Eugene Robinson’s Op-Ed on Barack Obama’s recent speech about fatherhood gets at some important distinctions between Obama’s speeches adressing issues in the black community, and the ones championed by conservatives, which emphasize a very selective concept of “personal responsiblity” over very real social factors.

“Many black men simply cannot afford to raise a family — and too many have made the sad choice not to,” Obama said Friday in what aides touted as a major speech.

You might have heard that Obama is running for president, which makes it impossible to ignore the politics involved. The men-acting-like-boys speech was given in a black church in South Carolina, an early-primary state where half of Democratic voters are African American. It’s not at all rare for a black leader to challenge black Americans on issues of personal responsibility — that same message, phrased in much stronger terms, is delivered every Sunday from pulpits across the country. The political significance is for the scolding to be given in such a way that white America can’t help but overhear what’s being said.


In a telephone interview Friday, Obama said that he intends to continue and expand this public dialogue. As in the speech, Obama chose his words carefully. “The key to having this conversation constructively,” he said, “is to realize that there’s really no excuse for not behaving responsibly toward our children.”
Is Obama speaking to African Americans, or is he really trying to reach those whites who believe that most of black America’s problems are self-inflicted?

Having that conversation constructively, rather than simply ridiculing black people who choose Afro-centric or otherwise “unusual” (read: not what white people name their kids) names for their children is key. It’s the difference between encouraging someone to do better and mocking them for failing.

As for whether Obama is speaking to white voters or black ones, I think the answer is both. While in the past I’ve criticized Obama’s speeches for relying too heavily on anecdotal and stereotypical arguments about black underachievement, this speech strikes an important balance.

There’s nothing startling about Obama’s analysis of the macroeconomic forces that contribute to the problem of absent black fathers. Blue-collar jobs that once paid well and offered security, such as his father-in-law’s job at the plant, have largely disappeared. “In the last six years, over 300,000 black males have lost jobs in the manufacturing sector,” Obama said. The forces of globalization are inexorable. Inner-city schools don’t prepare students to compete in today’s economy.

While young black fathers love their children and don’t set out to be bad parents, Obama told me, they have a dearth of role models and a surfeit of distractions. Their lives are often disorganized, and even if they want steady jobs, their prospects are dim.

His prescriptions include job training and tax credits for young noncustodial fathers. But they also include what he called a “crackdown” on child-support enforcement, which he says is intended to collect $13 billion in outstanding payments.

These issues affect white workers as well as black ones, and it’s unfortunate the in America economic struggle is so often racialized in a destructive manner as to make honest conversations about the issues facing both working class blacks and whites almost impossible to have.

I am however, impressed with the way Obama has modified his speeches to include an appeal for all of us to do better, while speaking honestly about the very real social factors impeding black success. Obama emphasizes in the speech that despite the absence of segregation, there are powerful impediments to economic success and security for many black families.

It has not been lost on either Michelle or myself that our family’s story has been America’s story – a story of opportunity, and possibility, and the tireless pursuit of a dream that was always within reach. Our parents and grandparents were given no guarantees, and they certainly had their share of failings and hardship, but theirs was a country where if you wanted it badly enough, and were willing to work for it, and take responsibility, you could provide for your family and give your children the same chance.

There are fewer and fewer families who can tell this story today. Unlike my grandfather, the brave soldiers who return from Iraq and Afghanistan are lucky if they come home to a job that pays the bills, or even the benefits and care they’ve earned as veterans. Blue-collar workers like Fraser Robinson have seen their benefits decline, and their unions weakened, and their wages flattened while the cost of everything else rises. And as many of you know too well, single parents no longer have the support system that my mother did, with too many fathers financially unable to help raise their children even if they want to do the right thing.

The fact of blackness makes the story of Michelle Obama’s family no less universal, and perhaps that is the strength of Obama’s candidacy. He has been able, for many Americans, to make what are often specifically black American narratives accessible to non-black Americans.

Robinson ends the Op-Ed on a rather personal note.

Obama gets a good response when he talks about paternal responsibility in front of black audiences. It’s an issue that “resonates around the country,” he said. “We have to talk in the public square, not only about the obligations of fatherhood but the joys of fatherhood.”

I can’t help but think he’s talking not just to America, but to his own late father. Who wasn’t there.

Too many of us know how that feels.

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