Will Obama Talk Black Single Parenthood?

We asked Valerie Jarrett if he'd address it in his second term. Plus: Nia Long talks family planning.

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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.