On father's day, when Barack Obama assailed absent fathers as a critical source of suffering for black communities, he sought two political advantages for the price of one. He embraced a thorny tradition of social thought that says black families are largely responsible for their own troubles. And he was seen in a black church not railing at racism but rebuking his own race. Obama's words may have been spoken to black folk, but they were also aimed at those whites still on the fence about whom to send to the White House.
The notion that black families are mired in self-imposed trauma stems from Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1965 report, in which Moynihan argued that the black family was a "tangle of pathology" whose destruction by slavery had produced female-headed households, absent fathers and high illegitimacy. Interestingly, Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the few Negro leaders who refused to condemn the future New York Senator's report. "The shattering blows on the Negro family have made it fragile, deprived and often psychopathic," King said at the time. "Nothing is so much needed as a secure family life for a people to pull themselves out of poverty and backwardness." But King also insisted that Moynihan's report offered both "dangers and opportunities." The danger was that "problems will be attributed to innate Negro weaknesses and used to justify neglect and rationalize oppression." The opportunity was the chance that the report would galvanize support and resources for the black family.
Four decades later, King's misgivings have been realized more than his hopes. Stereotypes about negligent black fathers persist, promoted most vehemently by Bill Cosby, who has embarked on a national crusade against the alleged misbehavior of poor black families. And yet such stereotypes may have little basis in reality. Research by Boston College social psychologist Rebekah Levine Coley found that black fathers not living at home are more likely to keep in contact with their children than fathers of any other ethnic or racial group. Coley offers a more complex view of the causes of absenteeism among black fathers: the failure to live up to expectations to provide for their families--owing to stunted economic and educational opportunities--drives poor black men into despair and away from their families. Such findings undermine the arguments about black fathers' inherent pathology or moral lassitude. These men need jobs, not jabs.
Obama's Father's Day speech did tilt gently in that direction: he noted the need for more cops and more money for teachers, for more after-school programs and fewer guns. But he laid most of the blame on black families and fathers, in blunt--and occasionally belittling--terms. He said many of them acted "like boys instead of men." He also said, "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."
The trouble is that the problems Obama identified won't be solved solely through tough talk in black churches. We've heard these themes before. In the 1970s, Jesse Jackson said, "You are not a man because you can make a baby. You're only a man if you can raise a baby, protect a baby and provide for a baby." But like King before him, Jackson understood that one must beat back the barriers that stand in the way of individual initiative. Obama brilliantly cited a Chris Rock routine about black men expecting praise for things they were supposed to do, like stay out of jail and take care of their children. But Rock's humor is so effective because he is just as hard on whites as on blacks. That's a part of the routine Obama has not yet adopted.
Obama's rebuff of black fathers and his firm insistence on personal responsibility were calculated to win over socially conservative whites who were turned off by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's tirades against persistent racism. But in his desire to appeal to such voters, Obama may have missed the balance that King maintained. Personal responsibility is a crucial, but only partial, answer to what ails black families. Huge unemployment, racist mortgage practices, weakened child-care support, stunted training programs for blue-collar workers who've been made obsolete by technology, and the gutting of early-childhood learning programs are all forces that must be combated. If we rightly expect more black fathers to stick around to raise their children, we've got to give them a greater opportunity to stay home.
Dyson is a sociology professor at Georgetown University and the author of April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Death and How It Changed America