Race, Culture, and Poverty: The Path Forward

The point of writing isn't just to son or be sonned—it's to know more.
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University of California Press

One thing that happens in the kind of debates we've just seen between myself and Jonathan Chait is that people count up points to see who's sonned who. I shall be honest here: I prefer to son than be sonned. But if the conversation ends merely in sonnage, we've lost something. For black people, this conversation is not an abstract thought experiment nor merely a stimulating debate, after which we may repair to our lounges and exchange quips over martinis (though if you're going to do that, do it with Hendrick's). These are our lives. When you are black, no matter how prosperous, the war is right outside your door—around the corner, a phone call away, at a family reunion. 

The primary goal of this space is to promote clarity and understanding. The sonning of all interlocutors must always play the back. That is because those of us who seek clarity know that even if we son today, we almost certainly will be sonned tomorrow. Sometimes—in fact often times—the greatest clarity comes in being sonned. My greatest lessons have come to me on my ass, with someone—my dad, my mom, my professor, my editor, my friend, a commenter—standing over me. Seeking clarity is not the business of being right. I hope to often be right. But I know inevitably I must, at least sometimes, be sonned. 

In my conversation with Jonathan Chait, I believe that I am right. But more importantly, I hope to know more. Here is another step in that endeavor. The social scientists Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson have authored a well-regarded study of unmarried inner-city fathers, Doing The Best I Can.

The authors begin by laying out three familiar portraits of fathers.

First from William Bennett:

“It is unmarried fathers who are missing in record numbers, who impregnate women and selfishly flee,” raged conservative former U.S. secretary of education William Bennett in his 2001 book, The Broken Hearth. “And it is these absent men, above all, who deserve our censure and disesteem. Abandoning alike those who they have taken as sexual partners, and whose lives they have created, they strike at the heart of the marital ideal, traduce generations yet to come, and disgrace their very manhood.”

Second from Bill Cosby:

“No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father of the unmarried child,” Bill Cosby declared in 2004 at the NAACP’s gala commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Brown versus Board of Education, as he publicly indicted unwed fathers for merely “inserting the sperm cell” while blithely eschewing the responsibilities of fatherhood.

And then from the president:

Then, in 2007, two days before Father’s Day, presidential candidate Barack Obama admonished the congregants of Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, saying, “There are a lot of men out there who need to stop acting like boys, who need to realize that responsibility does not end at conception, who need to know that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one."

Edin and Nelson also lay out an infamous portrait of a deadbeat African-American father, Timothy McSeed, (yes, really) that ran on CBS in 1986. The father showed little regard for his children, asserting: "If a girl, you know, she's having a baby, carryin' a baby, that's on her, you know? I'm not going to stop my pleasures."

The portrait sent the media into a fit of rage at absent fathers, and black absent fathers in particular:

William Raspberry’s brother-in-law wrote the noted columnist that the day after viewing the program, he drove past a young black couple and found himself reacting with violent emotion. “I was looking at a problem, a threat, a catastrophe, a disease. Suspicion, disgust and contempt welled up within me.” But it was George Will who reached the heights of outraged rhetoric in his syndicated column, declaring that “the Timothies are more of a menace to black progress than the Bull Connors ever were."

Edin and Nelson, taking note of these portrayals, lay out a simple goal:

The conventional wisdom spun by pundits and public intellectuals across the political spectrum blames the significant difficulties that so many children born to unwed parents face—poor performance in school, teen pregnancy and low school-completion rates, criminal behavior, and difficulty securing a steady job—on their fathers’ failure to care. The question that first prompted our multiyear exploration into the lives of inner-city, unmarried fathers is whether this is, in fact, the case.

What I hope to take from this, and from future reading, is something beyond dueling rhetoric. A writer is, mostly, a professional amateur. Part of the job (the least important I'd argue) is fighting with other writers. But most of it is posing questions to people who know more than you. Edin and Nelson offer on the ground research with 110 fathers—black and white—in Camden, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. Certainly what they report back cannot be definitive. But it can be informative. And it can take us away from the land of thought experiments and theorizing, into the world of real people doing real things. I look forward to reporting the results. 

Donc, on y va. Or as we say in the tongue of black pathologia—once again, it's on.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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