My father grew up without his father. Actually, he's not entirely sure it was his biological father, but in any case, the man left when my father was 6 years old. Growing up without a father had a devastating effect on his material and emotional well-being, and he constantly tells me about the hardships he experienced. He survived, however, and would eventually thrive intellectually and spiritually—no thanks to the paternal grandfather I will never know.
What caused my grandfather's absence?
What is to blame—or, perhaps, who is to blame—for the nearly seven out of 10 black children who are now being raised mainly by single black females?
For as long as I can remember, a war has been raging inside me over these questions. It has been a conflict with three armies of thought. My more conservative intellectual army has argued valiantly that black males' irresponsibility is primarily to blame. My more radical, scholarly army has claimed intrepidly that society is chiefly to blame. My more liberal, cerebral position is that it is a little bit of both.
My conflicted thinking on this matter is emblematic of the larger societal clash of ideas that has persisted for decades. This clash was thrown into sharp relief in the reaction to Barack Obama's now controversial Father's Day speech. In that speech, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president said: "If we are honest with ourselves, we'll admit that too many fathers also are missing—missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men."
Conservatives championed this statement. Radicals derided it. Liberals like the Rev. Jesse Jackson chastised Obama for not talking enough about society's responsibilities.
In the end, Obama adopted the traditional liberal line, telling reporters on his campaign plane that his "argument is simply … not an 'either-or' proposition, it's a 'both-and' proposition."
But which proposition is right? Who and/or what is to blame? That has yet to be settled. Are the conservatives correct? The liberals? The radicals?
This war of ideas should never have been a war at all. The conservatives are correct to emphasize black male irresponsibility. The radicals echo reality when they underscore society's role. The liberals should highlight accurately that it is a little bit of both.
How can they all be right?
It is indisputable that men of any race who walk away from their children are irresponsible. And it is just as indisputable that societal conditioning is the reason black men who do this are irresponsible; either they are conditioned to be irresponsible, or they are naturally more irresponsible than other groups of men.
Again, we all have to wrap ourselves around the fact that the primary reason black men in America walk away from their children is their irresponsibility. "We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception," Obama said on Father's Day. "We need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child—it's the courage to raise one."
There is no disputing that men who walk away from their children are irresponsible. There is no getting away from the conclusion that they are irresponsible. And those black men in America who are not taking care of their children are generally irresponsible, and they should be demonstrably chastised for that.
Furthermore, it should be noted that in terms of taking care of their children, black men are the most irresponsible men in America: 65 percent of black households are led by single women. Compare that with a single-parent rate of 37 percent among Latinos and 23 percent among whites. (For a number of reasons that I won't delve into here, there are actually more black, white and Latino men in their children's lives than these statistics suggest.)
But why are so many more black men irresponsible when it comes to taking care of their children than Latino men or white men? There are two possible explanations: nature or nurture.
In the nature argument, black men, in comparison to white and Latino men, have more of a natural proclivity to walk away from their children; in the nurture argument, the irresponsibility is bred into black men as part of their societal conditioning.
Using nature to explain the inequality directly positions black men as inferior to Latino and white men, at least in regard to being responsible for one's kids. To buy into that argument, you'd have to accept that black men are naturally inclined to be more irresponsible concerning their children than any group of men in this nation because God, or whatever higher or scientific power you believe in, made them that way, or so the nature argument goes. To use the natural argument to explain the inequality, one must be treading superiority and inferiority thoughts in the ideological pool of racism—whether consciously, subconsciously or unconsciously.
Personally, I do not believe that black men are naturally inferior to any other group of men in any way. Thus, if you and I are not racists, that leaves one explanation as to why black men are so much more irresponsible than other groups when it comes to taking care of their children—nurture.
Just as the conservatives are unquestionably accurate that black male irresponsibility is the cause of the epidemic of black households headed by single females, radicals are absolutely correct about society's underlying role, in this case, as the cause of the cause.
You have to agree that something in society—and perhaps more than a single thing: inferior public education, poverty, limited options and access to vocational opportunities, fewer responsible role models, negative media portrayals of black masculinity, etc.—breeds this black male irresponsibility when it concerns taking care of their children.
To ascertain the cause of the cause would require reading the forest of research on this subject, and, instead of chastising these absentee fathers, asking them why they abandoned their children. We would undoubtedly find some solid human reasons, and the solutions to this crisis would come rushing toward us like a boy to a returning father.
Like so many absentee fathers, we've removed ourselves from the arena of solutions for too long. Instead, for decades, we've been arguing back and forth over who or what is to blame for these catastrophic statistics. That should be obvious by now—the irresponsibility of the black men is to blame. It should be just as obvious that the cause of the irresponsibility of too many black men is our collective irresponsibility as a society.
The only relevant debate now lies in figuring out a solution. Any other exercise would be intellectually irresponsible. The more black men have walked away from their kids, the more we've walked away from any bona fide attempt at finding a solution. To bring black men back to their families, we have to return to a discussion about the causes of the cause, and how to reverse it. Only this conversation will save the beloved black family.
Ibram Rogers is a doctoral student in African-American studies at Temple University.