Paternity Coverage and Race Stereotypes

This article had the potential to be my song.
The writer should certainly be commended. She penned a fact driven, well-written article that grappled with some of the complex issues that surround paternity. But some things about this piece, and the pictures that complemented the coverage, utterly disappointed me. The root of the problem was the racial stereotypes of black fatherhood that were reinforced.
I knew something was up when I did a mouse-scroll over the pictures of the Dads involved in paternity disputes. I was greeted with white father after white father clutching some paraphernalia that attested to his involvement in his child’s life. Then the lone black man appeared, head facing down, sans stuffed animal. It is true that two of the men in the photographs are repeated. But this doesn’t take away from the visual message that was sent: white fathers are present fathers; black fathers are absent ones.
The exhaustive article profiled men who were legally mandated to shoulder the child support costs of children after DNA testing revealed they were not the father. No photograph revealed the identity of the men who, in some cases have married the mother of these children, evaded supporting their biological children. Thus, black men weren’t indicted by the run of the mill, dead beat dad label per se. But as the narrative on fatherhood evolved to focus on the behaviors of non-biological fathers, black men remained the villain.

The heartless ass-hat award went to the black man pictured, Carnell Smith, an activist of the men’s rights variety. His claim to fame was a law he helped pass in Georgia that took non-biological fathers off the hook financially for paying child support — regardless of how this impacted the child involved.
Then we learned about the fate of the child Smith helped raise for 11 years. After he figured out they didn’t share the same DNA, he abandoned her:

Chandria, who is now 20, remembers it, Smith just disappeared from her life. “I was just a kid, so I didn’t really understand what happened or why,” she said. “He never did explain why he didn’t want anything to do with me anymore.” Chandria says he wouldn’t answer when she called him at home, or he would promise to call back but never did. Smith says he doesn’t recall Chandria calling him.
She stopped seeing friends and holed up in the bathroom, scratching and picking at her skin until it bled. The more it hurt, she told me, the calmer she felt. Her hair started to fall out, her grades slipped and she had trouble sleeping, details her mother and her mother’s lawyer at the time corroborated. Chandria received counseling at her school and privately for years.

Smith’s behavior was a stark contrast to the white fathers who challenged payment of child support only to the extent that it wouldn’t compromise the relationship they had with their non-biological child. The thought of losing the child for one white father was described as “terrifying.” Additionally, the other white father photographed pursued custody of his non-biological child. It’s also worth noting that Smith was not the downtrodden, low-income brotha who slipped through the cracks. He is an engineer. He has policy literacy, his own non-profit and enough clout in the red state of Georgia to pass legislation on — of all things — paternity. Thus, the weight of his actions were even more damning, as he was outnumbered by white fathers who put the best interest of their children over sticking it to a former partner.
In the end, I am not suggesting that the state of black fatherhood doesn’t deserve attention and even scrutiny or that Smith’s story wasn’t factual and important to include in a paternity article. But it is clear that the writer has chosen the voice of Smith over other voices of Black men that are just as valuable. This NYT’s piece has reinscribed the Maury Povichesque portrayal of black men cheering in glee, exiting stage left once he learns he is “not the father.” I can’t say by the numbers how many men of color who are happily raising children who are biologically linked to another male. But I know they are out there and deserved recognition in a news story with almost endless inches to spare. It’s just disarming to know that for as many miles this writer traveled to capture the complexities of paternity, on the question of race, she came up disastrously short.

