Can Obama Move Us Past Baggy-Pants Talk?

As the president seeks ways to help America's urban youths, here's hoping the conversation moves from surface issues to substantive solutions.


(The Root) — According to Politico, President Obama told Maryland’s Rep. Elijah Cummings and other Democrats that addressing the needs of minority youths, including disparities in the criminal-justice system, is a priority of his second term. What remains to be seen is whether or not his solutions will move beyond talk and result in meaningful action.

To be more precise, it is unclear if the president, Cummings or any other elected officials will demonstrate the courage to discuss the solutions that can really make a difference, not just ones that look good on paper or sound good on TV — like creating laws against sagging pants or promoting stop and frisk — and ultimately only appease those who know very little about the realities facing the urban poor.

What was so frustrating about watching some people obsess about Don Lemon’s comments about sagging pants is that yet again a debate about who is allowed to discuss solutions to our community’s problems distracted us from a substantive discussion of how to actually solve them. (For the record, I may not love seeing sagging pants, but I also recognize that a lot of young men who wear them live in neighborhoods where walking around in a pair of Gap khakis might make them targets.)

Aside from the Bill O’Reilly shout-out, I haven’t talked to a single person who doesn’t agree with at least one point Lemon made. But instead of talking about solutions, we wasted precious time arguing over who the messenger is allowed to be, and in front of what audiences they are allowed to deliver the message. (Black audiences, yes. Fox News hosts, no.)

But beyond the sagging-pants debate, here are the realities the president, his policy advisers and every member of the Congressional Black Caucus know but will not say out loud: We can increase funding for public schools, increase the number of after-school programs, heighten the police presence in high-violence neighborhoods and increase penalties for illegal firearm possession, and none of those solutions will do a damn thing to close the gap between poor communities of color and other communities. 

Only two things can fundamentally change the fact that poor, primarily brown kids, in poor, primarily brown communities, are more likely to get killed, end up in jail and end up in poverty than kids in other communities:

1. The first is getting those in charge of major institutions to acknowledge the lingering pervasiveness of institutional racism and its continued impact on basic day-to-day realities of life, such as employment. The president’s acknowledgment that racial profiling is a reality for all black Americans — including the president of the United States — was a great first step. I have written about this issue at length so will not be focusing on it here. 

2. The second is getting people of influence in communities of color, pastors and politicians — including the president — to say out loud, with authority, what they have so far been afraid to say: Parents who are more mature, better educated, financially secure and in a stable relationship with a long-term partner make better parents. As long as these types of parents are rare in poorer black communities, we will never close the gap on poverty, educational achievement or crime in those communities.

To those of you already drafting an angry email to let me know that you are a poor, single parent who raised a wonderful child, or more than one, please save your note. I believe you, and I applaud you. But you are the exception, not the norm, and communities rise and fall on the norm, not exceptions. To be clear, being poor doesn’t make someone a bad parent; neither does being single or uneducated. But being financially stable makes being a parent much easier: to pay for tutoring when a child struggles, or fees to be on a basketball or baseball team so he has somewhere to go after school and on weekends, when you’re working.

Having the knowledge and education to help a child with history or algebra homework also makes being a parent easier. So does having a full-time life partner with whom to share the responsibility, so that when one parent works late, there is someone to make sure junior is home doing homework and not out doing something he is not supposed to.

For those of you ready to dismiss all of this as “just my opinion,” here are a few facts: