In a widely acclaimed speech at an African American church on Chicago’s South Side to commemorate Father’s Day, Barack Obama gave a presentation that, while acknowledging the racial challenges of the past, gave great weight to the themes of personal responsibility and moral uplift confronting African American men. The central theme that resonated through the presentation was “stop making excuses” for your own failings to be fathers.
Lamenting the growth in single-parent households, the number of which in the Illinois senator’s opinion has doubled in recent years, Obama called for greater moral fortitude to reverse the erosion of the Black family.
“Yes we need more jobs and job training and more opportunity in our community,” he thundered from the pulpit, “we know all that. But the change we need is not just going to come from government … it’s going to come from us,” he continued to applause. Obama lambasted absentee fathers and men who “act like boys.
Responsibility just doesn’t end at conception,” he said, going on to add, “any fool can make a baby.
“We can’t just write these problems off to past injustices,” he declared. “Some of it has to do with a tragic history, but we can’t keep using that as an excuse.”
Obama, who obviously had a strong personal motivation for the Father’s Day address as his own dad was absent during his “Wonder Bread years,” seemed to speak openly and honestly about his own personal feelings, while also keeping in mind constituencies he hopes to win in the general election. Apparently he hopes to assuage certain fears that he is captive to “special” interests and that by standing above the fray and “telling it like it is,” he will appear presidential.
But is that really how it is? Is a major problem in the Black community the lack of responsible Black fathers?
I grew up in a Black community on the south side of Youngstown, Ohio. On West Marion Avenue, dozens of African American families raised their families on paychecks earned laboring in the town’s steel, electric and auto factories. In 99 percent of them Dad was there. I remember Mr. Mosley, Mr. Lewis, Mr. Wilson, Mr. Bell, Mr. Sanki, Mr. Harvey, Mr. Goler and of course, my dad, Mr. Sims. Sure, there were some families headed by single mothers, but they were the exception not the rule. Today however, on Marion Avenue, that same constellation of families no longer obtains. What happened?
Anyone who is honest knows the answer. And you don’t have to look far to find it: the economy collapsed with the mass closing of factories in the early 1970s. Youngstown’s African American families collapsed along with it.
God, moral fortitude, personal responsibility, etc., had nothing to do with it. Corporate profits did. How are you going to be a man if you don’t have a job? And herein lies the dilemma. Young Black men are told time and again, “Be a man, Be a man,” and yet the means of “manhood” are placed largely beyond their reach. Personal responsibility is important, but meaningless without the means to do so.
As a result, my nephews and nieces have grown up in a community where three generations have never worked. Listen to what my nephew recently said to me: “Get a job? That’s not for people like me.”
And added to this is the sad fact that with the cost of living in today’s service economy you cannot raise a family microwaving burgers at McDonald’s.
In the last 10 years we have seen the Million Man March, the end of “welfare as we know it,” a speech by Bill Clinton chastising Black people for acting with “reckless abandonment,” and Bill Cosby’s recent campaign replete with themes similar to all of these. None of these were able to overcome job loss or its corrosive effects on the communities it impacts.
At the heart of the crisis in the Black, Brown and white working-class communities of today lies lack of decent-paying union jobs that would afford a standard of living adequate to raise a family. Obama has a great program to create millions of good paying jobs. That would be a Father’s Day message all would hear.
Joe Sims (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor of Political Affairs.