For years I felt something was missing from the political discourse and social commentary I heard on a regular basis. Guests on shows were much too predictable, more likely to parrot talking points than acknowledge the complicated nature of serious social and political issues. Then two years ago I saw a segment on one of my favorite shows that eventually led me to start this blog.
Allow me to set the scene.
President Obama went to Chicago in February 2013 to to deliver a speech on strengthening the economy for middle-class Americans. His address came shortly after Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old girl from Chicago, was shot and killed one week after performing at the president’s second inauguration. What was supposed to be a speech on the economy ended up being remembered by many for what the president said about gun violence, marriage, and strong communities. POTUS stated that no law or set of laws can prevent senseless acts of violence and talked about the shared responsibility communities have to love and support their children. Then the president went a little deeper.
Now, that starts at home. There’s no more important ingredient for success, nothing that would be more important for us reducing violence than strong, stable families — which means we should do more to promote marriage and encourage fatherhood. Don’t get me wrong — as the son of a single mom, who gave everything she had to raise me with the help of my grandparents, I turned out okay. But — no, no, but I think it’s — so we’ve got single moms out here, they’re heroic in what they’re doing and we are so proud of them. But at the same time, I wish I had had a father who was around and involved. Loving, supportive parents — and, by the way, that’s all kinds of parents — that includes foster parents, and that includes grandparents, and extended families; it includes gay or straight parents.
As is the case whenever the president touts the social and economic importance of marriage or encourages men to be responsible fathers–especially in front of a majority black audience–many of the president’s progressive supporters cried foul. Why? Some people believe the president only gives these speeches to black folks, thereby feeding notions of black pathology and endorsing the type of respectability politics that many progressives see as a distraction from more important structural solutions to the problems facing our communities. These critics note that a president’s greatest sphere of influence is in the area of public policy, not culture. As such, they argue President Obama should spend more time advancing substantive policy solutions to gun violence and entrenched poverty, not promoting marriage or the importance of fathers, which carry an added sting to people who see such rhetoric as a jab at single mothers.
So as I watched the segment below on the Melissa Harris Perry show I could feel a sense of frustration starting to build. It’s not that I dislike Melissa Harris Perry or her politics. I actually believe she is one of the foremost public intellectuals and watch her show often. She has the rare ability to engage academics and laypeople alike on complex social, economic, and political issues. In this instance, however, I recognized that politics were trumping truth.
Anyone who cares about the condition of African Americans in this country has to be willing to grapple with the state of black marriage and family head on. Unfortunately, the people who have the platform to discuss these issues in a serious and thoughtful way are often the ones most likely to dismiss them as irrelevant or unworthy of public debate. Some make references to slavery and how it broke up the black family, even though black men and women age 35 and older were more likely to be married in 1890 than their white counterparts–a trend that continued until 1960. They say that mass incarceration has crippled the marriage prospects of many black women, even though the men who are most likely to be incarcerated–limited income and education–are also the least likely, across race, to get married. Or they note that the decoupling of marriage and childbearing has become more prevalent among all racial groups (72% for blacks, 53% for Latinos, 29% for whites) in this country, even though much smaller disparities in unemployment rates, for example, were enough for black leaders to push President Obama for a black agenda that included concrete strategies for getting black folks back to work.
The data on the impact of marriage and involved fathers on the development of children is robust and consistent. The verdict is clear: dads matter. And marriage matters to the extent that it is the single most important structural enabler of father involvement. Children who grow up in homes with their married biological parents do better in a number of areas–socially, emotionally, educationally–than their peers in other familial arrangements. That doesn’t mean that these children are destined for success or that kids from single-parent homes are doomed to a life of misery and poverty. It just means that people who argue that marriage and family structure don’t really matter aren’t keeping it real. They do matter. And the people who say otherwise know that.
But this panel’s conversation was reflective of something bigger. Too often, our brightest minds think they are serving us by either telling us to ignore what we and others can plainly see or convincing us what we see isn’t as bad as we think. What we need is people who can speak the truth in love, not an intellectual class that serves as self-appointed PR professionals. We need people who understand that our history is complex and our struggle has been long, but respect our humanity enough to not treat us like children who can’t handle the truth. Many progressive cultural commentators get this when it comes to problems that require structural or institutional change but those analytical skills don’t seem to be nearly as effective when dealing with issues within the locus of individual control.
And this isn’t just a liberal problem. There are African Americans on the complete opposite end of the political spectrum with a serious aversion to the truth who don’t ever pass up an opportunity to trash black folk, especially for predominantly white audiences; but they suffer from a slightly different issue: bad analysis and bad motives. This isn’t just a black issue. There are white people in this country, some serving in the highest levels of state and federal government, who have no problem condemning other nations for past human rights abuses but refuse to even openly acknowledge both this country’s long and brutal history of state-sanctioned racial oppression or the impact that history has on people’s lives today. The inability and unwillingness to speak the truth, especially when it contradicts our agenda, cuts across racial, ethnic, religious, and national lines. It even cuts across power divides. We have seen churches, police departments, and entire governments live in a state of perpetual denial just so they wouldn’t have to own up to their crimes against the people they are supposed to serve. No individual or institution is immune. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept it in silence. We can set the truth free.