Who Is Responsible for Fatherless Black Families? The Reverend Jeremiah Wright: A Memory from the Army

Few people I know had a more abrupt transition from their college education to the workplace than I did.  I was enamored of the liberal arts, majoring in philosophy, with a minor in English literature.  Practical studies were anathema.  But then I graduated.

I soon learned that there is not much you can do with a B.A. in philosophy.  I recall visiting an employment agency shortly after I graduated.  “What is philosophy?” the lady interviewing me asked, noticing the degree on my application.  “It’s the study of the larger questions in life — truth, meaning, beauty — that kind of thing,” I responded.  There was a pause.  “Well, did you learn to type?”

So it was that I joined the Army, as an enlisted man.  That experience, particularly the six weeks of boot camp, brought an intense dose of reality therapy — particularly racial reality, given that my boot camp and many of my assigned units were 30%–40% black.  I needed that therapy, but it was painful.

I began thinking about some of my Army experiences recently when I was listening to the speech given on Christmas Day, 2007, by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the now retired pastor of Barack Obama’s  Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.  Here is an excerpt from Rev. Wright’s speech:

Jesus was a poor black man who lived in a country and who lived in a culture that was controlled by rich white people.  The Romans were rich, the Romans were Italians, which means they were European, which means they were white, and the Romans ran everything in Jesus’s country.  It just came to me within the last few weeks you’all why so many folks are hating on Barack Obama.  He doesn’t fit the model.  He ain’t white, he ain’t rich, and he ain’t privileged.  Hillary fits the mold . . . Hillary never had a cab whiz past her and not pick her up because her skin was the wrong color . . . Hillary was not a black boy raised in a single parent home — Barack was.  Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people . . . Hillary can never know that.

There are many statements in this speech that are untrue or noxiously ethnocentric, or both.  But one statement in particular stuck in my craw:  “Hillary was not a black boy raised in a single parent home —  Barack was.”  The inference seems to be that white racism is the cause, or at least a major cause, of fatherless black families.  I don’t buy it.

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In the Army I was a legal clerk.  One of my tasks was to help prepare basic legal documents for the troops.  One such document was an affidavit of paternity, by which a soldier acknowledged that he was the father of a child whose mother he never married.  With the passage of decades I do not recall the precise purpose of the affidavit, but I believe it entitled the mother and child to certain Army benefits. I do recall rather vividly, however, the day a black sergeant — I will call him Sergeant Smith — came in to sign an affidavit of paternity.  He and I chatted, and he cheerfully told me that this was the fourth affidavit he had executed while in the Army, all for different women.  He was not embarrassed by this fact.  To the contrary, he was proud of it.  His attitude suggested he had no particular intention of taking responsibility for the children he had spawned and that executing the affidavit was about all the women should expect from him.

I went into the Army a liberal on racial matters, and when I encountered Sergeant Smith I was still in transition to more realistic views.  Smith’s cavalier attitude moved me a long step forward in that transition.  I remember asking myself “Who is going to act as a father for this guy’s kids?”  By the time I left the Army a few years later, I was confident I knew the answer: No one.  During my time in service I met so many black males who had the same attitude as Smith toward fathering children (I’m not saying I didn’t meet a few irresponsible whites as well) that I concluded this “beget and forget” attitude was a core trait of a wide sector of black culture.

Statistics bear out the accuracy of this conclusion.  According to the National Center for Health Statistics, in 2005, 69% of black births were to unmarried mothers, a rate that has been increasing for years. And the social consequences of fatherless families are horrendous.  Crime rates, drug and alcohol abuse, emotional and behavioral problems, school drop out rates, and a host of other social ills are much higher, sometimes by several multiples, in fatherless families than in families with an active and committed father.

Liberal-in-transition though I was, even when I was in the Army I could not credit the idea that the prevalent fatherlessness of  black families could be ascribed to a supposed white racism.  The Ku Klux Klan was not forcing Sergeant Smith to impregnate black women and then abandon them.  To the contrary, Smith’s procreative adventures seemed a gesture of defiance toward white mores.  If there is free moral choice in this world — and I believe there is — Smith made his choice as freely as many of the rest of us have chosen to act the role of fathers for our children.

I do not know what has become of Sergeant Smith and his children.  I do know that a year after his visit to my office I learned he had impregnated another woman.  I can surmise that at least some of his five (or more) children followed their biological father’s dad-free example in spawning children of their own.  And I can surmise as well that much of the daunting social costs from this irresponsible parenting — the crime, the substance abuse, the morass in public education in most large cities —  is being borne, and borne rather patiently, by the white society that Mr. Obama’s former pastor so fervidly castigates as racist.

Travis Woodson is an attorney practicing on the West Coast.