African American Fathers and Incarceration: The Creation and Embellishment of a Stereotype

Written by

Henrie Treadwell
Henrie Treadwell Dr. Treadwell is Director and Senior Social Scientist for Community Voices of Morehouse School of Medicine and Research Professor in the Department of Community Health and Preventive Medicine. Her major responsibilities include program oversight and management for Community Voices: Healthcare for the Underserved, a special informing policy initiative that is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Dr. Treadwell is the co-editor of “Health Issues in the Black Community (2009)” and is Section Editor-Social Determinants in the Journal of Men’s Health. Dr. Treadwell was appointed to the Georgia State Board of Corrections by Governor Sonny Perdue and selected to serve on the Advisory Committee for the Georgia Justice Project.

In the mind’s eye, in the press, in the common vernacular, the African American man is not a responsible parent as there are so many single women raising the children alone, in poverty. Often children are raising their siblings while the mother works, but we rarely think or speak of them. To understand how we came to this place it is necessary to take a trip back to the future.

History tells a different tale about the path from the so-called ‘good old days’ to today and how that journey has affected fathers. We should never forget the ‘man in the house’ rule, officially sanctioned policy of the United States, and how it forced men into the street if the woman was receiving Aid for Families With Dependent Children.  The policymakers decided that if a man was present in the house that he should get up and go find a job…all of this in the midst of great unemployment. The ‘man in the house rule’ was only developed once African-Americans began to enroll in large numbers in AFDC, which had previously been a predominantly white program.

Thus it began again, the mass, forced exodus of African American men away from their families.  These fathers left during slavery heartbroken and in shackles.  They left under ‘man in the house’ rule years later without shackles but soon found a predatory criminal justice system that shackled them and spirited them away often far from their families, many of them, never to be seen again. In general, the mother had no idea, as to what happened to her husband, her partner, the father of her children. That man was just gone away! The perception of the runaway daddy became reality, and has taken its’ place in our narrative and lexicon as a stereotype…a man who fathers children and chooses to simply walk away.  Society from the highest levels turns a blind eye to understanding the policies that have affected these men disproportionately and in so doing, make no attempt to understand the man trapped in the maze of laws gone amuck.

Stereotypical perceptions and attitudes, reinforced by racism and discrimination, are a key factor in how we include or exclude African American men in the social and economic fabric of our community. Stereotypes that are actualized directly impact the ability of African American fathers to succeed as parents and as productive members of society. Stereotyping people, also known as profiling, is feeding the prison industrial complex. Many of those caught in the net of criminal justice will never realize their full potential in the ‘land of the free, home of the brave.’ And it is this lack of ability to recover from incarceration that strip African-American men disproportionately of their ability to be ‘present’ at home, to parent, be a cherished father.  Be daddy.

In sum, in far too many children’s homes in the African American community, daddy is away because he is in prison (or is in jail), often for many years, in faraway prisons that are not child-friendly visiting places even when and if the family can go to see him.  Incarceration is the most significant and poignant of obstacles to successful fatherhood. We must examine the collateral damage of profiling and an encounter with the criminal justice system and how it affects parenting behavior.

You can learn much more about this phenomenon and solutions that everyone can implement in the forthcoming book “Beyond Stereotypes in Black and White: How Everyday Leaders Can Build Healthier Opportunities for African American Boys and Men (Praeger Press, January 31, 2013).

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