Almost as soon as he began to talk, I found myself deeply incensed at President Obama’s address in Chicago this past Friday. I hoped, along with the 50,000 folks who petitioned for this speech after Hadiya Pendleton’s murder, that the president would offer both empathy and solutions to a community shell-shocked by massive violence.
Instead when the president began by suggesting that we need to “do more to promote marriage and encourage fatherhood,” I started shaking my head. Rather than empathizing with those Black families that have been destroyed by violence, he blamed the prevalence of non-nuclear Black families for contributing to it! Recycling this tired narrative about broken families and absentee Black fathers does nothing to address the steady flow of guns into our communities, nor the pathologies that lead young people to fire them.
Yes, I think we can all agree with Obama that “for a lot of young boys and young men, in particular, they don’t see an example of fathers or grandfathers, uncles, who are in a position to support families and be held up and respected.” But as David Leonard has shown, just because nearly 70% of children are born to unmarried parents, this does not mean that 70% of Black children don’t have active fathers.
It is equally unacceptable to treat Black folks that way.
To be fair, President Obama did begin to address the challenges of systemic poverty and failing schools, in his speech. He used the word “poverty” three times, advocated for the working poor through increase in the minimum wage, and pledged his support for the creation of public pre-schools, a policy that would absolutely reduce the economic burdens on working class families. But rather than talking about how education and economic policies would strengthen Black families, which could then create safe havens for children dealing with adolescent challenges, yet again the president framed it backwards, by making individual families responsible for broad systemic challenges.
By framing things backwards, he missed an opportunity to talk about how the Prison Industrial Complex, the War on Drugs, and “school reform” have exacerbated Black poverty. Aggressive surveillance, policing and incarceration of Black youth have terrorized Black communities and robbed them of valuable human capital, as talented young men languish behind bars. These are things that the president surely knows, especially since he has made some moves away from the War on Drugs rhetoric. Yet, when I listened to the speech, I heard resonance of these same 'get tough-on-crime' policies that exploded the Black prison population in the first place.
Claiming that “it’s very hard to develop economically if people don’t feel safe,” the president proposed using solutions that have been “proven to work” in areas where violent crime proceeds unchecked. If the unspecified methods to which the president alludes involve more surveillance, policing, and jail time, then in fact, these methods will only increase the reach of the Prison Industrial Complex, and all of the ill effects that come with it.
When people can work, pay for affordable housing and send their children to decent schools in their own communities, those communities become safer. My logic is pretty elementary: folks will be less likely to engage in crime in order to support basic needs, when they have jobs that can provide for those needs. Moreover, the fact that young (White) professionals keep gentrifying these “unsafe” urban spaces suggests that the infusion of resources into communities precedes the reduction in crime.
Furthermore, the Obama administration’s continued investment in the very questionable educational practices that catalyzed a massive Chicago Teacher’s Strike last fall threaten to undermine any affirmative steps he might take to reduce violence and poverty. Chicago Public Schools are composed of 80% Black and Brown students, and Chicago teachers have rebelled against the very kinds of corporate-influenced, test-driven education policies that left Chicago youth as the ground zero of casualties in the national school reform movement.
The challenges facing Black folks in Chicago are myriad, but they have little to do with the decrease in marriage rates. For the president to focus his attention there is an exercise in missing the point.
And Black youth and families in Chicago deserve better.
Brittney C. Cooper, Ph.D. is Assistant professor of Women's and Gender studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University. She is also co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective.