The evasions of the president’s speech

In re-reading President Obama’s remarks about the Martin-Zimmerman matter, I was struck by his assurances that the African-American community isn’t “naïve” about the social “dysfunction” (Obama’s term) that prevails in many black neighborhoods. First, he stated:

Now, this isn’t to say that the African-American community is naïve about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.

Then, a little bit later, Obama said:

I think the African-American community is also not naïve in understanding that statistically somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.

Obama’s assurances were unnecessary. I doubt that many whites believe that African-Americans are naïve about what’s occurring in their communities. But some whites fear that African-Americans are unwilling to take responsibility for curing the social pathologies that afflict them.

Obama’s speech reinforces this concern. First, mischaracterizing the concern is itself an evasion.

Second, Obama refused to assign responsibility to blacks. Instead, he stated:

We understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history. . . .

Now, I don’t deny the existence of a connection between the “very difficult history” Obama refers to and the dysfunction is question. But, as John argues, that history is well past its sell-by date as a major explanation of the dysfunction. And, in any event, the history is written in stone — it cannot be altered.

Accordingly, to rely on historical explanations, without more, is an evasion of responsibility for the present and the future.

So what did Obama offer by way of “more”? First, he talked about changes (or at least tweaks) to the law enforcement system. Second, he referred to the possibility of more federal programs, but said he is not “naïve” (that word again) about the shortcomings of this approach. Third, he spoke vaguely about doing a “better job helping young African-American men feel that they’re a full part of this society.” Finally, he asked for “some soul-searching.” This, he said, would consist mainly of folks trying to “wring[] as much bias” out of themselves as they can.

None of these ideas places any significant responsibility on the black community. They are all evasions, to one degree or another.

Obama failed to mention the one (and probably the only) way out of the dysfunction that plagues the African-American community — responsible, conscientious, and effective parenting.

As long as the nearly three out of four black children are born out of wedlock, often to teenage mothers, it’s virtually impossible to see how the dysfunction ends. As long as so many black fathers disengage themselves from parenting, it’s virtually impossible to see how the dysfunction ends.

As Roger Clegg points out, this — not introspection about bias — is the real soul-searching that needs to occur.

I don’t blame Obama for not mentioning it in a speech about Trayvon Martin. His purpose was to calm the black community, and to prepare it for the likely absence of federal action against George Zimmerman, not to inflame it.

But it would be naïve to regard Obama’s speech as a serious discussion about race, crime, and African-American youth. And it will be extremely unfortunate if, at some point in his presidency, Obama doesn’t focus on helping the African-American community face up to its shortcomings and their relation to the dysfunction that no one is naïve enough to deny.


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