The president has gotten some good press from the speech, in which he launched the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, intended to benefit young “at risk” minority males. Bill O’Reilly has given the president high marks on a good start, which matters. For all his occasional bombast, Mr. O’Reilly has been a leading media figure in the effort to draw attention to the collapse of marriage in low-income communities.Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker, also a leading voice in this arena, wrote yesterday that “sometimes things can change only when the right messenger comes along.” Parker’s column, however, was filled with references to the real problem: the out-of-wedlock birth rates of 72 percent for African Americans and 53 percent for Hispanics, and the way feminists have made the problem worse by popularizing the notion that fathers are nonessential. Yet none of that was in the president’s speech.
So let me sound a note of caution about President Obama’s newest initiative. The history of progressives, and of this administration in particular, should make us wary.
The balance — or imbalance — in the president’s themes is a matter of concern, particularly considering the potential power of the messenger. The main obstacle to Hispanics’ upward mobility is the ongoing breakdown of the Hispanic family. On this there is a growing consensus among researchers across the political spectrum.
Yet the president gave this issue very light treatment. More than halfway through the speech he said, “And, yes, we need to encourage fathers to stick around, and remove the barriers to marriage, and talk openly about things like responsibility and faith and community. In the words of Dr. King, it is not either-or; it is both-and.”
In other words: Yes, if I must, I’ll give a nod in your direction and mention marriage.
Worryingly, President Obama also spoke at times as if the problem of family breakdown were here to stay, more a condition to manage than a problem to solve. He said at one point, “There are going to be some kids who just don’t have a family at home that is functional, no matter how hard we try.” This may be true, as far as that goes, but it isn’t the approach the administration takes to, say, obesity.
The president’s track record on family issues is poor. In his first term, his administration tried to eliminate marriage-promotion programs that had been started by the Bush administration, even though the early evidence indicated that these programs were having a positive impact on Hispanic couples.
In the place of marriage-supporting programs, the Obama administration wanted to put the emphasis on “responsible fatherhood,” a phrase the president used again last Thursday. There is an important difference: While the healthy-marriage people stress in-wedlock births and sexual exclusivity, the good-fatherhood people want to teach fathering skills to men while ignoring the first fathering skill: committing in marriage to the child’s mother rather than having multiple sexual partnerships.
The result, scoffs former Bush-administration official Bill Coffin, whom I interviewed for a book I’ve written on Hispanics, is that we often end up in “multiple-partner fertility and complex family formation.” Coffin also levels a charge that goes to the heart of the issue: “Obviously the Obama-administration folks, being liberal, were going to stop the marriage stuff because they don’t want to promote marriage.”
As Maggie Russell of the National Association for Relationship & Marriage Education (NARME) told me, the Left now is “accepting that this is just part of life, that people are going to have children out of wedlock.”
The animus that progressives bear against the family is hardly new, and it even predates the feminists’ condemnation of the “patriarchy.” As Yuval Levin wrote in National Review in 2013:
The utopian goal of the most radical forms of liberalism has always been the complete liberation of the individual from all unchosen “relational” obligations — obligations to the people around you that are a function of the family and community in which you live. Resentment against such obligations was a central and powerful motive in the radical late-18th-century thought that gave us some (though not all) forms of modern libertarianism and the modern Left, and the defense of such obligations was central to the counterarguments that yielded modern conservatism.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that, on Thursday, the president instead spoke at length about his pet issues. He brought up health care, pre-K, and even Trayvon Martin. The fact that he made nine references to “men of color” was over the top. The reality is that the travails of African Americans and Hispanics differ in some important ways. Even “Hispanic” and “Latino” are smorgasbordic terms that confuse more than explain — bureaucratic creations that lump together people of very different backgrounds, people of all colors. It is difficult to see how handing immigrants from Spain’s former colonies a minority status as they come in — rather than seeing them as but the latest of many, many waves of immigrants to this country — has in any way contributed to their success.
Lastly, the president waxed poetical about one of his favorite subjects: himself. He talked of being raised by a single mom, about Michelle and his daughters, and even, once again, about the imaginary son he never had.
Another important roadblock to the advancement of the poor is educational disparity between public schools in the suburbs and those in the inner city. Now, President Obama did mention education, which was good. But given his track record of sticking with the teachers’ unions and opposing all manner of private-school options, it is difficult to see how any good can come of it. In the neighborhoods where many Hispanics live, the public schools are beyond repair — at least as long as the unions stubbornly block meaningful reforms such as linking pay to results or actually firing nonperforming teachers.
It is also worrying that the president brought up his Education Department’s wrongheaded scheme to implement a moratorium on school suspensions. The administration asserts that a neutral, “zero tolerance” policy toward disruptive behavior in the classroom is actually racist, as it produces more suspensions among African Americans. It’s the old “disparate outcomes” theory, and it completely ignores the fact that those who suffer from the increasingly chaotic no-suspension classrooms will be mainly minority kids.
Given this administration’s history, the speech should fill us with caution. This president’s potential as a role model for married fatherhood sharpens our sense of disappointment at the absence of the call he could have issued. Perhaps he will eventually head in the right direction, and Lord knows that these are areas that are in dire need of bully-pulpit attention. But I wouldn’t start celebrating just yet.
- Mike Gonzalez is the vice president for communications at the Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in The National Review