Taking on black fathers

Our view : Positive outreach is more useful than criticism

June 18, 2008

Black fatherhood has been on many minds in recent days. In Baltimore, African-American men gathered at the Convention Center on Father's Day for a "Call to Action" to reduce violence and rebuild black family life in the city. Meanwhile, Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, gave a speech in which he demanded accountability from black fathers, using unusually strong words for a politician.

Mr. Obama's speech, though delivered in a black church in Chicago, seemed aimed, at least in part, at the socially conservative, blue-collar white voters who flocked to Sen. Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary campaign. And he is hardly the first prominent black leader to call for greater parental responsibility.

Still, the speech was important. A white politician probably could not have given it, and Mr. Obama's willingness to criticize black behavior suggests that the old perception that he is "not black enough" has been utterly vanquished. The generally positive reaction to the speech shows that African-Americans have become more comfortable with black leaders airing such "dirty laundry" in public.

Personal responsibility is one part of the puzzle but clearly not the whole solution for poor black men, who often encounter social and institutional barriers to greater involvement with their children. A man without a job may find himself largely shut out of his kids' lives. Many are trying their best in the face of poverty, lingering racism, criminal records, a lack of role models in their own upbringing, and women who don't necessarily want them around. Such men deserve more sympathy and less scorn.

Although Baltimore's "Call to Action" fell short of its goal of 5,000 participants, the organizers are not discouraged. They came away with a list of about 1,000 names of local men who want to help as mentors, school volunteers and in other ways, and they hope to combine forces with other groups in the city that are doing similar work. It's a good start.

"We have to support each other," says Alvin Gillard, director of the city's Community Relations Commission and an organizer of Sunday's event. That attitude of positive outreach seems more constructive than Mr. Obama's zinger against fathers who are "acting like boys instead of men." It's easy to criticize but harder to find solutions that work.

What Mr. Gillard and his colleagues appear to understand is that it takes both a village and a family to raise a child.

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