Melissa Harris-Perry discusses single mothers, gun violence, and Obama’s “daddy issues”

I don’t know if y’all heard Melissa Harris-Perry’s critique of President Obama’s speech on gun violence in Chicago last Friday. Watch it:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

This. All of this. No, seriously…MHP effectively deconstructs this false narrative of personal responsiblity and marriage as the balm to all social ills rooted in deep economic inequalities. While her Twitter timeline lit up around her truncated criticism of Obama and his “daddy issues” (howevs, what recent US president doesn’t have daddy issues? Think about it–call me later if you disagree), she’s so not wrong that he echoed the default language of a particular older generation–from black community activists and religious leaders to conservative politicians like Romney. Obama seemed to imply that single mothers are irresponsible and fatherhood would fix that. So when the violence is singular and massive like Columbine, Newtown, Aurora or Oak Creek the policy conversation turns to gun control, assault weapons ban, mental health policies? But when the violence disproportionately affects urban communities of color, it’s the fault of the single mother/the absent father?

It’s complicated, just add dad??

Brittney Cooper of the Crunk Feminists Collective adds more on

Rather than empathizing with those Black families that have been destroyed by violence, he blamed the prevalence of non-nuclear Black families for contributing to it! Recycling this tired narrative about broken families and absentee Black fathers does nothing to address the steady flow of guns into our communities, nor the pathologies that lead young people to fire them.

Yes, I think we can all agree with Obama that “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.” But as David Leonard has shown, just because nearly 70% of children are born to unmarried parents, this does not mean that 70% of Black children don’t have active fathers.

Moreover, Newtown, Aurora, Wisconsin, and Arizona were not framed as the result of White familial pathology. Are young White males shooting up public spaces indiscriminately because White fathers are absent? Is White mass violence evidence of a failure of White parenting? No one would dare to suggest such a thing, nor would they attempt to build a set of public policy solutions around such thinking.

I think our culture already does amazing work at promoting marriage (see: Bachelor, Bachelorette, Bridezilla, and approximately $23 billion spent in the wedding-industry complex) and supporting an institution that is in decline (I’m not arguing against marriage, so please don’t come to snatch my wig about it. I’m pro-marriage and committed partnerships). And to be fair, I’m thrilled with Obama’s recent narrative focus on poverty and economic opportunities for the poor and middle classes, but I too wonder if, in his skillful code-switch in addressing a majority black audience, he fell into a rhetorical trap of “the personal responsiblity yarn” to connect with his audience.

(Nerd alert aside: If you have time, I do recommend you watch this clip from MHP’s show with panelist Khalil Muhammad,  who notes William Julius Wilson’s 1995 book When Work Disappears, which investigates deep intergenerational urban poverty in Chicago. Which is really to say, this is a super old conversation about class, the gospel of personal responsibility, the silver bullet of “stable families” in the face of rampant unemployment, lack of affordable housing, under-resourced public schools, and the laws that have built up and sustained the prison-industrial complex.)

I don’t know…I get Obama and the dad thing (my dad was around, and that was complicated). But President Obama, I think you need more women speechwriters on staff–maybe a couple of women of color to round the team out. That language is old; that idea is not new. It gets oddly patriarchal. Like that moment you said, “We know our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace and free from the fear of domestic violence,” in the SOTU. Saying “we should do more to promote marriage and encourage fatherhood” kinda reads the same way. And it implies that we can’t work to develop sound policy solutions to support American families regardless of their composition.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

Syreeta McFadden is a contributing opinion writer for The Guardian US and an editor of Union Station Magazine.

Read more about Syreeta

Join the Conversation