Sunday, June 14, 2014 || By Michael Romain
e can do worse than begin with then-candidate Barack Obama’s Father’s Day speech delivered on June 15, 2008, at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago. At the pulpit built by Bishop Arthur Brazier (founder of the Woodlawn Organization, which as the Chicago Reader notes, “protested school segregation and built millions of dollars of subsidized housing”), Obama famously said this:
“[I]f we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that what too many fathers also are […] 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.”
It doesn’t take much intuition to know that the presidential candidate’s statements were made in reference to African-American fathers, who are often categorized as either absent or inadequate when they’re present. The statement was rather controversial at the time and even led to an unintentionally public confessional for the Reverend Jessie Jackson about a month later, who said into a hot mic during a television break that he wanted to “cut [the esteemed Senator’s] nuts out” for “talking down to black folks.”
Years later, it turns out that, while he may have expressed himself crudely, Rev. Jackson may have been on the right side of the argument after all. Moreover, his color commentary, while off-putting, tapped into a deeper historical and sociological tradition of personalizing (i.e., racializing) disparate outcomes.
When 19th and 20th century Irish and Italian and Polish immigrants were ghettoized and marred disproportionately by criminality and poverty, Progressive-era reformers such as Jane Addams didn’t treat the personal behaviors of those disproportionately affected by crime and poverty as determining factors. They attacked those problems at their roots. Similarly, during the Great Depression, systemic unemployment caused rates of chronic alcoholism and suicide to jump up. The culture of white people (i.e., personal responsibility) was largely irrelevant when America was trying to figure out ways to attack the rise in white people’s personal problems.
In his history of the Great Depression, Irving Bernstein writes about white men who were unable to find work. They abandoned their families, and turned to liquor and gambling as a way to drown the pain of unemployment. Their manhood, their ability to provide, had been destroyed not by their gambling or alcoholism or laziness or (to put it in Obama’s modernized language, their obsession with video games), but by larger socio-economic forces.
As Kahilil Gibran Muhammad compellingly notes in The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America, there are moments in American history (the beginnings of the industrial revolution, the Great Depression), when most whites in the country have exhibited similar behavioral traits to those we attribute to poor African-Americans, particularly black fathers.
Muhammad writes: “Progressive era white social scientists [framed] white criminals sympathetically as victims of industrialization. They described a ‘great army of unfortunates’ juxtaposed against an army of self-destructive and pathological blacks who were their ‘own worse enem[ies].'”
In other words, as a typical Comic View comedian might frame it, ‘When whites are poor, absent and without work in depressingly large numbers, America calls it a depression or a cyclical downturn in the economy or a national crisis. When blacks are poor, absent and without work in depressingly large numbers, America calls it a ‘breakdown of personal responsibility.”
That’s the first problem with Obama’s 2008 Father’s Day speech and I suspect the root of Rev. Jackson’s rage. It’s dehumanizing to claim that the perceived statistical disparity between black fathers and all other fathers is due to character flaws that black fathers are exhibiting on an individual level–without exploring, and aggressively addressing, the root cause of those character flaws.
The second problem with Obama’s speech is that it may be premised on a common perception of black fathers that may be just plain wrong. As a recent Huffington Post article notes, the notion that black fathers aren’t involved in their children’s lives or are less involved than fathers of other racial persuasions may not be true after all.
“Recent data published by the Center for Disease Control reveal that African-American fathers spend more time in their children’s day-to-day lives than dads from other racial groups, defying stereotypes about black fatherhood. The Pew Research Center has found similar evidence that black dads don’t differ from white dads in any significant way, and that there isn’t the expected disparity found in so many other reports. Although black fathers are more likely to live in separate households, Pew estimates that 67 percent of black dads who don’t live with their kids see them at least once a month, compared to 59 percent of white dads and just 32 percent of Hispanic dads.”
This isn’t to say that black fatherhood is without it’s problems. It’s just to say that black fathers may not be any less effective than other fathers. And if it turns out that they are, in fact, less effective (at least on a statistical level), it does them no good to say that this statistical disparity is their own fault. And with that, Happy Father’s Day. VFP