Scoring points at the expense of Black men

June 17, 2008

Demonizing Black men was the latest in a series of right turns by Barack Obama now that the general election campaign is underway.

THE IMAGE of the shiftless Black man has been a staple of U.S. presidential politics since the founding of the Republic.

Typical was Democrat Grover Cleveland, elected in 1884. The first member of the old slaveowners' party to make it to the White House after the Civil War, Cleveland said that among Blacks there was "a grievous amount of ignorance, a sad amount of viciousness, and a tremendous amount of laziness and thriftlessness."

In the modern era, the race-baiting has been a bit more subtle. But when Republican Richard Nixon campaigned for "law and order" in the 1968 elections, everyone knew what he meant--especially conservative Southern Democrats who have turned to the Republicans ever since.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan upped the ante, referring to "welfare queens" driving Cadillacs and "strapping young bucks" who took government handouts rather than work. In 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton joined this shameful parade when he left the campaign trail to personally preside over the execution of a mentally disabled Black man, Ricky Ray Rector--and, later, denounce the rap artist Sister Souljah at a meeting of Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition.

Barack Obama used his Father's Day speech at a Chicago church to rip into Black men for being irresponsibile
Barack Obama used his Father's Day speech at a Chicago church to rip into Black men for being irresponsibile (Brian Kersey | UPI)

Now comes Barack Obama with his own broadside against African American men.

"We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception," Obama said at an African American church on Chicago's South Side on Father's Day. "Too many fathers are M.I.A, too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it."

The focus of Obama's harangue was statistics showing that about half of all Black children live in single-parent households, the overwhelming majority of them with their mothers.

But rather than examine the social conditions that gave rise to this, Obama blamed the victims. He lectured African American parents who "just sit in the house watching SportsCenter," and said, "Don't get carried away with that eighth-grade graduation. You're supposed to graduate from eighth grade."

According to the New York Times, Obama's speech at the Apostolic Church of God was well received. The audience often voiced approval and, at one point, gave him a standing ovation.

Obama was echoing the comedian Bill Cosby, whose recent books and speaking tours criticizing hip-hop culture and the African American family have been popular among the Black middle class.

The African American writer Michael Eric Dyson points out that Cosby's attacks on the Black poor ignore social realities.

"If the rigidly segregated education system continues to fail poor Blacks by failing to prepare their children for the world of work, then admonitions to 'stay in school' may ring hollow," he wrote in response to a 2004 Cosby speech. "In suburban neighborhoods, there are $60-million schools with state-of-the-art technology, while inner city schools desperately fight for funding for their students."

He added: "There's nothing like a formerly poor Black multimillionaire bashing poor Blacks to lend credence to the ancient assaults they've endured from the dominant culture."

DYSON'S COMMENTS about Cosby apply equally well to Obama's attacks on Black men. But Obama's motives are more cynical--part of a calculated appeal to conservative white voters by validating racist stereotypes.

There's a pattern here. Just a day after securing the nomination, Obama gave a hard-line pro-Zionist speech at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee meeting. He also took a classic Yankee imperialist position slamming Cuba and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez in a speech before right-wing Cuban Americans.

Demonizing Black men was just another checklist item in Obama's post-primary right turn for the general election.

Moreover, Obama's pronouncements about Black men left out more than a few important facts.

Having gone well beyond eighth grade himself to graduate from Harvard Law School, Obama surely knows that the number of children living with single mothers has increased among all racial groups. According to Census Bureau statistics for 2005, for Latinos, the figure was 25 percent. For whites, it was 16 percent.

And as a former community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, Obama is well aware of the social impact of the loss of good-paying factory jobs. Unemployment--or the lack of a decent job in the first place--is certainly a more important factor in destabilizing families than sports shows on cable television.

Finally, there's a shocking statistic about Black men that Obama didn't cite in his speech--that one out of 15 are behind bars. That figure, perhaps more than any, captures the continued impact of racism on U.S. society.

But that's not something Obama is eager to talk about. Because giving a speech denouncing the fact that the U.S. sends more African Americans to prison than to college just isn't good politics. Not when you're the favorite to become president of the United States.

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