The public discourse regarding “missing black fathers” closely parallels he debate about the lack of eligible black men for marriage. The majority of black women are unmarried today, including 70 percentage of professional black women. Where have all the black men gone? Is a common refrain heard among black women frustrated in their efforts to find life partners.
The sense that black men have disappeared is rooted in reality. The U. S. Census Bureau reported in 2002 that there are nearly 3 million more black adult women than men in black communities across the United States, a gender a gap for 26 percent. In many urban areas, the gap is far worse, rising to more than 37 percent in places like New York City. The comparable disparity for whites in the United States is 8 percent. Although a million black men can be found in prisons and jails, public acknowledgement of the role of the criminal justice system in “disappearing” black men is surprisingly rare. Even in the black media—which is generally more willing o raise and tackle issues related to criminal justice—an eerie silence can often be found.
The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reports the fact that black women hold a large lead over black men in almost every facet of higher education. Black women currently earn about two thirds of all African-American bachelor’s degree awards, 70 percent of all master’s degrees, and more than 60 percent of all doctorates. Black women also hold a majority of all African-American enrollments in law, medical, and dental schools. Looking exclusively to undergraduate higher education, the latest Department of Education figures show that black women account for 63.6 percent of all African-American enrollment.
Ebony magazine for example ran an article in December 2006 entitled “Where Have the Black Men Gone?” The author posed the popular question but never answered it. He suggested we will find our black men when we rediscover God, family and self-respect. The fact that Barack Obama can give a speech on Father’s Day dedicated to the subject of fathers who are AWOL without ever acknowledging the majority of young black men in many large urban areas are currently under the control of the criminal justice system is disturbing to say the least. What is more problematic though, is that hardly anyone in the mainstream media noticed the oversight. Hundreds of thousands of black men are unable to be good fathers because they are warehoused in prisons, locked in cages. They did not walk out on their families voluntarily; they were taken away in handcuffs, often due to a massive federal program known as the War on Drugs.
More African American adults are under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enclosed in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. The
mass incarceration of people of color 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 children born during slavery. The absence of black fathers from families across American is not simply a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time watching Sports Center. Thousands of black men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed by whites.
Black people only represent 13.3 percent of the U.S. population while white people make up about 77 percent. But there are more black men in state prisons across the nation than there are white men. The latest Federal Bureau of Prisons statistics showed the white population was 58.7 percent in August, compared to the 37.8 percent of blacks being housed at federal institutions. At the state level, however, the department said that black male prisoners represent 38 percent of the population while white males account for 35 percent and 21 percent are Hispanic males. Overall, blacks are 5.1 more times likely to be incarcerated than whites, and blacks represent more than half of the prison population in 11 states.
The clock has been turned back on racial progress in America, though scarcely anyone seems to notice. All eyes are fixed on people like Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Robert L. Johnson who have defied the odds and risen to power, family and a great future. For those left behind, especially those within prison walls, the celebration of racial triumph in American must seem a tad premature. More black men are imprisoned today than any other moment in our nation’s history. More are disenfranchised today than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified to laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race. Young black men today may be just as likely to suffer discrimination employment, housing, public benefits, and jury service as a black man in the Jim Crow era—discrimination that is perfectly legal, because it is based on one’s criminal record. This is the new normal, the new racial equilibrium.