Join the Conversation

  • Brittany

    “I was just a kid, so I didn’t really understand what happened or why,” she said. “He never did explain why he didn’t want anything to do with me anymore.”
    This is long, but here’s my experience:
    My father left me when I was 14, and my sister when she was 12. He just suddenly stopped coming around, stopped calling, and pretty much disappeared. He had been an amazing father before that, always around and always teaching us and giving us affection. Then when he finally found a woman, he abandoned us completely. I definitely do not blame the woman, as I hate when wives and anyone else blames the “other woman” instead of the man. I try not to think that we were just temporary placeholders until he found someone after my mother and him divorced, but I think it’s true because when I begged him for more attention near the end, he told me “Don’t make me choose” right to my face before never showing up again. He’s now dodging child support, and even if I’m 19 now and my sister’s 17, I resent him every day for leaving us at our most fragile ages, and on top of that we grew up struggling because he owes us $7000 back child support and a warrant is out for his arrest.
    He’s 100% white, so I hate the stereotype that white men are always there and black men are not. My best friend’s brother-in-law is black, and he’s the kindest, gentlest man I’ve ever met, and definitely a damn good father to his children. I almost thank my father for leaving, because if he didn’t I wouldn’t be the feminist that I am today, and that’s in part to the e-mail he sent me after he left. At age 14, months after he stopped showing up, I sent him an e-mail calling him an asshole for leaving my sister, since she handled it worse. His response to me was terrible, calling me fat trailer trash that’d amount to nothing but a high school dropout redneck that’d grow up “popping out babies” and that he always knew I was psycho. It was soul crushing, but my mom raised us by herself, and she’s a damn good woman for that. I grew up learning that women CAN make it by themselves, and don’t need to rely on a man that doesn’t need to be there.

  • opinionated

    I wonder what the actual stats are. Have you looked into that?
    Also, there were more “white” fathers because there are more “white” people in this culture, period. Depending on how you asses someone’s whiteness of course.
    If it’s just black and white, anyone not of obvious physical features that can be identified as of African descent is “white”.
    I don’t hear you bemoaning the absence of Latino fathers, Middle Eastern fathers (known for the biggest, drag on and out fights for custody in Michigan), Asian, etc.
    I only know of one AA father who tried to get more visitation with his kids. He’s a football player. In my mostly AA neighborhood, that had a large percentage of single mothers and grandparents raising children, I never heard of one other case of the father actually FIGHTING for more responsibility.
    That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, but, if that article had 3 AA and one “white” father, I’d be scratching my head and saying, “Hmmmmm” who’s the guilty “white” writer trying to impress?

  • theletterc

    I completely understand what you are saying, and agree that there needs to be an end to the stereotype of the “absent black father.” That being said, I read the entire article without realizing that Smith was black. There aren’t any references to his race in the article, and I had to go back to check out the pictures and match up the names to figure it out.
    I think the bigger issue that the article failed to mention at all is the responsibility of the woman. I feel slightly uncomfortable talking about this since I realize there are so many women out there being denied child support, but there is just to great of a sense of injustice here to ignore. I don’t really have a solution here, but it seems like the woman who *lied* either straight up or by omission should have some kind of concequences. It also seems incredibly unjust that these loop holes are allowing biological fathers off the hook, but in the end get the benefit of raising the child sans fiscal responsibilities. I guess what would seem fair to me is allowing the childs non-biological father to keep his role and hold the biological father accountable. My hunch is that a lot of men would still help out their “children,” and wouldn’t have to deal with all the pent up resentment of being forced to pay.

  • feckless

    I quote:
    Carnell Smith says there’s a side to his story that the New York Times has ignored. The case began in 1999, when the mother went to court to try to increase her child support payments to $1,300 per month, or 42 percent of Smith’s take-home pay. Smith, who had a wife and two children of his own, saw a DNA testing billboard as he walked out of court one day and decided to get tested.
    Regarding Chandria, Carnell says his ex-girlfriend said he could only see her if he paid the child support, and Carnell refused. He says the ex-girlfriend said that Carnell and his family couldn’t see Chandria unless via supervised visitation. He says his ex-girlfriend and her attorney asked the court to jail him for not paying after the DNA test. He says:
    “[My] motives have always been clear–to save my family from the clutches of the ex-girlfriend, her attorney and the child support enforcement system. [My] opponents demanded more money while reducing and eliminating my parenting time.”

