violent collisions with a racist system? Like, why is this conversation even happening? It feels a lot like victim-blaming. If black men are being disproportionately murdered, why is it that the first thought some people have is, “man, if only he had a father.” That’s like someone asking you what your name is and you say, “25.” Like, the two just don’t go together.

It also seems like we’re infantalizing black men by essentially saying that they’re “acting out” because they don’t have fathers, rather than RESPONDING TO and navigating a racist system that marks all of us with brown skin as criminal.

(3)    Stating that “fatherless” men are the problem minimizes the efforts black women have put forth in raising their own families [and ignores women who CHOOSE to raise their own families]. It also resurrects a horribly sexist idea that the “destruction” of the black home was due to matriarchal [women-dominated] households, as opposed to black people being kidnapped from Africa, having their families ripped apart, being sold into chattel slavery, being raped, lynched, and murdered, and not attaining HUMAN rights until 1964.

(4)    Focusing only on fatherless black men is heterosexist and erases lesbian black couples who raise families without a “fathers” presence. It subscribes to the archaic and paternalistic idea that men need to be present in the household to establish order. I actually have no clue what that has to do with black on black crime, or our racist justice system. It seems like people are implying that if more men had fathers, there would be less crime….(?) I still don’t understand that correlation.

Focusing on failed fatherhood in the black community seems like an odd attempt to basically circumvent the system of white supremacy, and to inscribe ones own moralistic views about the family onto a whole group of people.

(5)    Focusing on fatherless black men unfairly puts the onus on black men to correct generations worth of systemic racism. That shouldn’t have to be their responsibility.

(6)    Focusing on black men who don’t have fathers seems extremely racialized since white families also have single-parent homes. According to a report on the Atlantic from the Urban Institute:

“… white families exhibit the same rates of nonmarital childbearing and single parenting as black families did in the 1960s when Moynihan sounded his alarm. Meanwhile, the disintegration of the black nuclear family continued apace. That the decline of traditional families occurred across racial and ethnic groups indicates that factors driving the decline do not lie solely within the black community but in the larger social and economic context. Nevertheless, the consequences of these trends in family structure may be felt disproportionately among blacks as black children are far more likely to be born into and raised in father-absent families than are white children.”

Parenthood is essentially about access to resources, so if people want to talk about family life, we should talk about two parent families, rather than making campaigns about fatherhood. That seems strangely irrelevant to the larger issue, which is the fact that black single-parent homes are worse off than white single-parent homes because of racism and sexism.[….and I still don’t see how this whole discussion about fathers really connects to Michael Brown’s murder…]

(7)    The giant discussion about FATHERLESS BLACK MEN completely erases women, and conjures up the stereotypical idea that the only thing worth talking about in regards to racism is MEN. Why are we not talking about motherless black men and women? Why are we not similarly talking about the ways that black women are ruthlessly handled and victimized in white supremacist patriarchy? Black women are also gunned down and sent to prison, so why are these women always erased from the conversation?

(8)   The “Fatherless” men argument erases the MANY black men who HAVE fathers…like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin who were both executed. Even with fathers, black men and women are still disproportionately killed, and sent to prison. Those are the issues we should be talking about. 

(9)   If you DO drink the heterosexist kool-aid meaning that you believe a child needs a  mother and father in the household in order to thrive, rather than focusing on absent fathers, why don’t we focus on the racist,classist systemic forces that shape heterosexual women’s decisions to not have men in the home, like section 8 housing or welfare which generally prefer that occupants be single mothers and women.

(10)  Focusing so much on “fatherless black men” means the REAL issue STILL isn’t being talked about…which is racism and white supremacy. In fact, if your knee-jerk response to someone talking about our racist justice system is: FATHERLESS BLACK MEN or BLACK ON BLACK CRIME, it means that you surely don’t understand what the issue is even about.

The problem is: We keep trying to pathologize black people’s behaviors, and we keep trying to find quick-fix solutions to generations worth of systemic racism and frustration. Adding 40 fathers into a household isn’t going to stop black people from having violent confrontations with white supremacy. Fatherhood doesn’t neutralize or eradicate racism.


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