By Boyce Watkins, PhD
Elliot Millner brought it to my attention that Attorney General Eric Holder has been apparently spending a lot of time with Bill Cosby these days. In a recent speech at a black church in Queens, N.Y., Holder took a page out of the Barack Obama Campaign Catalog and chose to win favors with the black middle class by recklessly bashing away at absentee fathers and returning to the “ya’ll just need to grow up and be more responsible” argument that allows any politician to explain away a blatant disregard for meaningful public policy. Rather than talking about things that we can do as a society to take our collective foot off the necks of black men, he chose to say that black men are choosing to put the foot on their own necks.
Millner, who is also in the legal profession, intelligently said the things that I am sure Eric Holder wanted to say, but unlike Holder, Millner is not constrained by the political shackles that come with being an appointed leader in a society that makes a habit of oppressing, destroying and marginalizing black men.
In his speech, Holder said that, “It should simply be unacceptable for a man to have a child and then not play an integral part in the raising and nurturing of the child.”
That quote is a nice way of reflecting on the obvious. It’s sort of like saying, “It should be unacceptable for a black man to become the Attorney General of the United States and not play an integral part in helping other black men overcome the blatantly racist and destructive justice system over which you preside.”
If I were in that church in Queens, that is the speech I would have given to AG Holder. As Elliot Millner correctly states in his article, “Beyond the lip service, both President Obama and A.G. Holder are in positions to exert influence in areas that play a significant role in why many Black fathers are absent.” Given that corporations respond to government policy (which they spend millions lobbying to change) and individuals change their decisions based on such policy, why have we forgotten about the impact that public policy has on the experience of black men in America?
This is not to say that Eric Holder isn’t working to help with the long list of reasons that the justice system has been one of the most destructive forces that the black man faces in America today. It’s easy to attack African-American men for their lack of presence in the households of their children. It makes no sense, however, to make these attacks without spending a second holding yourself accountable for addressing the systemic causes of their absence. That is like telling a starving child that he needs to stop losing weight, and then keeping a lock on the refrigerator.
Eric Holder does not need an education, so I am not going to give him one. As Elliot Millner states very clearly in his article, the list of thoughts that immediately run through the mind of any black man with a working brain cell are going to be the following:
1) One in three black men in their 20s is under some form of supervision by the justice system. It’s tough to be a Dad when you live in a nation that has adopted mass incarceration of black men as the way to get cheap labor. Then, for those men who try to reintegrate in to society, there are hurdles to employment and education that Holder and others have yet to remedy. A man can’t take care of his family if he is in prison, and it’s difficult for him to feed his family if no one will hire him. If you want to solve many of the parenting problems, you can start by not putting so many Dads in the penitentiary, especially those guilty of non-violent offenses or who’ve been convicted because they could not get adequate legal counsel. By the way, it may help to give them rehabilitation options while they are incarcerated, rather than simply punishing them.
2) Attorney Holder, did you also know that black male unemployment is as high as 40 percent to 50 percent in many urban areas? What do you think whites would do to you if they were facing 40 percent unemployment and had to hear you give them a speech about personal responsibility? If whites are screaming about 10 percent unemployment, how would they respond to the unemployment rates experienced by our community?
3) Mr. Holder, can you please take a visit to your buddy Barack Obama and let him know that the inner city educational systems put black boys in special education at a rate that is five times higher than white kids? Please also explain to Barack that many of these young men are not being taught to read and are being pushed out in to an economic system with few opportunities, leading them right to the penitentiaries. I am not sure how much time Columbia University (where Holder attended law school, like the rest of his Ivy League chums) spends teaching about the school-to-prison pipeline, but he might want to read up on it.
4) Oh yeah, Mr. Holder, with all due respect, there are quite a few white absentee fathers also. The divorce rate in white America is more than 50 percent, which means that, technically, half of all white dads are not in the homes with their kids. The next time you go speak to a group of white Americans, I dare you to give the same speech you’re giving in the African-American churches. White folks aren’t so quick to allow a black man to come in to their churches to tell them that they are screwed up and that the government (to whom they pay taxes) has no responsibility in helping with their plight. For some reason, black people are very good at beating up on themselves.
5) Mr. Holder, just in case you and President Obama are unaware, there’s usually a woman involved in most heterosexual relationships. Do you think it might be possible that some men are excluded from the lives of their children by the child’s mother, or have we decided to simply follow the trend and blame the black male for every single one of society’s ills? When specifically addressing the break down of the black family, we may want to move past the “black man musta done it” model of analysis. There are thousands of black men across America who’ve been estranged from their children by Mothers who’ve become overbearing in the management of their children’s lives. This is not to say that all Mothers are in the wrong, but we all know that both women and men are not perfect.
I respect Attorney General Eric Holder, but it is my hope that the black faces hanging out in the Oval Office can be a bit more creative when it comes to solving problems in our nation. When white America moans about 10 percent unemployment, they get stimulus packages. When black men speak up about 40 percent to 50 percent unemployment, we get speeches on personal responsibility. The double standard is as glaring as the shine on Rush Limbaugh’s forehead. Eric Holder, I expect you to show a bit more personal responsibility. Do something productive with the power you’ve got, don’t just sit around and preserve it.