  • cattrack2

    Thanks, Rose, for posting this. Though as an African American I can’t say I even noticed the racial subtext, or that I would draw the same conclusion as you do. Smith wasn’t even the only man to respond that way.
    Smith is not a bad man, and I don’t think the article depicted him as one. There’s a reason we have the saying, “Blood is thicker than water.”
    NO person should be forced to pay for a kid that’s not there’s. The biological father (who bears responsibility) should pay, full stop; end the nonsense there. Doing otherwise amounts to an individual tax on whomever ‘randomly’ gets listed on the birth certificate. We can’t play lotto with people’s lives. That we dismiss DNA science & base current practice on English Common Law many hundreds of years old is ludicrous. Sounds positively Republican (insert snark here).
    I do know plenty of black men (and women) raising & supporting children not their own (as my mom did). But that must an individual’s choice.

  • Key from the City

    I think the author chose Smith because he was able to get this law passed, not to prove a black pathology of absent or unloving fathers. There are plenty of black men loving and raising their (and other’s)children.
    I happen to know someone who was able to get out of paying support (in GA) due to this law. He did explain to the child why he had to stop buying things and wouldn’t be coming around anymore. Unfortunately, the image of the mother in the child’s eyes changed and never fully recovered.
    I agree with cattracks2 regarding forced payment of support for non-biological children. I think the mothers should be charged with fraud. If this was a house or some other tangible item, people would be able to sue. I think the duped fathers should be able to do so too.

  • Phenicks

    If Smith was a woman we’d all want to raise hell about the guy who was trying to take 42% of her income and FORCE her to be a mother, of all things, to a child who is not biologically hers and that she would have NEVER taken responsibility for had she known this fact beforehand.
    When this happens to women, its usually when a doctor fails to inform her the child she is carrying is going to NEVER be independant and she’ll be raising this child until he or she dies. IN those cases she sues and WINS for the money to suport the child she was FORCED to raise.
    Why are men who are forced by ommission and in some cases outright lies, to father a child that wasn’t theirs (this woman aggressively sought child support from a man who did not father her child)? No one should ever have to go through that. Mothers are not the only ones who can build resentment towards a child they were forced to be mothers to and when force and parenthood meet, resentment is the usual reaction.
    Had Chandria’s biological father been given the chance to be a father to her, maybe, JUST maybe he would have actually been there and she would have had a stable paternal parent in her life. That didn’t happen and not being Chandria’s biological father is not Smith’s fault.
    Those kids didn’t ask to be born anymore than any of those non-fathers asked to raise someone else’s kids and have massive child support thrown at them for simply being stupid enough to have ever slept with the child’s mother. ONLY biological parents and those who KNOWINGLY/WILLINGLY adopt/foster a child are responsible for those children. CHildren are not forced responsibilities to be thrown at everyone with a job.

  • makomk

    Of course, there’s a reason that the laws on paternity and child support in the US have ended up the way they did, and the New York Times touches on it. There’s a strong anti-welfare movement within US politics, and one aspect of this is that states are pressured into getting single mothers to name a “father” that the welfare payments can be recovered from. Basically, the payments are a loan that has to be repaid by the child’s father.
    Oh, and the really nasty bit? IIRC, all that’s required for the man named by the kid’s mother to be legally considered the child’s father is him failing to respond to a letter sent to his last known address. Even if he moved away months before, never received the letter, had no idea the mother was pregnant, and isn’t actually the biological father, legally he’s still responsible for child support.
    I think there have been a few incidents of men suddenly discovering they owe a decade or more of child support for a kid they weren’t aware existed, plus interest. [Collection of these debts has become more and more efficient over the years.] In most states, there is no way of getting rid of this debt short of paying it all off – even if he’s living on the poverty line and can’t possibly do that. Oh, and if he doesn’t, the state will quite happily throw him in jail until he does. (A modern version of debtor’s jail, in other words, with the old old flaw that people can’t earn money to pay back their debts whilst in jail.)
    An entire blog post could probably be written on the reasons for this and their foundations in patriarchy.

