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Where Have All the Black Men Gone?

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A recurring question has surfaced in mainstream and ethnic media for more than a decade. The phrasing of the question differs depending on who's asking the question and why, but the question tends to boil down to this: Where have all the black men gone? They're missing in churches, missing from their families, missing from college campuses, and absent from work. Black women can't find a man to marry. Black children don't know where to find their fathers. Where are those guys?

Last Father's Day, presidential Barack Obama wagged a finger at all the missing black fathers. At the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago he stepped to the podium and said: "If we are honest with ourselves, we'll admit that too many fathers are missing -- missing from too many lives and too many homes. Too many fathers are MIA. Too many fathers are AWOL. They have abandoned their responsibilities. They're acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it. You and I know this is true everywhere, but nowhere is this more true than in the African American community."

The next day, social critic and sociologist Michael Eric Dyson published a critique of Obama's speech in Time magazine. He pointed out that the stereotype of black men being poor fathers may well be false. Research shows that black fathers not living at home are actually more likely to keep in contact with their children than fathers of any other ethnic or racial group. Dyson chided Obama for evoking a black stereotype for political gain, noting that "Obama's words may have been spoken to black folk, but they were aimed at those whites still on the fence about whom to send to the White House." Dyson's critique was a fair one, but like other media commentators, he remained silent about where all the absent black fathers could be found.

Here's a hint for all those still scratching their heads about those missing black fathers: Look in prison.

The mass incarceration of people of color through the War on Drugs is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The absence of black fathers from families across America is not simply a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time watching Sports Center. Hundreds of thousands of black men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed by whites.

Most people seem to imagine that the drug war -- which has swept millions of poor people of color behind bars -- has been aimed at rooting out drug kingpins or violent drug offenders. Nothing could be further from the truth. This war has been focused overwhelmingly on low-level drug offenses, like marijuana possession -- the very crimes that happen with equal frequency in middle class white communities.

In 2005, for example, 4 out 5 drug arrests were for possession and only 1 out of 5 were for sales. Most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity. Nearly 80 percent of the increase in drug arrests in the 1990s -- the period of the most dramatic expansion of the drug war -- was for marijuana possession, a drug less harmful than alcohol or tobacco. In some states, though, African Americans have comprised 80 to 90 percent of all drug convictions.

This is The New Jim Crow. People of color are rounded up -- frequently at young ages -- for relatively minor drug offenses, branded felons, and then relegated to a permanent second-class status in which they may be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and subjected to legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits. Those who are lucky enough to get a job upon release from prison find that up to 100 percent of their wages may be garnished to pay fees, fines, and court costs as well as the costs of their imprisonment and accumulated child support. What, realistically, do we expect these folks to do? When those labeled felons fail under this system to make it on the outside -- not surprisingly, about 70 percent fail within 3 years -- we throw up our hands and wonder where they all went. Or we chastise them for being poor fathers and for failing to contribute to their families. It's a set up. This system isn't about crime control; it about racial control. Yes, even in the age of Obama.

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