A few weeks ago, Fathers Incorporated, Open Society Foundations Campaign for Black Male Achievement and the Urban Institute held a research forum to reexamine a controversial report by the Department of Labor's 1965 assistant secretary of labor, Daniel Moynihan. The Moynihan Report, titled,“The Case for National Action: The Negro Family,” set off a barnstorm of criticism by Black scholars at the time of its release due to Moynihan's conclusion that African American poverty and political inequality were the result of a Black community "pathology" and the absence of nuclear families. The popular phrase, "blaming the victim" was first coined by sociologist William Ryan as the title of his 1971 book criticizing Moynihan's dismissal of the role of institutionalized racism in the plight of Black families in poverty. Today, as Black families are deeper in poverty than ever in the wake of the recession—as they say, when America catches a cold, Black America catches the flu— Black scholars at the Moyniham Revisited forum debated whether Moynihan was right about the dismal future of Blacks in America due to the breakdown of the nuclear family.
Nearly 50 years ago, the Moynihan Report documented the absence of men from Black families and their failure to uphold their responsibilities to protect and provide. While one might suppose that money is not the only thing needed to contribute to a healthy family, reality suggests that financial security is surely a huge factor. According to the Moynihan Revisited report, today, one out of six black men who want to work can’t find work and is unemployed. Thus, is it any wonder that the Black nuclear family is under stress?
At the forum, Michelle Alexander, author of the New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness told the heart-wrenching story of how her father, John Alexander, died 20 years ago of a sudden fatal heart attack brought on by the stress of unemployment, hopelessness, despair and a family that was falling apart. That story, like so many others shared that day, touches the landscape of numerous families across the country, though undeniably it is the Black and brown families who have come to know poverty and struggle more intimately for far too long.
Alexander’s story further reveals a familiar but often untold or forgotten reality. “He collapsed on the living room floor while my mother was at the grocery store. He died just days before he was scheduled to be evicted, and my mother had just told him that she was leaving him, again; she could no longer tolerate the roller coaster that had become their life—evictions, joblessness.”
I too remember the uselessness I felt at times when I didn’t have a job—how life became a burden to bear each and every moment of my existence. I can recall looking into the face of my child after having separated from her mother, not knowing how I could support either of us; but being all too aware that neither the obligation, responsibility nor agonizing feeling of worthlessness eating at the core of the little bit of self-esteem I had left would go away. Work is still the core requirement of manhood. Without it, it's hard for men to find worthiness. Sure, some will discover other means to fulfill their own expectations of manhood, however, society has its own ideas of what it means to be a man. As Alexander's story illustrates, when men fall short of that, the emotional and physical impact of that can be devestating for families.
Alexander's father's plight mirrors countless well-intentioned, honorable and loving men, both fathers and husbands. And with the unemployment rate for Black men standing at a staggering 14.5% —higher than any other racial group— this is not a narrative that seems likely to change any time soon.
As Alexander closed her story, she left us with this painful conclusion, “I so wanted [my father] to rebound, to bounce back. I so wanted him to be that father, that traditional father who would provide, protect and be there for his family. That’s what a father is supposed to be, right? I am so grateful my father received the birthday card that I sent forgiving him. He called me right away and said the words that I’ll never forget. He said, ‘I want you to know that I was always trying my best even if it was woefully inadequate.’ Days later, he was found dead, crumpled on the living room floor.”
Face down and on the floor; a far too familiar position for black men. Who's to blame?