President Obama’s new outreach initiative to help at-risk boys of color — “My Brother’s Keeper” — is cause for cheer.
It isn’t that we haven’t known for some time that minority boys are in trouble. Poor school performance, truancy, delinquency and, ultimately, high incarceration rates cannot be separated from the absence of fathers in many homes. Out-of-wedlock births are now at 72 percent in the African-American community and 53 percent among Latinos, compared to 29 percent among non-Hispanic whites.
But sometimes things can change only when the right messenger comes along. Obama is that man, though he seems to have realized it late in his game. Or perhaps he feared criticism for focusing on the black half of himself and waited for a second term.
Since the 1960s, as women have made strides toward greater empowerment, the trend of fatherlessness has been largely overlooked except by a few lonely voices in the media. The noisemakers were men, mostly white, who garnered more mockery than consideration, drowned out by feminists who dismissed fathers as nonessential, often conflating the incidence of abusive or “bad” fathers with an indictment of men generally. Those who insisted otherwise were characterized as heretical pawns of the patriarchy.
A nation can’t long flourish without the commitment of fathers to raise their sons — and, yes, their daughters, too.
Announcing $200 million in private funding for the initiative whereby businesses will connect young men with mentors, the president spoke about his personal history as a young son growing up without a father. This first-person connection is Obama’s most powerful weapon in encouraging two-parent homes, as well as highlighting societal trends that have minimized the importance of men and the need for role models to teach boys how to be men. Who better than the president of the United States?
In minority communities, fathers became scarcer in part owing to a welfare program that was predicated upon no man in the house. It would not take long before marriage and fathers made little economic sense to many mothers. Three generations later, two-parent families have become a quaint memory.
Rather than tackling the source of problems in minority communities, we have embraced a pop culture that celebrates destructive behavior via movies and music. It is hard to teach young boys to treat girls respectfully when icons such as Beyonce sing about her guy “so horny … he Monica Lewinsky-ed all on my gown.”
Magazine covers and chatty television shows, meanwhile, cutesify the tragedy of casual procreation by touting baby-daddies and baby-mamas, who aren’t so adorable in the inner city where the biological offspring of such lyrical liaisons are most often doomed to a life without much promise.
A culture faced with such challenges can only benefit from the president’s attentions, especially as he has sway with the media that shape so much of our culture. The uniqueness of his outreach isn’t only that he is a man of color and has shared the sorrow of having to imagine his father’s dreams but that he is inoculated from criticisms that might have been raised against another type of politician. This is gratifying progress and marks a victory of common sense over ideology.
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Kathleen Parker’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.