  • UnHingedHips

    “NO person should be forced to pay for a kid that’s not there’s. The biological father (who bears responsibility) should pay, full stop; end the nonsense there.”
    What if a couple who adopt a child split up? Does the non-custodial parent not have to pay child support because a DNA test will prove that s/he’s not the biological parent?

  • Brianna G

    If you raise a child, the child is yours. You are morally responsible to continue to act as a parent to that child once you begin to, particularly if the child knows you as a father.
    You should, however, be able to hit up the biological father for child support instead of paying it yourself, and paternity testing should be routine for birth certificates unless the father refuses, or the mother waives all right to child support (and a system would have to be worked out in case she didn’t know who to put).
    But that doesn’t mean the child you raised, who has your values and your customs and who loves you, is not your child simply because they don’t have your DNA.

  • Brianna G

    Usually the woman didn’t know who the father was or genuinely believed it was the man in question. It’s not really fair to blame the woman; she should have checked DNA if she was uncertain, but I know a woman who was 100% POSITIVE it HAD to be Guy X, and it turned out her timing was off and it was Guy Y (luckily all the testing happened very early on, at Guy X’s insistence). The closer the partners were to each other the harder it gets.
    I agree that biological fathers should be hit up for support, but actual fathers who raised their kids should still have equal opportunity for custody as the mother. I suspect that would encourage the fathers to remain in their children’s lives more and in the end the child would benefit most from it.

  • Lilitu

    You… really don’t get that adoption would be a completely different set of circumstances? That no one in your adoption scenario is being cheated into believing a kid is his when it isn’t?

  • Demosthenes XXI

    By the act of adopting a child, you assume legal maternity or paternity of the child. By that definition, you cannot get out of it because there are legal documents that tie you to the child.
    This is also the reason that a man who marries a woman with children has the option whether to adopt her children or not.
    This is not the same as a man being lied to about his paternity by a woman. The man never had a choice about the situation; he was deprived of that choice by deception.

  • aleks

    When you adopt a child you accept that child as yours.

  • dan&danica

    there are those who call for mandatory DNA testing at birth. My best friend was given the option of a test, with me, his wife, and both sets of parents in the room. Pretty impossible to make that choice. I can see the logic in making in mandatory. It raises a lot of questions and brings up a lot of procedural and structural questions but um, why not? I can only think it will be more important as genetics take another step forward in fighting disease. Sucks when you think you might be able to help your kid with a bone marrow transplant or anything of the like only to find out youre not related. That or any kind of screening for diseases such as propensity for diabetes, all types of cancers etc.
    I mean, if the genetic link isnt whats important, why all the layers of procedures and precautions for ensuring the woman gets the right baby back after its been taken away for a a short while? Why did two women sue the hospital for 50,000 each when they hospital mixed up their kids for a few hours then fixed the mistake?
    Once the kid is older, yeah we do have a problem here with how we see welfare and this should be less of an issue but the guy just gets roped in? For every story like the ones in the article of a dad finding out and agonizing over it, there is another of a man blindsided by it having never known the kid.
    Do men not have the right to choice? Should all the information available not be given to them? I realize a lot of times it wouldnt be there as the woman might not know who the father is or how to reach them but when its not that, why restrict mens choice when we dont have to?

  • dan&danica

    What if you think it does? Who are you to say what being a father is? Does the age matter? Wheres the cutoff? If the man finds out in the delivery room the kids not his, is it ok to walk away then if he chooses to? 6 months? 3 years? 15 years? Where do you put the line? What responsibility does the woman have in this? Its a tough situation.

  • dan&danica

    “You are morally responsible to continue to act as a parent to that child once you begin to”
    Morally responsible? Whats being questioned here is the legal responsibility and all the ramifications it has. Due to our gov’t sucking and not ensuring the things they should, they go after whatever source of revenue they can. There are too many cases and too many fine details in each to go with “morally responsible” for every case. Again I wonder where the age line is on that.