Where Have All the Black Men Gone?

A recurring question has surfaced in mainstream and ethnic media for more than a decade. The phrasing of the question differs depending on who’s asking the question and why, but the question tends to boil down to this: Where have all the black men gone? They’re missing in churches, missing from their families, missing from college campuses, and absent from work. Black women can’t find a man to marry. Black children don’t know where to find their fathers. Where are those guys?

Last Father’s Day, presidential Barack Obama wagged a finger at all the missing black fathers. At the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago he stepped to the podium and said: “If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that too many fathers are missing — missing from too many lives and too many homes. Too many fathers are MIA. Too many fathers are AWOL. They have abandoned their responsibilities. They’re acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it. You and I know this is true everywhere, but nowhere is this more true than in the African American community.”

The next day, social critic and sociologist Michael Eric Dyson published a critique of Obama’s speech in Time magazine. He pointed out that the stereotype of black men being poor fathers may well be false. Research shows that black fathers not living at home are actually more likely to keep in contact with their children than fathers of any other ethnic or racial group. Dyson chided Obama for evoking a black stereotype for political gain, noting that “Obama’s words may have been spoken to black folk, but they were aimed at those whites still on the fence about whom to send to the White House.” Dyson’s critique was a fair one, but like other media commentators, he remained silent about where all the absent black fathers could be found.

Here’s a hint for all those still scratching their heads about those missing black fathers: Look in prison.

The mass incarceration of people of color through the War on Drugs is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The absence of black fathers from families across America is not simply a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time watching Sports Center. Hundreds of thousands of black men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed by whites.

Most people seem to imagine that the drug war — which has swept millions of poor people of color behind bars — has been aimed at rooting out drug kingpins or violent drug offenders. Nothing could be further from the truth. This war has been focused overwhelmingly on low-level drug offenses, like marijuana possession — the very crimes that happen with equal frequency in middle class white communities.

In 2005, for example, 4 out 5 drug arrests were for possession and only 1 out of 5 were for sales. Most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity. Nearly 80 percent of the increase in drug arrests in the 1990s — the period of the most dramatic expansion of the drug war — was for marijuana possession, a drug less harmful than alcohol or tobacco. In some states, though, African Americans have comprised 80 to 90 percent of all drug convictions.

This is The New Jim Crow. People of color are rounded up — frequently at young ages — for relatively minor drug offenses, branded felons, and then relegated to a permanent second-class status in which they may be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and subjected to legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits. Those who are lucky enough to get a job upon release from prison find that up to 100 percent of their wages may be garnished to pay fees, fines, and court costs as well as the costs of their imprisonment and accumulated child support.

What, realistically, do we expect these folks to do? When those labeled felons fail under this system to make it on the outside — not surprisingly, about 70 percent fail within 3 years — we throw up our hands and wonder where they all went. Or we chastise them for being poor fathers and for failing to contribute to their families. It’s a set up. This system isn’t about crime control; it about racial control. Yes, even in the age of Obama.

Michelle Alexander

Civil rights lawyer, activist, professor, and national news commentator, Michelle Alexander has written a powerful new book arguing that the mass imprisonment of poor black and brown men and women is the most dramatic form of racial injustice in the United States today. She places this mass incarceration within 400 years of racist government policies and discusses what must be done to eliminate it.

  • “The New Jim Crow” — Thursday, February 25, 4:30 p.m., WLCAC Freedom Hall, 10950 South Central Ave., Los Angeles. Michelle Alexander: Book Signing and Discussion of her new boo
  • The New Jim Crow” – Friday, February 26, 7 p.m., Eso Won Bookstore, 4331 Degnan Blvd., Los Angeles. Michelle Alexander: Book Signing and Discussion of her new book

Republished with the author’s permission from Huffington Post.

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  1. says

    The Tipton comment should be addressed. Public education is the greatest social invention in the history of the world. Outside the classroom poor people don’t stand much of a chance. Preachers should say prayers about public education on Sundays. Teachers should replace the pledge of allegiance with a pledge about public education.
    That said , maybe the college students could organize at sporting events based on the double standard of drugs. Every NCAA contest features tremendous black athletes.Empathy sometimes begins with respect. Racists usually don’t go to sporting events dominated by black athletes, so the crowds are at least potentially empathetic. Just leafleting the people entering the sports arena and maybe a few chants in the game during time outs “end Jim Crow,”plus a local web site . Maybe get the coach to sign a “letter of intent” about Jim Crow so the parents of star athletes know their sons coaches are people of character.”You got to be dumb not to see the double standard ,coach,”is how I would put it.
    Conservatives like Tipton are bankrupt politically. That’s why we have the most prisoners in the world. They also call Obama a socialist while conservative corporate leaders suck up to Chinese Communist leaders and have destroy American communities by shifting their production to a so called communist country. “Conservative leaders prefer workers in communist countries” should be the Tea Party’s slogan.

  2. E.S.Casper says

    Excellent article, Ms. Alexander! It is truly unfortunate but you are correct in declaring this is The New Jim Crow. However, I do wish your article had been titled, “Where Have The Majority of Black Men Gone” instead of “All”. Such a title insults my black father, my black uncle, my black brother, my black cousins, & my black friends, who have been & continue to be there for their entire family. Many thanks!

  3. Wes Tipton says

    Gee, I have an idea, tell these young black men to stop using, and they won’t go to jail. That was a tough one to figure out eh?
    The truth is MOST of these men go to jail because they are repeat offenders, and your sugar coating doesn’t fly, nor is it responsible reporting. As Cosby and Brown pointed out years ago, the black race is prety much the only one that can’t take care of itself, why is that? Why can’t these black men pay attention in school and use that free education to further themselves. Because it’s easier to sell drugs than to flip burgers I guess, and hanging out on the corner with their buddies is better than actually studying and learning something quite obviously. I grew up with a lot of black friends,a nd nothing has changed in decades as far as their lack of motivation.
    Your race needs to clean up its act, and stop blaming the white folks for your problems. I have a lot of friends in public service who are passed over again and again because of affirmative action. As far as I’m concerned the whites are becoming the minority, and I am personally very tired of your race not responding to the benefits, perks and breaks the government has handed to you for along time now.

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