President Obama faced a daunting task when he stepped up to the podium to speak at Hyde Park Career Academy in Chicago last week. He was tasked with changing a widespread perception of gun violence in his adopted hometown from that of a uniquely urban pathology to one of national significance—and one that can be impacted by national policy change.
Reactions to the speech have varied. But some observers have noted that while the president did address substantive policy change, he also alienated some of his most ardent supporters by focusing on black family structures rather than leaving the spotlight on structural inequities.
“I’m a robust supporter of the president and there are things to really like about the speech, but my vote does not vacate my critique,” says Rutgers University scholar Brittney Cooper, who is co-founder of the influential blog Crunk Feminist Collective. “We deserve to have a set of public policy solutions that don’t traffic in age old stereotypes about black families.”
Cooper was among a number of black commentators who were put off by the president’s speech.
“Obama’s remarks are still shallow,” says David Stovall, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Federal authorities appear to be fearful of addressing tangible, long term solutions to job creation, tenants’ rights [to address displacement], and quality education not in the form of charter schools.”
Last week’s address came amid a groundswell of voices calling for an end to the violent deaths of black and Latino youth in the city. An online petition initiated by the Chicago-based Black Youth Project captured 50,000 signatures urging the president to come to Chicago and draw national attention to the complicated ways in which gun violence exists in urban centers.
The president’s speech did highlight some of those complexities and connect them to solutions he’s put forth in his broader second term agenda, such as universal pre-kindergarden and job training to lift struggling families out of poverty. These ideas were however overshadowed for some by the president’s focus on black fatherhood—a recurring theme when he’s addressing black audiences or discussing race.
“I’ve also said no law or set of laws can prevent every senseless act of violence in this country,” Obama told the audience. “When a child opens fire on another child, there’s a hole in that child’s heart that government can’t fill—only community and parents and teahers and clergy can fill that hole.”
That started Obama down the slippery slope of family values, the work of using his stature as president to try to encourage marriage. Instead of using policy to anchor him the rest of the way down, he continued.
“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.”
To date, there’s been very little scientific evidence that links fatherlessness directly to gun violence. More broadly, the research that does exist suggests that economic mobility is a more important determinant of a child’s success—something that’s traditionally been much easier to have in a two parent household.
Obama pivoted slightly to point out that he himself is the product of a single mom and that mothers like her are “heroic.” He also hat tipped diversity of family types—foster parents, grandparents, extended families, and queer parents. But for the second time in a week, including his State of the Union address, the president employed a familiar talking point: “What makes you a man is not the ability to make a child, it’s the courage to raise one.”
The rhetorical strategy worked for some, but it left some black women feeling as though they had been thrown under the bus.
MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry took the time on her weekend talk show to elaborate on her heated Twitter-based criticism of the president’s speech. “Somehow in the middle of a speech on gun violence and poverty we found ourselves in the middle of the president’s daddy issues,” Harris said.
I know that president Obama wasn’t saying that single moms cause gun violence, but there are several reasons we need to be wary when policymakers evoke familial explanations for structural inequalities…. Policy tends to be blind to the pathologies of the privileged. It’s only families that are economically disadvantaged or from communities of color that become spectacles of concern for us. We ring our hands in distress about single mothers living on Chicago’s South Side living in poverty, but allow me to remind you that Newtown shooter Adam Lanza may have been raised by a single mom, but she was left wealthy following her divorce. And Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris [who] massacred their classmates at Columbine High [were] both raised in stable, two-parent households. The receipe to stopping gun violence is more complicated than ‘just add dad.’
Cooper also offered a public critique, in an opinion column for Ebony.com that laid out her criticism. “Is White mass violence evidence of a failture of White parenting?” she asked. “No one would dare suggest such a thing, nor would they attempt to build a set of public policy solutions around such thinking.”
Both Harris-Perry and Cooper have faced criticism for their indictment of Obama’s rhetoric around black fatherhood.
“I’ve gotten pushback from my non-academic friends who say we’re being too hard on the president, he can’t please everybody, and [my critiques] are too out of touch and academic,” Cooper told me over the phone. “But I’ve lived these challenges—my dad was absentee and killed by gun violence. My story is a classic story about black poverty and violence and teen motherhood.”
Cooper isn’t alone. Black women are largely in favor of the president at the ballot box. In the 2012 election, the president won 96 percent of black women’s votes.
Cooper also points to the irony of the president donning what she calls his “father-in-chief” hat and notes Michelle Obama’s confession that her husband was largely an absentee father as he worked his way up to the presidency. “What does it mean that it took becoming president to make this upstanding black man a good dad? It means we need really robust public support. He’s got the biggest public support package there is—public housing, a public salary that allows him to sit down with kids to dinner every night. If he needs it, then so does the public.”
“Yes, black fathering matters. But it doesn’t matter at the expense of throwing all black people under the bus and being mired in pathology. We deserve better.”