I expected more from Barack Obama. Like many Americans, I had hoped that his candidacy might transcend the racial divide that has separated this country for too many generations. I disagree with Sen. Obama on virtually every important public policy issue, and yet I have watched every televised speech he's made and every debate with a sense of admiration. I want him to succeed in his party's nomination battle, even when I fear, as a staunch Republican, that he might be the more difficult candidate to defeat in November. But he has profoundly disappointed me this week in his major address on race.
The speech, which attempted to quell the furor surrounding his spiritual advisor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, presented an opportunity for Obama to tackle the real issue facing blacks today, which has little to do with race. But instead, Obama fell back on the tired formulas of the past.
He began with a stunningly inappropriate example of moral equivalence: "I can no more disown [Wright] than I can my white grandmother ... a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe." Never mind that Obama didn't choose his grandmother but did choose his church and spiritual mentor. Wright's racist paranoia and repeated, vicious, public denunciations of America -- for example, that our government created AIDS in a laboratory in a genocidal plot to infect blacks -- are hardly the same as the occasional prejudiced remark voiced privately.
But more fundamentally, Obama avoided dealing in any meaningful way with the single most important issue facing the black community -- the breakdown of the black family. And this issue, and its consequences, explains far more about the failure of blacks to thrive today than racism or lack of social spending.
Nearly seven in 10 black babies are born to single mothers today. These children will fail in school at higher rates than those born to two parents. They are more likely to become involved in criminal activity. Their poverty rates will be higher. And they are far more likely to repeat this pattern by giving birth to or fathering a child out of wedlock themselves.
Barack Obama could talk about this problem in a personal way. While his parents were married, his African father abandoned his mother in his infancy and he was raised primarily by his white grandparents, including the grandmother whom he admits is "a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world."
But instead of confronting the problem at the core of the black/white economic divide, he chose to repeat the litany of liberal explanations. Even while acknowledging the role of welfare policies in the erosion of black families, his main emphasis was on "[a] lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one's family. ... The lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods -- parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement -- all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us."
Politicians in general -- black, white, and brown -- have avoided talking about illegitimacy, even though it now threatens not just the black community but increasingly Hispanics and poor whites as well. Nearly half of Hispanic babies are being born to single mothers today -- a big increase in just the last few years -- and one in four white babies are born out of wedlock. And when you factor in high divorce rates, substantial numbers of American children will spend a major portion of their childhoods in female-headed households.
This crisis, far more than race, is the most important social issue of our time. Obama could use his bully pulpit to talk about it, but instead he chose to try to explain away black racism and rehash racial grievances, both black and white. Ironically, given Sen. Obama's problems with his own church, hundreds of black churches and faith-based organizations around the country are involved in efforts to encourage marriage, including some in Chicago. Obama could have proven himself a genuinely courageous leader had he been involved in this effort.