I Will Be Your Father Figure
Newsletter June 22, 2021
Brevard County, Florida, Sheriff Wayne Ivey puts incarcerated men (his so-called “chain gang”) on stage at a conference to talk about being a better parent. His accompanying text is also above. (I have a lot of conflicting feelings about posting this picture, from the sheriff’s own social media account, which is why it’s not the thumbnail for the post. Please understand it is here for the iconography the sheriff chose in service of my overall point and that I do not endorse the practice of photos to shame people.)
Brevard County, Florida, Sheriff Wayne Ivey hosts a forum called “It’s time to be a parent again,” with incarcerated male members of his “Chain Gang” answering questions about “what was missing in their life, what could have made a difference in the direction they chose, and even, what parents can do to help keep their teenager from following in their footsteps and ending up in trouble.”
Ivey introduced the “chain gang” soon after his election as a questionable “anti-crime” strategy. The workers wear stripes as a sort of retro-racism (giving white people the lolz, I suppose) and work for free, benefitting the county with their labor. The use of the term itself is highly problematic and is intended, I think, to be shameful and degrading — truly, forcing people to work for free is a practice that needs to be ended.
It shouldn’t escape anyone’s notice that sheriffs are among the most male of law enforcement officials. The overall profession is very man-centric, but elected sheriffs nationwide are around 90% white men. Some states, like Washington, Colorado, and California, have the most diverse populations overall, yet their sheriffs are still nearly all white men.
Sheriffs represent in their iconography the most American of fatherhood: heterosexual, Christian, white, and often with a background in military service. These are evident in the social media photos of sheriffs on the occasion of Father’s Day.
Riverside County, California, Sheriff Chad Bianco’s Instagram post on Sunday, showing his prosperous brood.
Orange County, California, Sheriff Don Barnes in a still from a video he produced about how great sheriff dads are. Contrast with the photo at the top of the post.
And even an opportunity for sales.
Included without comment.
In contrast to this upright, law-abiding, Anglo-Saxon version of fatherhood depicted by sheriffs themselves, those within their custody – the people housed at the jail who are disproportionately not white – are seen as lacking the influence of fathers and, as a result, less likely to be “good fathers” themselves. You could link this to the ways in which incarcerated people and their families — mostly Black and Brown families — are treated as though they lack feelings or pain receptors (even treated medically different to excuse violence) and entirely without regard for the impact of trauma. And, in light of the occasion of “father’s day” and the plethora of feel-good posts out there, I thought it was worth spending some time thinking about how sheriffs have used the concept of fatherhood to justify their role.
Some of the roots of the modern valor of white fatherhood lie in its contrast to the moral panic over the perceived problem of “deadbeat dads,” something the criminal legal system has never outgrown or debunked. “Deadbeat dad” was a derogatory word I knew as a kid, referring to the requirement that fathers pay child support, but not necessarily connoting any other emotional or social involvement in the family. (There are of course a wide range of problems with this construct — ranging from hetero-naormativity to the focus on the nuclear family to why can’t women raise children alone exactly? But of salience here is the contrasting sense of fatherhood and masculinity that sheriffs use to appeal to their audience and voters.)
The term first showed up in the 1980s and became popular after a 1986 CBS special, The Vanishing Family: Crisis in Black America, which focused on “hit-and-run” dads, pathologizing Black men and fathers (and women too) for economic and social problems caused by white America and racism. (The special also disturbingly focused on incarceration as a “comfort” for Black young men.) In 1998, Congress passed and then-President Bill Clinton signed the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act, which added penalties for avoiding court-mandated child support, and was the first government bill to use the word “deadbeat” as far as I can tell.
A 1992 Newsweek story put the panic bluntly: “child support is key to fighting poverty,” the author Steven Waldman explains, but fathers opt not to pay for a variety of “emotionally complex motives.” This framing conveniently puts the blame on individuals – Black men, mostly – for widespread economic problems rather than looking towards institutions that might be expected to provide for children (like schools, health care agencies, housing agencies, etc.). It ignored the reasons behind economic instability, like institutional racism, globalization, the increasing wealth gap, and the mass incarceration of mostly Black men. Under retributive child support policies, Black men, in particular, were subject to more surveillance and incarceration, which continued to build the PIC in lieu of creating other systems.
And, of course, it was in many ways a reflexive reaction to previous federal policies which blamed single mothers for their own economic distress, shifting policies to deal with family poverty onto fathers as individuals, rather than institutions that might be better built to do better. (See this genius piece on more about white fears about Black families.) This can also be traced through the amount of government resources dedicated to encouraging heterosexual, two-parent, legally-married families in lieu of other poverty initiatives as well as specific policies and programs that linked poverty programs to policing and mass incarceration.
The panic of “deadbeat dads” (and sometimes moms) erased the trauma of parents and children – much of which could legitimately be properly considered domestic violence – and equates the ability to provide financially with emotional and spiritual “wealth.” All in all, it seems logical in many ways that sheriffs, as elected policing politicians most interested in cultural trends and maintaining systemic racism, would focus on fatherhood and family as a way to both tout their own morality and decry the lack of morality in others without expending any additional political or economic capital on actually helping families.
In 2001, the “deadbeat dad” panic evolved into what Wayne Ivey preaches today, a sense of responsible parenthood that includes both money as well as RESPECT, as described by George Bush in a 2001 speech:
Raising a child requires sacrifice, effort, time, and presence … We know that children who grow up with absent fathers can suffer lasting damage. They are more likely to end up in poverty or drop out of school, become addicted to drugs, have a child out of wedlock, or end up in prison. Fatherlessness is not the only cause of these things, but our Nation must recognize it is an important factor.
(PS the “social data” presented in the above quote is untrue as presented.)
Sheriffs, as law enforcement, were a key mechanism for enforcing draconian laws that penalized fathers for nonpayment of court-ordered child support. Sheriffs and their deputies conduct middle-of the-night “sweeps” arresting men who are behind on their payments. Many Sheriff’s Office websites (including that for Brevard County) feature “deadbeat dads” pages with mug shots of men who allegedly owe child support (it’s not clear if this data is correct, and I’m not linking here for obvious reasons). Emboldened by federal and state policies that criminalize failure to make court-ordered payments, sheriffs use the opportunity to exercise their arrest power even though there’s no evidence to suggest that jailing someone for failure to pay has any positive impact.
With this recent social history in mind, it’s hard to see Ivey’s valorization of fatherhood – represented through his own white family – and his use of a so-called “chain gang” of incarcerated workers providing free physical and emotional labor as anything other than a reification of the contrast between good white fathers and bad non-white ones. Demeaning men through forcing them to wear striped uniforms (or pink underwear, another famous sheriff trick) add to the notion that these men are not able to provide for their families, not spiritually, economically, or emotionally. They generate “respect” through their monopoly on violence and ability to arrest and jail.
Consider then the hypocrisy of law enforcement officials, presenting a white-washed and false representation of fatherhood when incidents of family violence by certified law enforcement officers is a known phenomenon that is poorly documented. (In her 2015 article, Professor Leigh Goodmark lists over 100 incidents of domestic violence alone; other studies have consistently shown that law enforcement officers are more likely to abuse their partners than men in other professions.) In all of the statistics about “crime” and violence, the statistic we do not have is the number of crimes and violence committed by law enforcement officials against others, whether it be violence against people in custody, invasive and unnecessary body cavity searches, stop-and-frisks, car chases, threats of violence, or family violence against their partners, ex-partners and children.
The only thing sheriffs post about more often on social media than their families? Their dogs. And, well, that’s a whole other problem for another day.