Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama thundered to long, loud and 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 aren't in the home are much more likely to sustain regular contact with their children than absentee white fathers, or for that matter, fathers of any other ethnic group. The study is not an obscure study buried in the thick pages of a musty academic journal. It was widely cited in a feature article on black fathers in the May 19, 2008 issue of Newsweek. There was no excuse then to spout this myth. The facts are totally contrary to Obama's knock.
But then again this kind of over the top, sweeping talk about alleged black father irresponsibility from Obama isn't new. In stump speeches, he's pounded black men for their alleged father dereliction, irresponsibility and negligence. Whether Obama is trying to shore up his family values credentials with conservatives, or feels the need to vent personal anger from the pain and longing from being raised without a father is anybodys guess. (Note: his absentee father was not an African-American male but a Kenyan National who never intended to stay in this country). Or maybe he criticizes black men out of a genuine concern about the much media touted black family breakup. But Obama clearly is fixated on the ever media popular notion of the absentee black father. And that fixation for whatever reason is fed by a mix of truth, half truths and outright distortion.
Obama commits the cardinal error that every critic from the legions of sociologists, family experts, politicians and morals crusader Bill Cosby who have hectored black men for being father derelict have made. He omits the words "some," "those," or "the offenders" before black fathers. Instead, he makes, or at least gives the impression, that all, or most, black men aren't in the home, and are irresponsible. That being the case ipso facto they are the cause for the much fingered crime-drugs-violence-gross underachievement syndrome that young black males are supposedly eternally locked into.
Obama presents absolutely no evidence to back up this devastating indictment. 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 intact two parent households is much narrower.
This points to the single greatest reason for the higher number of black children who live in one parent households. That reason is poverty. A 2007 study noted that a black father's ability to financially contribute the majoor support in the home is the major determinant of whether he remains in the home. That's no surprise considering that despite changing gender values and emphasis 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 loser.
The chronic near Great Depression levels of unemployment, not to mention rampant job discrimination, endemic failing public schools, and stigma of a criminal record virtually condemn many young black men to wear the tag of societal failures as men and fathers. Obama in his rap against black men as fathers says nothing about the economic devasation 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 men, as derelict, laggards and slackers as fathers. Obama, as Cosby and others who beat up on black males for alleged father dereliction, would almost certainly publicly bristle at criticism that he takes the worst of the worst behavior of some black men and publicly hurls that out as the warped standard of black America.
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 fan of stereotypes about black men even more painful.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).