Ryan Bomberger, a biracial father of four and co-founder of the Radiance Foundation, spent many years working with inner-city disadvantaged black youth. It was not uncommon for boys to ask him if they could call him “Dad” or climb on him like he was a jungle gym. In his experience, the negative outcomes of fatherlessness “far outweighed” the educational, socioeconomic, and racial disadvantages the boys faced. Now, he frequently posts articles and photos on social media with the headline “Dads Matter.”
African American children are more likely to experience fatherlessness than any other racial group. According to recent data from the Institute for Family Studies (IFS), 64 percent of black children are raised in single-parent homes, and 4 in 10 live with just their mom. Sociologists have long associated those numbers with lower levels of educational attainment and higher rates of poverty, unemployment, and incarceration in the African American community.
But a Harvard sociologist is trying to undermine the importance of marriage and family in a new study. In a recent New York Times column titled “The Myth of the Two-Parent Home,” Christina Cross argued that “resources, more than family structure” are what really matter “for black kids’ success.”
Cross spent two years tracking a nationally representative sample of about 2,600 children’s living arrangements. Her findings, recently published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, conclude that living in a single-mother household does not decrease the chances of on-time high school completion for African American children as significantly as it does for their white peers. Instead, she attributes the racial achievement gap to structural factors like inequality and poverty and said sociologists need to stop “blindly promoting the merits of marriage and the two-parent family.”
W. Bradford Wilcox, a senior fellow at IFS and director of the National Marriage Project, said Cross gives a “distorted picture” of the benefits of a two-parent home and “does a disservice to a large body of research.” In another recent study, Penn State sociologist John Iceland concluded that family structure plays a bigger role in racial gaps in poverty and affluence than education. Separately, Harvard sociologist Raj Chetty found that African American boys who grew up in neighborhoods with lots of black fathers (and married adults) are more likely to have the same income as their white counterparts.
Wilcox said those and other studies show that dismissing the need for fathers and intact, two-parent homes “is not the message you want to give to African Americans coming of age and making choices about their relationships and children.”
Bomberger agreed. “Does racism still exist?” he asked. “Absolutely. But to blame racism more than family disruption or deterioration is a false narrative.”
Cross’ study also failed to recognize the vital role of churches in the lives of African American children living in single-mother homes, who are more likely to attend a congregation regularly than their white peers, Bomberger noted.
His message that dads matter seemed to ring true in the wake of the deaths of basketball superstar Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna last weekend. The two died along with seven others when their helicopter crashed on the way to a youth basketball game. ESPN anchor Elle Duncan’s account of Kobe Bryant gushing about his role as a “girl dad” quickly went viral afterward. So many fathers shared photos of their daughters that #GirlDad became a trending social media topic.
“There is something so potent about a father and a daughter dying together on their way to her basketball game,” Bomberger said.
Duncan met Bryant two years ago at an event and talked with him about being the father of girls. “When I reflect on this tragedy and that half an hour I spent with Kobe Bryant two years ago, I suppose that the only small source of comfort for me is knowing that he died doing what he loved the most: being a dad,” she said.