Yesterday, I had the rare pleasure of attending a City Council hearing on education reform in Washington, DC, which has some of the worst public schools in the country. The highlight of the event for me was seeing former Mayor and current Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry live and in person.
My excitement, however, quickly turned to disappointment once Mr. Barry’s turn came to address the witnesses. In his attempt to explain to the panel of experts why their “academic” policy suggestions might not work in the District’s socioeconomic and cultural climate, Councilmember Barry dragged out the tired old trope about how 80-something percent of DC households were headed by single mothers and how this fact alone was responsible for much of the District’s problems. But Marion Barry is not the first Black person to put forth this argument. It seems like only yesterday that then-candidate Barack Obama scored points on the campaign trail for calling on Black men to take a more active role in parenthood. But despite its popularity, this man-in-the-house argument is problematic for many reasons, not least of all because it is classist, sexist, and heterosexist.
First off, I won’t pretend to not understand that two-parent households can be more stable than single-parent ones. But we totally miss the mark if we assume that a household is more stable simply because it is headed by two parents, or because one of the household heads is a man. Poverty, not single motherhood, is the real problem in DC and other urban communities. Of course, a two-parent household potentially has double the earnings of a single-parent household, but this only holds true in cases in which both parents are earning an income. In today’s troubled times there is no guarantee that one, let alone both, adults are earning an income, and in impoverished urban communities—like much of DC—the question then becomes not whether or not there are two parents heading the household but whether household income can cover the family’s basic needs. And with national unemployment rates skewed so heavily against Black men, simply having a man in the house is no guarantee that the family will earn enough to improve its fortunes.
The man-in-the-house argument is also problematic because it is classist, too often brought up in the context of low-income households—thanks to the nexus of race and class in the US, low-income households are also often Black households. In other words, it’s an argument that’s made almost exclusively in the case of poor or working-class women, a substantial percentage of whom happen to be Black. Needless to say, any argument that applies only to people of a certain class or skin color is problematic, for obvious reasons. In fact, the man-in-the-house argument is almost never brought up publicly when affluent single women choose to raise their biological children out of wedlock, to not remarry after a divorce, or to adopt children. Clearly, what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander: if low-income Black women need a man in the house, shouldn’t the same hold true for affluent women?
There is also a pervasive element of sexism in the man-in-the-house rationale, because it assumes that women are somehow less capable of heading a household or raising a family. As mentioned above, household income is much more relevant to the stability or success of a household than whether or not it is headed by a woman. More importantly, this argument trivializes the significant and inescapable fact that generations of Black people—men and women—have been raised by women. When men have been unwilling or unable to be there for their children, it is the Black woman who has borne the responsibility of caring for the family. From the days of slavery when the “kitchen baby” was rejected by its White father’s family, it was up to Black women to raise and care for that child. Today, Black women are raising not only their children but also their children’s children. Without Black mothers there would be no Black community, and to continually insist on the importance of Black men is to trivialize and outright ignore the tremendous role played by Black women in American society.
Finally, the man-in-the-house argument is heterosexist, because it assumes that the ideal household is one headed by a man and a woman. So, are we to believe that a two-woman household is worse off simply because it lacks a man? Again, the argument holds little water because many lesbian couples are successfully raising children in stable homes without men. Obviously, the presence or absence of a man in a lesbian household is a moot issue. What matters more is whether or not a single woman or a two-woman couple can provide materially and emotionally for their children.
In light of the aforementioned points, the man-in-the-house argument is self-contradictory. On one hand we are asked to believe that single-mother homes have dire consequences for an entire community, but on the other hand, few people can deny that an affluent woman—or two financially stable women—can maintain a household. But even in cases where the woman is not affluent, it is wrong to assume that she would be better of with a man in her home.
Take, for instance, the issue of domestic violence (DV). Some studies indicate that up to 85 percent of DV victims are women. Closer to home, the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that in 2005, 43 percent of the almost 5,000 victims of DV were residents of Ward 8, Marion Barry’s own district. This is not to disparage Marion Barry or to argue that all men are abusers. It is simply to argue that in many cases, having a man in the house actually makes matters worse. One final point: the man of the house is much more likely to squander a family’s income on alcohol, drugs, or gambling. Is it any surprise then that international development organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations have recognized that putting a woman in control of a household’s finances benefits not only her family but also the community at large?
So why does the man-in-the-house argument carry so much weight? Part of the answer, I believe, lies in the inherent sexism of our patriarchal society, which presumes that men are natural leaders and that social problems arise when men do not lead. After all, we are taught that men lead nations, armies, churches, and corporations, so it is only natural that they should lead households. But the damage done to the Black two-parent heterosexual family—not to mention the wider Black community—is not the result of decisions made by individual Black men. Rather, it is the consequence of the same social and economic structures that continue to keep Black men under-educated, under-employed, and over-represented in the criminal justice system. This reality, however, does not totally exonerate Black men: many of us cling to the man-in-the-house argument, perhaps because we—despite being marginalized in many ways—still feel entitled to be higher on the patriarchal pecking order than women. Perhaps because we are so marginalized in the wider society, many of us view the home as one area in which we ought to dominate.
At the end of the day, the problems facing the Black community are wider and deeper than Marion Barry and the other proponents of the man-in-the-house argument dare to admit. Long-term solutions will require much more than two-parent, man-woman households, and we must not lay the responsibility for solving what is, in reality a national problem, solely at the feet of Black men. This is not to say Black men bear no responsibility. There is certainly much we can do to help. We can recommit ourselves to supporting our families and we can take a public stand against domestic violence. We can re-evaluate our attitudes towards schooling and start thinking of ways to make the schools work better for us and our children. And we can get more involved in our communities by mentoring youth and educating them about the challenges they will have to overcome as they make their way through American society.
But the problems we face are not caused solely by individual action or inaction, and it will take a collective national effort to rebuild Black communities. For starters, everyone needs to stop thinking of our communities as Black communities and start thinking of them as American communities: What’s good for Black people is also good for America. All Americans need jobs that pay a living wage. We all need better public schools, greater opportunities for educational advancement, and job training to ensure career mobility. And we all need a more affordable, accessible, and equitable health-care system. It may sound like we need a lot but as a society, it is hypocritical for us to demand that Black men provide for their families while we simultaneously deny them opportunities for moral uplift and social advancement. Historically, Black men have proven themselves to be a resilient lot, bearing with grace and flair the brunt of what our society has dealt us. But we are in the end mere men. And while some of us are indeed capable of working miracles, rebuilding our communities will take much more than simply having a man in the house.