Would I want to repeat the child-separation trauma of long ago?
Father-absence is the norm in many black child-rearing homes.¹
Black children without a father in the home experience negative life outcomes, including higher rates of criminal behavior and incarceration. There is disagreement about the causes of father-absent families in the black community.
The American Black Experience
I was reminded of the fatherless family issue when I met recently with a group of friends. When the discussion turned to the high rate of fatherless homes in the black community, one friend offered an often-used narrative: During the period of black slavery, white slave owners frequently broke up families by selling one of the parents or the children to another owner. According to this narrative, the current absence-of-father problem is a vestige of the cruel practice of family separation two centuries earlier.
Conservative black economist Thomas Sowell has disputed this view. According to Sowell, this view is not supported by the data on black families. In 1960, nearly one hundred years after slavery, 78 per cent of black children lived in two-parent families. But after the advent of public welfare programs in the 1960s, the prevalence of two-parent families in the black community dropped dramatically.
Under the “Aid to Families with Dependent Children” program, the US government largely qualified only fatherless homes for aid. According to black commentator Larry Elder, this created an incentive for mothers “to marry the government.” This led to a dramatic increase in fatherless child rearing.
Today, the incidence of children being raised in fatherless homes is high in both white and black families, but is dramatically higher in black families.
The Parallel Jewish Experience
In the Jewish experience was there anything analogous to the tearing away of children from their families? I didn’t have to think long about this question.
During the Holocaust both my mother and father were forced into ghettos and concentration camps. For a period of years they were effectively and legally slaves. That is, they were forced against their will and at the threat of death, to be imprisoned in enclosures and to work as slaves. This all occurred behind walls, electrified fences and tall guardhouses manned by machine-gun wielding German guards.
Unlike southern slave owners, my parents’ German masters had little incentive to keep their slaves alive and well enough to be exploited for their labor. The Germans designed their enslavement intentionally to result in mass death. That was the very purpose of herding, enclosing and enslaving the Jewish prisoners.
In the ante-bellum south, slave owners had total control over the fate of their slaves. For a variety of economic motives the slave owner often sold slave children or one or both parents. This effectively separated children from their parents, often for their lifetimes. This was a heartless and common practice.
During the Holocaust, the Germans deliberately targeted children for immediate death. In the ghettos the Germans seized children who were too young to work and loaded them into railcars and then to the gas chambers and ovens. In Jewish towns, villages and neighborhoods, mobile killing squads often murdered the very young and the very old on the spot. They shipped the remaining able bodied adults to work camps or extermination camps.
So what is the parallel to black American slavery?
The holocaust occurred within memory of thousands of survivors still alive today. Unlike Jewish survivors, there are no blacks living today who experienced slavery.
Cause and Effect
Does a history of forced family separation leave a legacy of harm that results in father-absence, years after the traumatic event?
In the Jewish experience, what is the corollary to the argument that black slavery in America’s past is responsible for father-absence in black families today?
That corollary would go something like this: Because of the trauma of having children forcefully ripped from their progenitors 70 years ago, today’s Jewish fathers are unable or unwilling to take responsibility for their children.
This argument is absurd.
Precisely because of the tragedies of the past, Jewish fathers from survivor families are among the most intensely devoted parents. Many of the survivors’ children and grandchildren are determined to make up for past losses by having large families and taking an intense interest in their children’s welfare.
If I were a black American, what would I feel, looking back on the slavery experience of my great-great-grandparents?
If my ancestor’s children were ripped from their bosoms then, would I not feel now that I want to hold my own children dear?
Would I want to repeat the child-separation trauma of long ago? Or would I want to defy it?
I don’t know why many black fathers today abandon their children. Or for that matter, why any parent would willingly abandon a child.
But I don’t believe the “legacy of slavery” argument. That argument should not be used by any parent to evade the most important thing an adult is called upon to do: love and support his children.
- Almost three-quarters of black infants are born out of wedlock (Politifact, 2013). About two-thirds of black children are born into single parent households. (African-American Family Structure, Wikipedia, 2021).