WASHINGTON — The subject is absent fathers. The implications for black America are dire. The fact is that “there are a lot of men out there who need to stop acting like boys; who need to realize that responsibility does not end at conception; who need to know that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one.”

The speaker is Barack Obama, for whom fatherhood is a defining issue, both political and personal. Father’s Day has come and gone — new ties have been put away, new golf clubs tried out, new flat-screen televisions mounted — but Obama says he will continue to talk about black fatherhood in an attempt to change self-destructive attitudes and behaviors.

“Many black men simply cannot afford to raise a family — and too many have make the sad choice not to,” Obama said Friday in what aides touted as a major speech.

You might have heard that Obama is running for president, which makes it impossible to ignore the politics involved. The men-acting-like-boys speech was given in a black church in South Carolina, an early-primary state where half of Democratic voters are African-American. It’s not at all rare for a black leader to challenge black Americans on issues of personal responsibility — that same message, phrased in much stronger terms, is delivered every Sunday from pulpits across the country. The political significance is for the scolding to be given in such a way that white America can’t help but overhear what’s being said.

In a telephone interview Friday, Obama said he intends to continue and expand this public dialogue. As in the speech, Obama chose his words carefully. “The key to having this conversation constructively,” he said, “is to realize that there’s really no excuse for not behaving responsibly toward our children.”

Is Obama speaking to African-Americans, or is he really trying to reach those whites who believe that most of black America’s problems are self-inflicted? I’m paid to be skeptical, but I think something much deeper than political calculation is involved here. One revelation that comes with spending time with politicians is that they actually have core beliefs. To cite one example, John Edwards may be a multimillionaire, but I can’t doubt his sincerity when he talks about poverty. I’ve seen him volunteer in a soup kitchen without first summoning the television cameras. He grew up poor, and the experience has never left him.

Obama grew up without his black father. It doesn’t take a psychologist to discern the impact this absence had. He has explained it himself in his books, at considerable length. He talked about it Friday in the fatherhood speech, saying that his mother — struggling to raise two children as a single parent — at times needed to rely on food stamps to make it through the month. He also spoke with admiration of his wife Michelle’s father, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis yet supported his family by going to work every day at a water filtration plant, “even when he had to rely on a walker to get him there.”

There’s nothing startling about Obama’s analysis of the macroeconomic forces that contribute to the problem of absent black fathers. Blue-collar jobs that once paid well and offered security, such as his father-in-law’s job at the plant, have largely disappeared. “In the last six years, over 300,000 black males have lost jobs in the manufacturing sector,” Obama said. The forces of globalization are inexorable. Inner-city schools don’t prepare students to compete in today’s economy.

While young black fathers love their children and don’t set out to be bad parents, Obama told me, they have a dearth of role models and a surfeit of distractions. Their lives are often disorganized, and even if they want a steady job, their prospects are dim.

His prescriptions include job training and tax credits for young noncustodial fathers. But they also include what he called a “crackdown” on child-support enforcement, which he says is intended to collect $13 billion in outstanding payments.

A crucial issue, Obama said in the interview, is “how we support women who are carrying a disproportionate burden, both financially and emotionally.”

Obama gets a good response when he talks about paternal responsibility in front of black audiences. It’s an issue that “resonates around the country,” he said. “We have to talk in the public square, not only about the obligations of fatherhood but the joys of fatherhood.”

I can’t help but think he’s talking not just to America, but to his own late father. Who wasn’t there.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at symbol)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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