Obama, first lady, set new tone for black families in US

January 15th, 2009 - 9:43 am ICT by IANS  

Washington, Jan 15 (DPA) The US civil rights movement of the 1960s opened up economic and social opportunities for African Americans, but it was accompanied by an erosion of the black family that continues to cause debate in the US.On Jan 20, Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, will move into the White House with a traditional nuclear family: First lady Michelle, an accomplished professional; daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7; his mother-in-law Marian Robinson; and even the promise of a first dog.

While the country looks to Obama to lead it out of two wars and a deepening recession, there is a growing expectation for the cultural side of his presidency, too, which goes beyond the normal fascination of the American public with its presidential private lives.

“The Obamas will inspire a new view of black families, typically depicted as broken, dysfunctional or unloving,” wrote Gerrie E Summer, beauty editor of the magazine Today’s Black Woman. “Mr and Mrs Obama are inspiring couples to become better parents and spouses, just by watching the family interact.”

The erosion of the black family has been documented since the 1960s, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later a long-serving senator, analysed data showing an alarming rise in the number of single black mothers and its effect on growing black poverty.

The report triggered heated debate, with black activists charging that Moynihan was blaming the victims of racism for their own problems. The report was quickly quashed, as were questions about the role of welfare policies that only helped mothers if the father was absent, and about the overall affect of rising single parenthood on family and community cohesion.

In the 1950s, only an estimated 15 percent of black children were born to a single parent. That number grew to 24 percent in the 1960s, even as the black middle class was growing; to 56 percent in 1980; and to 70 percent today, according to social researcher Kay Hymowitz in a recent New York Times article.

Hymowitz, author of Marriage and Caste in America, blames the single-mother syndrome for continuing poverty that affects half of all black children born to single mothers. Among black children born to married parents, only 12 percent are considered poor.

Obama himself has tackled the subject of parental responsibility.

Last June, he delivered a controversial Father’s Day speech that criticised absent black fathers and urged them to become more engaged in raising their children.

“They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it,” Obama declared. He noted 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 20 times more likely to end up in prison.”

African American comedian Bill Cosby created waves three years ago with similar remarks and criticism of black men who have abdicated their family responsibilities.

In fact, Cosby’s top rated Cosby Show from the 1980s was the first televised series to portray a “normal” black family, the Huxtables, with all their middle class emphasis on education, hard work and parenting. But such portrayals are still rare in the mainstream media.

That’s why the Obamas, with their open public affection for each other and their emphasis on the importance of keeping their daughters “grounded” despite the hubbub of fame, is so important for not only US blacks but for the whole country.

The day after the elections, Michelle Obama got Sasha and Malia back into school by 10 a.m. In a broadcast interview, the future first lady even described how embarrassed Malia was by the attention over her father’s election.

Ebony magazine’s creative director Harriette Cole wrote in the February issue about the growing excitement over the prospects of such normalcy as the nation’s first black president moves into the White House.

“Too often we hear stories of lonely hearts in the black community. Of single parents fending for themselves. Of separation by way of incarceration. Of irresponsibility leaving precious seeds spread far and wide,” she wrote.

“Real black love is no longer a fairy tale in the public eye. It doesn’t just exist in the Cosby Show reruns anymore. It now lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” she wrote.

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