Fatherhood in black culture is laced with explosives. President Barack Obama seems to have a taste for pyrotechnics.
On Friday, he hit his old Chicago stomping grounds to speak at Hyde Park Academy. The hot button issue in the Chi these days continue to be guns and violence, but Obama didn’t spend much time on gun chatter to this group. He talked about fathers in black communities.
“For a lot of young boys and young men in particular, they don’t see an example of fathers or grandfathers, uncles, who are in a position to support families and be held up in respect,” Obama said. “And so that means that this is not just a gun issue; it’s also an issue of the kinds of communities that we’re building.”
OK, well, he didn’t single out “black fathers.” He merely spoke to a school resplendent with brown faces about absentee fathers underpinning the urban dysfunction in their neighborhoods.
It was pointed and unmistakable. It was redundant.
This isn’t the first time Obama has taken black men to task. At a Father’s Day speech in 2008, again in Chicago’s South Side, he bore into them again:
“Too many fathers are M.I.A, too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes,” Mr. Obama said, to a chorus of approving murmurs from the audience. “They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”
Cool, no problem there. Then it got interesting:
“I know how hard it is to get kids to eat properly,” Mr. Obama said. “But I also know that folks are letting our children drink eight sodas a day, which some parents do, or, you know, eat a bag of potato chips for lunch. Buy a little desk or put that child at the kitchen table. Watch them do their homework.”
Bill Cosby undoubtedly smiled. So did the mostly black church audience that day. It’s a familiar trope: Put the heat on the individual, espousing the bootstrap, making the story easier to swallow and the real issues of poverty, systemic decay ignored.
It’s one thing to promote fatherhood and community in the context of overcoming and pushing for riddance of systemic ills. It’s another to sell the merits of dads as panacea. That’s irresponsible.
Black and white fathers abandon their children, yet I’d be hard-pressed to imagine a speech like this given to children living in Newtown, Conn. Statistics are often reported to justify this strategy, but one side doesn’t have a monopoly on favorable statistics.
In 2007, a study conducted by Boston University reported that black fathers who don’t reside in the home are more likely to sustain regular contact with their children than fathers of any other group. This isn’t to exonerate black men who neglect their duties, but to emphasize how collective the issue is.
More engaging fathers is only one hurdle. There are still other more daunting obstacles (public education, job attrition, rising college tuition) that stand in the way of reversing urban decline and building sustainable models of success.
It’s more than fathers who are failing children. How are guns flowing through our areas? How are guns getting in the hands of our youth? It ain’t Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Obama’s speech went against an accepted narrative about his political roots, that he was familiar with his old base in Chicago’s South Side. That since he made his political bones there, he has insight where others don’t.
His continuation of the hackneyed black pathology rhetoric of his political predecessors is more than disappointing. It’s a sobering reminder that when it comes to uprooting the ills of urban black America, the leadership in this country still lacks a clue.