By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
New America Media
Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama thundered to vigorous applause from a Father’s Day Chicago church crowd that black fathers don’t engage with their children. A month before Obama made this stereotypical and plainly false assertion, Boston University professor Rebekah Levine Coley, in a comprehensive study on the black family, found 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 racial group. This was not an obscure study buried in the pages of a musty academic journal. It was widely cited in a feature article on black fathers in a May issue of Newsweek. So there was no excuse to spout this myth.
But Obama’s talk about the alleged irresponsibility of black fathers isn’t new. In stump speeches, he has attacked black fathers for their alleged dereliction, irresponsibility and negligence. Whether Obama is trying to shore up his family values credentials with conservatives, is venting personal anger over his own experience of being raised without a father, or has a genuine concern about the much-touted black family breakup is anybody’s guess. But Obama clearly is fixated on the ever-popular notion of the absentee black father. And that fixation is fed by a mix of truth, half-truths and outright distortion.
Obama has committed the cardinal error that every critic from the legions of sociologists, family experts, politicians and moral crusaders like Bill Cosby has made: He omits the word “some” before his statements about black fathers. This gives the impression that all, or most, black men aren’t in the home, and are irresponsible. That being the case, ipso facto they must be the cause for the crime-drugs-violence-underachievement syndrome that young black males are supposedly eternally locked into.
In fact, the worst-case estimate is that slightly less than half of black children live in fatherless homes. But that’s only a paper figure. When income, education, individual background and middle-class status are factored in, the gap between black and white children who live in two-parent households is much narrower.
This points to the single greatest reason for the higher number of black children who live in single-parent households. That reason is poverty. A 2007 study noted that a black father’s ability to financially contribute the major support in the home is the central determinant of whether he remains in the home. That’s no surprise, considering that despite changing gender values, society still dumps the expectation and burden on men to be the principal breadwinner and financial provider. Put bluntly, men and the notion of manhood are still mainly defined by their ability to bring home the bacon. A man who falls short of that standard is considered a failure and a loser.
The near-Great Depression levels of unemployment, rampant job discrimination, and failing public schools virtually condemn many young black men to wear the tag of societal failures as men and fathers. Yet in his rap against black men as fathers, Obama says nothing about the economic devastation that drives many black men from the home or prevents them from being in the home in the first place.
Obama undoubtedly is well intentioned in his criticism of black family problems and certainly doesn’t mean to slander all, or even most, black fathers, as derelict fathers. Yet that’s precisely what he’s done. And since every utterance by him is instant news and is taken as fact by legions of supporters and admirers, that makes his stereotypes about black men even more painful.