It's been nearly a year and a half since this presidential campaign began. In that time we've been subjected to countless speeches, some good, some bad and some just plain ugly, and many -- actually most -- completely unmemorable. But there are some exceptions, speeches that actually are worth remembering, either because they reveal something truly telling about whom the candidate really is, or because they reveal some fundamental truth we all need to hear. Barack Obama recently gave such a speech. You may think I am referring to his groundbreaking speech on race delivered shortly after the Rev. Wright controversy began. I am not. I am referring to his recent Father"s Day Address, in which he extolled the virtues of being a present and involved father and chided those who forfeit their responsibility to do so.
Appearing before one of the largest predominantly black congregations in his hometown of Chicago, Obama pointedly addressed one of our nation's greatest domestic policy woes: the epidemic of fatherless black children. It should be noted that over the last two decades the number of out-of-wedlock births have dramatically increased in our nation, across color lines as our attitudes on previously taboo behaviors such as cohabitating before marriage become increasingly relaxed. But in the black community the numbers are staggering.
Reports estimate that more than 2/3 of black children are now born out of wedlock. In remarks that were equal parts common sense and tough love, Obama said, "We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception." He continued, "Any fool can have a child. That doesn't make you a father. It's the courage to raise a child that makes you a father." Obama's comments immediately drew comparisons to Bill Cosby's remarks from 2004 in which he too challenged the destructive behaviors that are impacting the black community. In a follow-up interview regarding his speech Cosby stated, "The 50 percent dropout rate, the seeming acceptance of having children and not making the father responsible and calling him in on it. It's easy to pass these things on like some kind of epidemic.'' At the time, news outlets deemed Cosby's remarks "controversial," so much so that they even inspired an entire book titled simply, "Is Bill Cosby Right: Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?" by scholar Michael Eric Dyson. (It is worth noting, however, that 80% of the black respondents to the survey conducted by the Suffolk University Political Research Center for my book Party Crashing, said they agreed with Cosby's remarks.)
Yet Obama's comments were the subject of high profile national coverage in outlets ranging from the New York Times, to CNN, and while perhaps it is still too early to tell there does not seem to be any looming controversy on the horizon. So does that mean that attitudes have simply changed a lot in the last four years? Not necessarily. But the messenger has.
When Barack Obama said on Sunday that, "Too many fathers are M.I.A, too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes," he was speaking from experience. The product of a fatherless upbringing, he has at times discussed in great detail the profound impact the absence had on shaping the man he has become. The experience inspired his bestselling memoir, aptly titled, Dreams from My Father. While it is easy to look at Barack Obama and say, "Well if he is an example of how a kid who grows up without a father turns out, then that really isn't so bad," the reality is Barack Obama is very much an exception, not the norm. As I have noted in previous posts many of the national statistics regarding the plight of black men are troubling. According to several reports, in inner cities half of young, black men do not finish high school and "By their mid-30's, 6 in 10 black men who had dropped out of school had spent time in prison."
For anyone unable to see a correlation between any of these statistics and the rise of fatherless children, consider another statistic. Children of incarcerated parents are seven times more likely to end up in prison themselves. This essentially creates a vicious cycle: Young, black men from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, many of whom have no fathers, father children of their own that they cannot support, drop out of high school at which point their employment options become limited, and thus engage in some form of illegal activity, possibly to subsidize their growing families, and ultimately end up in prison, away from their own children and then the cycle begins all over again.
The prominent role of incarceration has other far-reaching implications throughout black families as well. Though one of the least talked about realities in the fight against AIDS, transmission in prison and ultimately beyond prison walls is having very real consequences within the black community. AIDS is now the leading cause of death of young, black women.
I want to be clear in saying that there are plenty of wonderful black fathers out there. Barack Obama and Bill Cosby are just two of them, and there are many, many more, but not nearly enough.
So what can we all do? Learning to acknowledge and embrace the importance of the message, without shooting the messenger is certainly a good start. But that's just the beginning. Black men -- and women -- need to step up and take responsibility for our sexual health, well-being and choices. After all, a man can't make you a single mother unless you let him.
But another way we can all help? Become a mentor. Many mentoring organizations have thousands of black boys nationwide on waiting lists waiting to be paired with one. As I discovered while researching the topic for my graduate thesis last year, organizations are having a particularly tough time finding black male mentors. Additionally, black men tend to be more likely to engage in volunteer activities in groups with friends or family, so if you are a black man, and you have black male friends, take them by the hand and convince them to volunteer as a mentor with you. Who knows? Thirty years from now you could look up and find that you inspired the next president.