Psst, President Obama: Youth of Color Need More Than a Father to Succeed
Last week President Obama unveiled an initiative called "My Brother's Keeper" to address the systematic barriers to success faced by many young men of color. Reaction to the announcement was mixed, with some commending Obama for giving young black and Latino men a helping hand, while others pointed out the flawed logic endorsed by the President that "young men of color just need to 'work hard.'"
Using the bully pulpit to rally support and foundation dollars to help boys and young men of color succeed is laudable. The problem lies in trying to pass off moral speechifying as substantive action. "My Brother's Keeper" is no substitute for jobs, housing, and access to quality education and training, and it won't have any meaningful impact on the appalling racism and conditions of life in the inner cities faced by black and Latino youth. It's like a warm blanket. It's comforting when it's cold. But it's no replacement for having heat.
That Obama's initiative is well-meaning and too simplistic has generated a fair amount of commentary. It's his recurring theme of the absentee black father in comments announcing "My Brother's Keeper" that I want to rebuke.
"We can reform our criminal justice system to ensure that it's not infected with bias. But nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son's life."
"Yes, we need to train our workers, invest in our schools, make college more affordable, and government has a role to play, and, yes, we need to encourage fathers to stick around and remove the barriers to marriage and talk openly about things like responsibility…"
These jewels of wisdom on black fatherhood and personal responsibility aren't just preachy and patronizing. They're a lie. The evidence doesn't support the President's sweeping pronouncements about fatherhood and marriage in black communities.
Stephanie Coontz, author and professor at The Evergreen State College, points to "the widespread assumption that failure to marry, rather than unemployment, poor education, and lack of affordable child care, is the primary cause of child poverty" and comes to the conclusion that "nonmarriage is often a result of poverty and economic insecurity rather than a cause."
Promulgating this stereotype of the absentee black father is even more glaring. Obama has been rightly criticized for years for spreading the false assertion that black fathers don't engage with their children. Yet he will not let this canard die. Black fathers not living in the home with their children are more likely to keep in contact with their offspring than fathers of other ethnic or racial groups.
Earlier this year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data on American fathers' involvement with their children. Whether it was reading and playing with children daily, eating meals together, or bathing and dressing children 5-years-old and under, black fathers living outside the home were more involved than white and Latino fathers. The level of involvement continued into the teen years, with black fathers scoring higher than whites and Latinos in helping children with homework, shuttling children to activities, and talking to their children each day.
"…it's understandable that the CDC's results seem innovative. But in reality, the new data builds upon years of research that’s concluded that hands-on parenting is similar among dads of all races. There’s plenty of scientific evidence to bust this racially-biased myth. The Pew Research Center, which has tracked this data for years, consistently finds no big differences between white and black fathers. Gretchen Livingston, one of the senior researchers studying family life at Pew, wasn't at all surprised by the new CDC data. "Blacks look a lot like everyone else," she pointed out."
As a mother successfully co-parenting with a black father who lives outside the home, Obama's generalizations about fatherhood and irresponsibility strike a nerve with me. Healthy families come in all configurations, from two-parent households and single-parent units, to blended families and other nontraditional forms. There are strong, intact, black families out here. There are and have always been happy and functional black families. And those families come in all shapes, forms, and styles.
Paraphrasing author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Obama certainly doesn't mean to slander all, or even most, black fathers as derelict fathers—yet every utterance by him is instant news and is taken as fact. That makes his stereotypes about black men even more painful.
A version of this post appeared at Crooks and Liars.
Father and son playing image via Shutterstock
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