The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. Psalm 118:22-23 NRSV

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Fewer Lectures, Please

Let's get this straight at the outset, I am a fan of personal responsibility. I believe that parents, fathers and mothers, have a duty to raise their children, which includes providing proper nutrition, respect for the law, and the nurture of a desire to learn. I am the beneficiary of the high expectations of my parents, accompanied by their equally high investment of energy and resources to enable my high achievement. (Forever I will be grateful, Mom and Dad.)

That being said, just what are we to make of Sen. Barack Obama's assertion of these values whenever he talks to Black folks? And how do we register the reality that we would almost certainly reject the exact same words in the exact same tone if a White politician had the temerity to utter them? I will avoid being guilty of the same kind of unnuanced criticism that I hate from the right wing, and so I'll not ascribe cynical motives to the presumptive Democractic nominee. Here's how I see it: Obama recognizes that we Black folks are engaging in cultural suicide with our unwillingness to tackle the problems of academic underachievement and paternal negligence and neglect. At the same time, there's no denying that a public dismissal of Jesse Jackson and his brand of racial analysis (even though 90% of the time Jackson's historical and political analyses are on target) helps Obama with White voters who are afraid of what a Black president might mean. As others more astute than I have suggested, Obama may be taking a page out of Bill Clinton's handbook and is having his Sister Souljah moment. Then again, maybe not. But I can't help wondering whether Obama knows that White underachieving children watch too much tv and play too many video games.

What's missing in all of this, even if one accepts the most benign or even altruistic explanation for Obama's speeches, is a policy position or even strategy for addressing these issues with the people who are the real problem. I have already expressed my appreciation for what my parents gave me because of their persistence and insistence on certain positive behaviors. But I never responded well to lectures. And I don't know anybody who does. Modeling of good behavior, yes. Lectures, no. What I would like to hear more of is a commitment to applying best practices and brain power, as well as funding, to the programs that actually work. Tell me how you keep young people from seeing themselves through the lenses of television, movies, and videos. Tell me how to offer alternative visions. Find me somebody who is making this work.

I believe that there is power in words. I just don't think we've got the right ones. But what I do like about Obama is that he knows how to spot a good idea and embrace it and then package it within soaring rhetoric. That's what I'm looking for from him as a candidate. And as a president, I'm looking for the proposal of legislation to go with the words.