Defying enduring stereotypes about black fatherhood, a federal survey of American parents shows that by most measures, black fathers who live with their children are just as involved as other dads who live with their kids — or more so.
For instance, among fathers who lived with young children, 70% of black dads said they bathed, diapered or dressed those kids every day, compared with 60% of white fathers and 45% of Latino fathers, according to a report released Friday by the National Center for Health Statistics.
Nearly 35% of black fathers who lived with their young children said they read to them daily, compared with 30% of white dads and 22% of Latino dads. The report was based on a federal survey that included more than 3,900 fathers between 2006 and 2010 — a trove of data seen as the gold standard for studying fatherhood in the United States. In many cases, the differences between black fathers and those of other races were not statistically significant, researchers said.
The findings echo earlier studies that counter simple stereotypes characterizing black fathers as missing in action. When it comes to fathers who live with their kids, "blacks look a lot like everyone else," said Gretchen Livingston, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center who has previously studied the topic. And in light of the negative stereotypes about black fathers, "that is a story in itself."
In Watts, Bryan August-Jones battles the stereotype daily. Every weekday, he wakes his three sons before sunrise, gets them dressed, then ferries them to the baby sitter and to school. On weekends, he takes them bicycling or to Red Lobster, which his youngest son — "a little fancy guy" — prefers over McDonald's.
His Latina mother-in-law and her family think black men cannot be good fathers, but "I prove them wrong all the time," August-Jones said.
Worry about black fathers has been tied to a persistent fact: Black dads are especially likely to live apart from one or more of their children — and fathers of all races tend to be less involved in the day-to-day lives of their kids when they live elsewhere.
Yet the report also revealed that among American fathers living apart from their children, black dads were at least as involved as other dads not living with their kids, or more so, according to most measures. Among fathers living apart from older children, more than half of black fathers said that several times a week or more, they talked to their kids about their day — a higher percentage than among white or Latino dads living separately from older children, the report showed.
In Bellflower, Jason Franklin phones his young daughters daily during the week. The girls stay with him on weekends. Franklin remembers that when his own parents parted, his father sometimes skipped visits "out of spite." He vowed not to do the same thing to his children when he and their mother split up.
"Even if I don't see them every day, my role as a father doesn't change," Franklin said.
Nearly half of black fathers living apart from their young children said they played with them at least several times a week, 42% said they fed or ate with them that frequently, and 41% said they bathed, diapered or helped dress them as often — rates on par with or higher than those of other men living apart from their kids.
"People think they don't care, but we know they do," said Joseph Jones, president of the Center for Urban Families, a Baltimore advocacy group that works with African American fathers. "We see how dads are fighting against the odds to be engaged in the lives of their children."
The report leaves it unclear if black fathers, on the whole, are more involved than other dads. Although the survey showed that black fathers not living at home are as involved with their children as fathers of other races in similar situations, the higher percentage of black dads absent from the home could drag down the average involvement for all black fathers, other researchers pointed out.
Earlier research has shown that after parents break up, fathers become less involved as time passes. Mothers may curb the time they allow an ex to spend with their children. Fathers sometimes struggle to stay as involved if they form another family.
However, Laura Tach and fellow researchers also found that black fathers were more likely than white or Latino dads to stay close to their children after having more kids with a new partner. Because it isn't as rare for black fathers to live away from the home, their communities might have stronger expectations that fathers will stay involved outside the "package deal" of a wife and kids, explained Tach, a professor of policy analysis at Cornell University.
"Some men think when they lose a marriage, they lose the relationship with the kids," said Marquette University sociology professor Roberta L. Coles. "For black men that doesn't seem to be as true."
Osborne Lopez, a black man with Belizean roots, said there was never any question he would stay connected to his kids after his divorce.
Almost every weekday, Lopez picks up his son and daughter from school and catches up with them over dinner or a snack. On weekends, they stay over and bond over his scrambled eggs or homemade chili, see the latest Disney movie or head to the beach. Years ago, he decided to leave the Air Force to avoid missing "those pivotal moments" in their young lives.
As a black father, "I don't want to be part of the stereotype," he said.