THE PLANK JUNE 15, 2008
This morning, Barack Obama spoke at Chicago’s Apostolic Church of God—a congregation more than double the size of Trinity United, also committed to a social gospel focusing on public outreach in a predominantly black context. Appropriately, he spoke on fatherhood, reprising many of the themes on child-rearing that have undergirded his personal and political philosophy. A key passage from the address, which specifically discusses the black family unit:
[I]f we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that what too many fathers also are is missing – missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.You and I know how true this is in the African-American community. We know that more than half of all black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled – doubled – since we were children. We know the statistics – that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and twenty times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home, or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.[snip]Yes, we need more cops on the street. Yes, we need fewer guns in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. Yes, we need more money for our schools, and more outstanding teachers in the classroom, and more afterschool programs for our children. Yes, we need more jobs and more job training and more opportunity in our communities.But we also need families to raise our children. We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception. We need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child – it’s the courage to raise one.
I’ve long recognized this line of argumentation as political gold for Obama, not least because these critiques are universally applicable, but also because they represent—imagistically at least—pushback against the perceived lack of self-correction within deeply malfunctioning segments of black America. You certainly don’t hear politicians, of any race, encouraging parents to plop the kids in front of a gaming console, nor to leave their children unattended from school’s close to sundown, but targeted discouragement is hard to find. This sin of omission is probably due to the unwillingness of majority politicians to sound the scold, and, well, the lack of comparable platforms for black politicians to make such sweeping critiques. Yet the lack of discussion—while it cripples the education of all American children—certainly has destructive effects in the black community. Which is why it’s pathbreaking that some of Obama’s biggest applause lines during stump speeches have come as he has proclaimed that parents “need to turn of the TV” and read to children. Mixed-race audiences eat the line up with equal abandon. But Obama’s “Bill Cosby” rhetoric isn’t a matter of dog-whistling for white customers; the stance on strong families seems both good policy and a conviction rooted in the "object lesson" of his own personal history.
Further, I think it's worth noting that this commentary is not naturally inflammatory or somehow antagonistic to black audiences. Busy parents with limited resources are not Sister Souljah, and “Seven Ways to be a Black Father,” running today on The Root, is a bit of proof that these conversations on family are long-running and as serious as any other matter of values and policy that concern voters. The Father’s Day call to action, which Obama’s been making for years, is grist for the ongoing discussion of his centrist credentials on education, and the promise in his 2004 convention keynote speech that every American understands
that parents have to teach, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white. They know those things.
Some are lucky enough to know it (Hi, Dad!); some grow into that knowledge. At any rate it's nice to hear.—Dayo Olopade
(Photo courtesy Getty Images)