I wrote this shortly after Obama's "Father's Day Speech"
Recent statements by Barack Obama and Bill Cosby, calling on African-American men to take responsibility for their children (see,for example, USA Today, July 15, 2008, "Obama to NAACP: Blacks Must Seize Responsibility") raise some questions that are crucial to sort out at this moment in our history. It is easy to confuse talk of holding people accountable with blaming them. Calling on a father to acknowledge his responsibility to his children is not the same as blaming him. It is asking him, going forward, to think about the consequences of his actions and how to deal with problems that he inherited from his own family of origin and from a social history of oppression and disadvantage. Blame is backward looking; it entails accusing a person of a misdeed without taking account of the problems he was born into and that shaped his circumstances. If one wants to think in terms of guilt for various social problems, there is usually more than enough to go around. It is more productive, and ultimately empowering, to encourage the individual to think about responsibility going forward than to blame. Blaming is shaming, and shame is counter-productive if what we want is change.
There is a history of blaming the victim in this country, and especially of racist blaming of African-Americans, so it is understandable that people would be sensitive to this possibility. By the same token, it is crucial to clarify that Senator Obama and Dr. Cosby are not asking people to forget about historical and ongoing suffering and oppression. They are asking that we contemplate what to do going forward. They are asking that men take account of what they can contribute as fathers, and to think about the consequences of not taking on that responsibility.
Calls for personal responsibility and efforts to remedy systemic problems are not mutually exclusive. Senator Obama, in his speech on race, and Dr. Cosby at numerous points, have recognized the history and persistence of systemic racism in the United States. As Senator Obama points out, his assumption of the burdens and risks of running for President flows from his recognition of the need for political change. Further, a major reason that he and Dr. Cosby call on fathers to be present for their children is that they recognize that sons of absent fathers are more likely to become absent fathers to their own children. In this way, they do not dismiss the fact that there are historical forces in the culture and in the family that contribute to our social problems. This recognition only strengthens their determination to hold each generation accountable for the consequences of their behavior. We can only hope that the history of poor fathering will not rule out the sense of possibility, in future generations, that the cycle can be broken. Senator Obama and Dr. Cosby themselves are both examples of men who took responsibility for blazing a new trail in their personal lives. To promote personal responsibility is not to negate that there is much social and political change that needs to occur to support families. To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, the best kind of social change is
produced by those who try to live the change they, and we, want to see in the world around us.
It might be tempting for white people in the United States to assume that this conversation is happening among African Americans because that is the only place it needs to happen. White people, however, should not assume that calls to responsibility are not needed in the white community as well. All Americans can learn from the way African-American people are facing up to the problems in their community. White people should be inspired by the strength being shown to acknowledge shortcomings and to address them, rather than, in self-congratulatory fashion, choosing to see therein only evidence of African-American family pathology. Rather than African-Americans feeling only shame about their dirty laundry being washed in public, there is an opportunity to feel a sense of pride in leading the way for all Americans in productive self-examination. Whatever our backgrounds, Americans need much more of the kind of self-reflection and willingness to challenge oneself shown by Senator Obama, Dr. Cosby and others who call for renewal through courageous and honest self reflection.