Graduation season is upon us, and with it the time-honored ritual of big, important graduation speeches. This weekend, Barack and Michelle Obama each gave theirs at historically black colleges—the president spoke at Morehouse, the first lady at Bowie State. This is a fabulous thing on its face. And both talked explicitly about race and opportunity.
The problem is that both also continued a pattern we have too often been forced to examine—using the world’s largest bully pulpit to browbeat black people for the personal failings that the Obamas seem to believe are our largest challenge.
In both speeches, the Obamas veered into finger-wagging lectures about personal responsibility’s triumph over structural inequity. The president issued now-familiar urgings for black people to stop making “excuses”—a plainly strange demand to give a room full of young people who are celebrating a big, hard achievement. The first lady told us even our dreams are insufficient, that black kids must fantasize about being successful professionals rather than celebrities. You’ll not find similar themes in their speeches to non-black audiences.
This is familiar stuff, of course. From Booker T. Washington through to Bill Cosby, there’s always been a deeply conservative strain of black politics that embraces the American ideal that we get only what we earn. That we dwell on racism and inequity at our own peril, because America helps those who help themselves. That we bring the white man’s scorn down upon ourselves with our sloth. Pull up your pants and turn off that darn rap music! You look like a hoodlum! That kind of thing.
Of course, it’s also true that unemployment among the black graduates Obama addressed will be twice the rate of their white peers if nothing changes in the government he leads. The parents of the students he lectured are far more likely to have lost their homes to predatory lending than to have financed their kids’ education with that wealth. And the students are far more likely to be graduating with a large debt burden than their white peers. Who’s making excuses for these realities? Are they mere acts of nature?
In any case, Ta-Nehisi Coates dug into the Obamas’ finger-wagging dynamic at the Atlantic yesterday. The short essay is a must-read for those who don’t understand why some black political observers struggle with President Obama’s posture toward our community. Here’s the take home:
I think the stature of the Obama family — the most visible black family in American history — is a great blow in the war against racism. I am filled with pride whenever I see them: there is simply no other way to say that.
But I also think that some day historians will pore over his many speeches to black audiences. They will see a president who sought to hold black people accountable for their communities, but was disdainful of those who looked at him and sought the same. They will match his rhetoric of individual responsibility, with the aggression the administration showed to bail out the banks, and the timidity they showed in addressing a foreclosure crisis which devastated black America (again.)They wil weigh the rhetoric against an administration whose efforts against housing segregation have been run of the mill. And they will match the talk of the importance of black fathers with the paradox of a president who smoked marijuana in his youth but continued a drug-war which daily wrecks the lives of black men and their families. In all of this, those historians will see a discomfiting pattern of convenient race-talk.