For The New York Times.
Is President Obama the scold of black America or its empathetic prophet?
With his remarks at the funeral for the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney a week ago, Mr. Obama looked out onto a sea of mostly black faces — under the gaze of the nation — and addressed the topic of racism head-on.
“For too long, we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we see that now,” he said without flinching.
It was a bittersweet moment. Sweet because, for the first time in years, the president exercised some of his trademark audacity on behalf of black Americans instead of chiding us. Bitter because of the ghastly events in Charleston, S.C., that led to the shift in rhetoric.
“Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty, or attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career,” he said.
It was a departure from the president’s usual comments to and about black Americans, ones in which he typically forgoes those “tough questions” in favor of a focus on personal accountability, with an emphasis on the importance of fathers within families.
The president has said it is because he grew up fatherless that he focuses on family values in his remarks to black Americans. He thinks the issue is important, and uniquely important for us. He must also think it’s a way to connect with me, or audiences like me. I’m a black man who grew up without a father. Yet, to me, Mr. Obama’s finger-wagging on fatherhood has been disappointing almost beyond words.
In a 2008 Father’s Day speech before a black congregation in Chicago, Mr. Obama, then a candidate for the White House, took black dads to task. “Any fool can have a child,” he said. “That doesn’t make you a father. It’s the courage to raise a child that makes you a father.”
A few years later, when the president addressed the topic of gun violence before a group of students in Chicago, he said: “This is not just a gun issue. When a child opens fire on another child, there is a hole in that child’s heart that government can’t fill. Only community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole.”
I graduated from Morehouse College before Mr. Obama gave acommencement address there in 2013. Despite what had by then become the president’s routine admonishment of black Americans, I held out hope for the powerful message he could deliver to graduates of the nation’s only institution dedicated to educating black men. I hoped that a black man who’d ascended to the presidency might offer brotherly career advice. I thought he might tackle policy — mass incarceration, student loans, economic inequality, funding for black colleges.
Or, I imagined, he would stand in front of 500 black men being conferred college degrees — young people on their way to graduate school or beginning careers despite tremendous odds — and say, This too is black America. Instead, that speech made headlines for its “no excuses” theme and its focus on fatherhood. “Be the best father you can be to your children,” President Obama told the new graduates, “Because nothing is more important.”
The president faced some criticism for the address at the time, including from Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic. At a panel discussion on poverty at Georgetown this May, Mr. Obama defended his message.
“It’s true that if I’m giving a commencement at Morehouse that I will have a conversation with young black men about taking responsibility as fathers that I probably will not have with the women of Barnard. And I make no apologies for that,” he said. “And the reason is, is because I am a black man who grew up without a father and I know the cost that I paid for that.”
The audience applauded. I was less enthusiastic.
Whether we’re confronting gun violence or graduating, the president’s message to black America has largely centered on absent black dads. At best, it has been armchair psychoanalysis delivered from the bully pulpit. At worst, a sleight of hand that diverts focus from policy questions and avoids a real discussion of discrimination. Either way, the reduction from citizen to statistic has been frustrating.
It is worthy of praise, of course, that the president of the United States cares about the status of American families, and black families in particular. Mr. Obama has, however, reserved his lectures on fatherhood for black Americans. And recent events suggest that, for that constituency in particular, the president should have more pressing concerns.
The absence of Barack Obama Sr. is a major theme of President Obama’s life story. It’s a thread that runs through his autobiography and is, in fact, the inspiration for that book’s title. Over the years, however, it has become increasingly clear that fatherlessness is a dominant lens through which Mr. Obama views not just himself but also the nation’s black men and boys at large.
As he assessed the legacy of Mr. Pinckney, the specter of derelict dads didn’t loom so large. In fact, black fatherlessness took another form, as the slain pastor’s daughters sat through their father’s funeral. Before them, the president was fully present as an advocate.
In eulogizing Mr. Pinckney, the president was forced — or allowed — to do something he rarely does: He acknowledged black America within the context of its undeniable struggle to exist in a nation at odds with our presence since its inception. He spoke for us, not just at us.