Obama And Father's Day

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Kai Wright is annoyed at Obama's rhetoric around fatherhood:

...the problem with Obama's effort to turn Father's Day into an annual conversation about the tragedy of failed fathers is that it's rooted in one of the greatest--and most consequential--lies the Christian right has sold the country: That "traditional" family structures are best equipped to produce healthy kids. The notion that biological fathers are essential to childhood development wasn't true when Dan Quayle asserted it in 1992, and it won't become true no matter how eloquently Barack Obama restates it.

"The hole a man leaves when he abandons his responsibility to his children is one that no government can fill," Obama wrote in a beautifully crafted Parade magazine essay last week. "We can do everything possible to provide good jobs and good schools and safe streets for our kids, but it will never be enough to fully make up the difference."

This is a terribly moving refrain that echoes through all of the president's rhetoric on fathers--and it's entirely beside the point. Nobody sane would argue that government can give a child love. That truism, however, does not mean only a gendered dyad of parents are adequately equipped to do so.

Later:

Quayle's infamous tirade against Murphy Brown's proud moment as a single mom was first mocked. But over the next couple of years, a small, vocal chorus of conservative sociologists repeated the notion that kids suffer outside of nuclear families often enough that it sounded true. Warren's group and others began using their studies to advocate against poverty programs. And by 1996, Bill Clinton had co-opted their rhetoric to support welfare "reform" that stripped away all manner of support for poor families.

On Friday, Obama restated as facts the terrible fates to which fatherless children are purportedly damned: prison, drug abuse, dropping out. But while the absence of a father may correlate with these tragedies, so do a whole lot of other bad things.

I think Kai is conflating two things that may seem similar, but are in fact quite different. One is the Quayle-ism which asserts that a household with a married mother and a father is always superior to every other kind of household. The second is the idea that, given that most people in this country (for the foreseeable future) will have fathers, it's best that those fathers be involved. 

It helps to clarify Dan Quayle's attack on Murphy Brown. The problem with Quayle wasn't that he attacked absentee fatherhood (as Obama does) but that he attacked career women willingly entering into single-motherhood. One can easily slip into the other--but they aren't the same.

I've yet to see Obama delivering an attack on women who either choose to be single mothers, or end up as single mothers. Indeed the words Kai quotes contain the specific phrase "When a man leaves his child" as opposed, to say, "When a woman decides to have a baby by herself" or "When two women decide to have a baby."

Allow me to lay my cards on the table. This thing is in my blood, more than I actually have the freedom to say, publicly. But let me offer this: I'm the son of two people who were raised by single mothers, after the fathers essentially walked. It's something to attend the funeral of a grandfather who wanted nothing to do with you or your mother. I have a very close relative, who at this very moment, is raising a son whose father has, essentially, walked. I would say that the majority of the kids in my old neighborhood in Baltimore had extremely limited contact with their fathers. I was the only one, out of my crew, with a Dad in the house.

There may be great stats out there that show that a father walking out on his blood, has zero impact on a kids life. But with my history, it's very hard for me to come down on a guy whose own father walked out on him, for saying something as imminently sane as, Be a father to your child.

Here's something else--I've heard a chorus of complaints about Obama's rhetoric on fathers from black male writers. But I've yet to hear from one complaint from any single mothers. I've yet to hear a peep from a woman who was raised in that situation. I think that that's telling.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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