At Hyde Park Career Academy on Chicago’s South Side, dozens of young people wearing tidy khaki pants and navy-blue polo shirts gathered on the stage of their high school’s auditorium. They were ready to greet guest of honor President Barack Obama, who visited them this past February. He rallied the kids, as he usually does at such events, and the images were striking: a Black president interacting with Black teens. He introduced a new social mobility agenda: the Ladders of Opportunity Program. Still, he couldn’t help but discuss an even more vexing problem. In 2012, nearly 65 children were among Chicago’s 443 homicide victims. “That’s the equivalent of a Newtown every four months,” he said.
As the president—and as a father—he just can’t abide by those statistics.
The White House frequently touts Michelle Obama as the mother-in-chief, dispatched to soothe families of shooting victims and to promote healthy eating. Now that Obama is freed from the burdensome re-election calculations, it’s clear that he’s more fully stepping into his role as father-in-chief.
This is important because one of the most persistent critiques of President Obama is that he hasn’t used his position to address the particular concerns of Black men: education, unemployment, high rates of incarceration and slowed social mobility. But listen closely and connect the dots, and you’ll notice the president has taken some key steps to deal with these issues.
As the country debated gun policies after the shooting of unarmed Florida teen Trayvon Martin in February 2012, the president spoke out. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” he said during a White House press conference. And in this year’s state of the union address, he promoted fatherhood, saying, “What makes you a man isn’t the ability to conceive a child; it’s having the courage to raise one.”
Later that week, he went to Hyde Park Career Academy, near his Chicago home. He also met privately in a classroom with more than a dozen participants in the Becoming a Man project, which has helped boost graduation rates and lower violent crime arrests among at-risk men.
For another example of Obama’s expanded role, look to Morehouse College, whose new president, John Wilson Jr., Ph.D., spent the last four years running the White House’s Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Barely two weeks into his new job, Wilson received a call from Washington, D.C. The message: President Obama wanted to deliver Morehouse’s commencement address. Wilson quickly accepted the offer. “It was pretty simple,” he says, admitting his deep Washington ties didn’t influence the arrangement. “It was timing, and President Obama is clearly drawn by the power of Morehouse.”
The visit carries special resonance: the country’s first Black president to deliver the graduation address at a college devoted to Black men. “So much about him reflects what we’re trying to do here at Morehouse: preparing young African-American men for the world,” says Wilson.
There’s rarely been a deep public analysis of Obama’s relationship with Black men in the way Hillary Clinton’s ascendance triggered a discussion about the role of women in American society. Yet, it’s clear the president takes seriously his position as role model. Even if the pundits don’t take to it, it’s time for Obama to start a national conversation about why dealing with some of the key challenges facing Black men is in the nation’s best interest.
There are some key things the president can do. First, he should start a conversation with the nation’s business leaders who are in a position to hire. Second, he should directly engage education leaders, from university presidents to kindergarten teachers. Third, he should regularly meet with young Black men, just as he did on Chicago’s South Side. But the most important step is simply to talk—in a public, authentic and reflective way—about what it means to have a Black man in the Oval Office. That will signal to the world that it’s acceptable—and healthy—to discuss the achievement, failings and hopes for Black men. Part of the president’s legacy depends on it.