(The Root) — When President Obama gave a speech in his hometown of Chicago in a bid to address the city's stratospheric gun violence, his remarks drew criticism, but not just from the usual suspects. While his gun-control remarks often spur complaints from the National Rifle Association, this time he also found himself under attack from his most loyal supporters: members of communities of color.
Critics took issue with the president's emphasis on fatherless households when discussing the culprits to blame for excessive violence in urban communities. To be clear, the president is not wrong. Single-parent households have historically been linked to higher rates of poverty and crime among the children who grow up in them — no matter how much many modern-day single parents try to pretend this is not true. As of 2012 researchers found that marriage "reduces by two-thirds the likelihood that a family will live in poverty." It is simply easier to make it as a family on two incomes and with two sets of eyes and hands raising kids than it is with one parent. (And before you draft an angry comment on this statement, know that my mother was once a single parent. That still doesn't change the facts.)
But critics were right to condemn the president's remarks. They just did so for the wrong reason. It's not that the president isn't right on the issue. It's that he doesn't have any credibility on the issue. He squandered whatever credibility he may have had in his first term.
The president has been speaking out about the importance of fathers, particularly in the black community, since his first run for the presidency in 2008. In a Father's Day address that year he said:
[If] we are honest with ourselves, we'll admit that what too many fathers also 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. We know that more than half of all black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled — doubled — since we were children. 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 twenty times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home, or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.
During his address in Chicago last week he said similarly: "And for a lot of young boys and young men, in particular, they don't see an example of fathers or grandfathers, uncles, who are in a position to support families and be held up and respected. And so that means that this is not just a gun issue. It's also an issue of the kinds of communities that we're building." He continued later, stating:
So we should encourage marriage by removing the financial disincentives for couples who love one another but may find it financially disadvantageous if they get married. We should reform our child support laws to get more men working and engaged with their children. (Applause.) And my administration will continue to work with the faith community and the private sector this year on a campaign to encourage strong parenting and fatherhood. Because what makes you a man is not the ability to make a child; it's the courage to raise one.
There's not much to argue behind the president's sentiment, except for one glaring omission. He neglects to acknowledge that part of being a good parent starts with the choice to become one in the first place — and depends on when that choice is made. Many well-meaning parents in poorer communities and their children start with a deficit before their children are even born. The reason? Because educated people and people of higher class status are more likely to treat parenthood like a calculated choice, right up there with buying a home. They tend to delay becoming a parent until they have the financial bandwidth to do so, and tend to have fewer children so that they can afford to adequately support them. In other words, they tend to plan their families. Hence the term "family planning." Unfortunately the term has been hijacked by conservatives to become synonymous with abortion, although it's not.
While the White House has long been an ally of America's leading family planning organization, Planned Parenthood, and has battled with religious conservatives over contraception access for working women, the president has been virtually silent on the importance of comprehensive sexual education, particularly in the black community. Studies show that more religious women and those with less education are less likely to discuss condom use with their teenagers, meaning mothers of color in poorer communities. This means that those who are least financially able to care for a child are the least likely to get comprehensive sexual education at home, and sexual education in schools has been under assault for years.
In a previous interview with The Root, when asked why the president has never spoken more explicitly about family planning, White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett replied, "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."
And therein lies the problem.
Clearly no one expects the president to pass out condoms at a press conference. But just as he inspired Kenyans to take an AIDS test when he and his wife did so during a 2006 trip to the country, he could inspire more parents in communities of color to discuss family planning with their teens and young adults. He could remind them that just as kids begin driver education before the age at which they can legally get a license, children need to be educated about sexual health and family planning before one would expect them to become sexually active, not after.
Maybe instead of saying, "What makes you a man is not the ability to make a child; it's the courage to raise one," President Obama could say, "What makes you a good parent is making the choice to become one when you are ready to be the absolute best parent you can be, not a moment before. That's the single most important choice Michelle and I have ever made."
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.