DURHAM, N.C. – “America is not another word for Opportunity to all her sons,” wrote W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903, and unfortunately, the same sad reality still holds true for her fathers.

But a new essay from Dr. Clinton Boyd, Jr., a postdoctoral associate at Duke’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center for Social Equity, explains how public policy adjustments and designated support programs can better enable young black fathers to “serve as assets” to their families and communities. Significantly, the essay takes the bold and necessary step of viewing these often-vilified individuals in a “positive, aspirational light.”

“Our essay is a rallying cry for those who share our vision for creating a society where young black fathers are supported, valued, and cherished as parents,” says Boyd, who co-authored the paper with Deirdre Oakley, a sociology professor at Georgia State University. “Too often, black fathers – specifically young black fathers – are overlooked by programs and services aimed at improving family well-being. Our proposed program seeks to reverse this trend. The recent national events of COVID-19, the economic downturn, and the extrajudicial killings of black men makes our work all the more relevant, as black fathers have seen their lives distinctly upended by these calamities.”

Boyd and Oakley’s work, “Untapped Assets: Developing a Strategy to Empower Black Fathers in Mixed-Income Communities,” will appear in the fifth volume of the What Works series from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and is currently available to be read online.

In the essay, Boyd and Oakley start with an overview of how exclusionary housing policy, in conjunction with large-scale trends towards mass incarceration, have “historically constrained opportunities for black fathers.” As the “War on Drugs” escalated in the late-20th century, new federal policies meant that individuals with criminal records, even nonviolent drug offenses, could no longer reside in public housing. Similarly, unforgiving “zero-tolerance” penalties instituted by housing managers—e.g. evicting individuals for not reporting an update in household composition—mean that relatives might be putting themselves at risk by welcoming a formerly incarcerated black father back into the home.

However, the authors identify ways to escape this vicious cycle, which first requires grappling with racial disparities in terms of upward mobility. One key factor rises to the forefront: that black boys have greater outcomes as adults if their youth communities prominently feature black fathers, “implying that the presence of black fathers has a neighborhood-level influence that transcends family relations.”

“Black fathers play a vital role in mitigating the effects of systemic racism in the lives of black boys,” says Boyd. “According to the latest research, when black fathers have an active community presence, black boys have higher incomes and lower rates of incarceration when they reach adulthood.”

As such, Boyd and Oakley propose a “father-focused, family-centered program” to be implemented in mixed-income communities. In particular, they plan to create a never-yet-existed support structure for young black fathers, ages 18-24, a group that has “been largely neglected by researchers, policymakers, and practitioners” and oft-depicted as delinquent by the media. These fathers are part of a collective that—due to long-compounded inequities in policing, the work force, and schooling—is disproportionately incarcerated, unemployed, and detached from educational systems.

The program “aims to promote more reliable social connections” between these young black fathers and their children, family, and community. To foster this necessary support, it features such elements as peer groups for fathers, home visiting services, and designated father-son events, with an overarching focus on three goals: personal development, career acceleration, and system disruption. Through this program, these men would be equipped with tools to become better parents, better earners for their families, and better advocates for institutional and systemic change.

Along with their additional suggestions—including amending federal housing policy to be less punitive, revamping the Federal Child Support System, and ensuring access to non-poverty jobs for all working-age citizens—the authors envision a society that will allow young fathers to overcome the powerful forces that have long excluded them. Most importantly, it will unlock the full potential of these young black men to be more of a positive influence on their community.

Click here to download a PDF of the full research report.

CITATION: Boyd, Jr., Clinton, & Deirdre Oakley. (2020). Untapped Assets: Developing a Strategy to Empower Black Fathers in Mixed-Income Communities. In Mark L. Joseph and Amy T. Khare (Eds.), What Works to Promote Inclusive, Equitable Mixed-Income Communities (forthcoming, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco).