(The Root) — Next to his convention speeches and inaugural address, one of President Obama’s most memorable speeches to date has been the one he delivered on fatherhood. On the Father’s Day before the 2008 election, he won applause from conservative corners, and some high-profile criticism from others, for his candid discussion of the need for more accountability from fathers.
“If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that what too many fathers … are is missing — missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it. You and I know how true this is in the African-American community,” said then-Sen. Obama.
Some compared the speech to President Clinton’s infamous “Sister Souljah moment,” an attempt by then-candidate Obama to prove himself as someone willing to provoke the ire of a few liberals in an effort to woo some independents by embracing a conservative talking point. But as his first term draws to a close, the number of black children raised in homes without fathers remains very high. Those statistics raise the question of what, if anything, the first black president could be doing to address such a crisis, since his administration hasn’t appeared to do much so far.
In a candid one-on-one interview with The Root, White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett discussed the president’s position on the issue of parental personal responsibility. Jarrett reiterated the administration’s commitment to the family planning organization Planned Parenthood, which honored her during a brunch co-sponsored by BET as part of the festivities taking place at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference last week in Washington, D.C.
But when asked why the president and his administration have not talked specifically about the importance of family planning within the black community, and whether they ever will, Jarrett replied, “I think he intended to include responsibility in family planning along with everything else,” referring to the president’s previous comments on responsibility and accountability in parenting.
“He believes very strongly in a woman’s right to choose,” she continued. “He has supported that since day 1, and I think that ultimately, the responsibility rests with the woman that bears the child. But his thought is that, obviously, the father has to have a lot to do with that as well.”
When pressed further, she added, “Frankly, I had never thought of him being specific on that issue. I think his goal was to make a broader issue [when he has spoken of parental responsibility], so I can’t comment for him today about what he’d do in a second term on that. I frankly had not thought about that before.”
An Obvious Knowledge Gap
To be clear, family planning is not synonymous with abortion but is merely, as the name suggests, planning in advance how many children your family will include. Education and access to resources and services, such as birth control, are keys to effective family planning — something with which low-income women and women of color struggle.
For sure, the president has been specific about the social and economic ramifications produced by absentee fatherhood, which is a common result of a lack of family planning. “We know the statistics: that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime, nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison,” he said in his 2008 Father’s Day speech.
Likewise, President Obama’s administration has not shied away from fighting on behalf of Planned Parenthood, a position that has resulted in one of the greatest political battles of recent years.
So it is odd that his administration would shy away from making a specific case for why the family planning services that groups like Planned Parenthood provide are so vital to the black community. The latest data confirm that there is a knowledge gap in the black community regarding family planning, with black women having the highest rates of unintended pregnancies of any group in the country.
A Perception Problem Persists
All of this is happening while Planned Parenthood has struggled to improve its image and outreach within the black community in recent years. Jarrett does not agree with that assessment and told us, “I wouldn’t concede that Planned Parenthood is viewed negatively. There are many, many people in the African-American community who rely on the services of Planned Parenthood day in and day out, and it provides an essential service to so many low-income women who can’t afford them on their own.”
But Jasmine Burnett, a consultant who has worked with family planning organizations, including Planned Parenthood, on their outreach to black women, said that the group “absolutely” has a perception problem. “There is a perception in the black community that Planned Parenthood only provides abortions,” though such services account for only 3 percent of what the organization does.
Burnett added that Planned Parenthood has also struggled to confront its past. Its founder, Margaret Sanger, expressed some racist ideology that nearly a century later is still being exploited by conservative opponents of Planned Parenthood and still scares some black Americans into believing that the organization is a tool for harm within the black community rather than a tool for providing essential women’s health services such as breast-cancer screenings.
According to Burnett, the organization has at times made the mistake of downplaying such fears instead of acknowledging the concerns. “There needs to be a more concerted effort from Planned Parenthood to [talk about] Margaret Sanger and say what her past was in the eugenics movement and the impact that has when they enter into black communities, and to lead with that so people don’t think they are trying to avoid the issue,” Burnett said.
Planned Parenthood has begun diversifying its staff and communications to reach a broader audience, but Burnett said that President Obama could be one of the most effective messengers when it comes to family planning, particularly in getting the issue to resonate with black men. “The president could talk about prevention and personal responsibility as it pertains to family planning,” she said, adding that the message should be conveyed that the responsibility for planning a family does not rest just with women. But perhaps even more important, she said, is conveying that the responsibility begins before conception in the choices you make.
The Immeasurable Power of the Bully Pulpit
Certainly no one is encouraging the president of the United States to pass out birth control to people. But if he and his wife expressed to the countless young black men and women who look up to them that part of their own long-term success stemmed from having college degrees — but the other part stemmed from their choice to wait to have their two children until they were emotionally and financially able to support them — the message could go a long way. Much as the first couple’s willingness to take an AIDS test in Africa spurred others to do the same, a message of responsible family planning might also leave a lasting legacy.
In response to a query from The Root, an official from the Obama administration noted that black people make up 20 percent of Title X patients, who are traditionally from low-income communities, seeking affordable care from government-subsidized family planning clinics. The administration further noted that this fall, the Mobile County Health Department in Alabama will implement the family planning program SIHLE, which i
s aimed at young African-American females.
The administration also touted its record defending and expanding comprehensive sexual-education programs in public schools, after years of an emphasis on abstinence-only education during the last Bush administration — an emphasis that experts blamed for a rise in teen pregnancies in the U.S. during that time. However, recent Washington Post analysis found abstinence-only programs regaining some funding and prominence over the last year.
There could be any number of reasons that the president and his team have shied away from tackling family planning in the black community in a more proactive manner — among them, fear of stepping on the toes of one of his most loyal voter demographics: black voters.
Talking about anything even tangentially related to sex is rarely easy, particularly for black Americans, many of whom come from religious backgrounds. At her appearance as a supporter of Planned Parenthood during the group’s CBCF luncheon, Nia Long credited her own free-spirited upbringing with her child-rearing approach. The actress — who shared that scripts for sequels to two of her most beloved films, Love Jones and The Best Man, are in the works — told The Root that her parents never shied away from discussing the birds and the bees with her, and she said she won’t with her sons, either. “As soon as I think anything’s going on, there will be a big sit-down and a box of condoms!”
Long, who has faced criticism for her choice to have children before marrying and appearing to celebrate it in her recent appearance on the cover of Essence magazine, was emphatic that she is a proponent of proper family planning. She noted that while she has never married, she has been conscious of making choices that are conscientious and ensure that her children are safe and secure, both emotionally and financially. She also added that she has a wonderful and involved co-parent for her children, so she is not doing it alone.
“I think women need to be responsible before making the choice [to become a parent] and do it for the right reasons. If you’re going to have a baby to save a relationship, that doesn’t work. If you’re going to have a baby to collect a check from someone else, that’s not the right thing. You have to be responsible and be able to stand on your own,” said Long.
Jarrett expressed a similar sentiment about the approach to parenthood, saying that she spoke with her own daughter about being accountable and making responsible choices. Jarrett reiterated a message of responsibility on behalf of the president, saying, “I think his conversation about responsibility applies very broadly, and I think it’s important that we all recognize that making a decision to bring a child into this world is a very serious decision and there should be thoughtfulness that goes into it.” She was quick to note this, however: “I don’t think it’s for the president to tell people what choices they [should] make when they want to have children. There are many people who don’t believe in birth control, and he respects their decision.”
Yet the first lady has embraced a campaign to encourage Americans to eat healthier and claim more personal responsibility in their eating habits, while respecting the rights of Americans ultimately to make their own dietary choices. Mrs. Obama could have taken a more passive approach — simply eating healthily as an example, but never giving people the actual tools or encouragement to do so. But the White House ultimately recognized that having the first lady lend her voice and political capital to the importance of a healthy diet and exercise could save lives. Having her and her husband do the same on the issue of family planning could save black families.
Perhaps, if given a second term, they will feel empowered with the political courage and capital to do so .