Speeches delivered by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama at the commencements for historically black colleges over the weekend, in which both emphasized personal responsibility and highlighted some self-inflicted problems of African-Americans, have sparked a debate among black commentators, with some criticizing the Obamas for “scolding” black Americans in a tone they do not adopt with other groups.
In his speech at Morehouse, the president told the graduates “we’ve got no time for excuses” and said when he was young at times he had mistakenly “wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down.”
The first lady, at Bowie State University, said it was important to change the mindset of black children, who instead of ” dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.”
The rhetoric was not unusual, the president in particular has long given such speeches to black audiences. But this time, it drew strong rebukes from some black voices, all of whom are strong supporters of the president in general, who say the First Family has now delivered this message enough.
A backlash from black intellectuals
“It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people — and particularly black youth — and another way of addressing everyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the president telling the women of Barnard that ‘there’s no longer room for any excuses’ — as though they were in the business of making them. Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of ‘all America,’ but he also is singularly the scold of ‘black America,’” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic in a piece.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Trevor Coleman, a former speechwriter for ex-governor Michigan Jennifer Granholm, said, “What made it so gratuitous was this was Morehouse College! In the African-American community, the very definition of a Morehouse man is someone who is a leader, who is taught to go out and make a difference in his community.”
Jamelle Bouie, a writer at the American Prospect, wrote , “That too many black students live in poor neighborhoods, attend segregated schools, and don’t have much access to the outside world has nothing to do with their effort or their priorities. Michelle Obama is a native of Chicago. I have no doubt she knows this history. Ignoring it, and focusing on the daydreams of teenagers as the real problem, is a considered choice, and a bad one at that.”
Others defended the Obamas’ tone. Jonathan Capehart, an MSNBC political commentator and Washington Post writer, cast it as another example of Obama’s black critics holding him to an impossibly high standard.
Speech has defenders despite detractors
“Obama spoke to the black men of Morehouse not as a distant president but as a familiar peer. He used his troubled past as a real-life example of how one’s limited circumstances are neither destiny nor a hindrance to achieving the American Dream, as they define it. He urged the graduates to not make excuses, to aim high and to give back,” Capehart wrote.
Rep. John Lewis and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus also praised the speech.
“I think that he said everything that needed to be said — he spoke to hearts and souls of those young brothers,” Lewis told Politics 365. “Anything that the president of the United States says it’s not going to be private. You can’t sweep the issues confronting black America under the rug or in some dark corner. They need to be out in the light for all of us to deal with it. For white and black — we’re all in the same boat.”
The debate illustrated something of a generation gap, with the Obamas delivering a milder version of the black self-improvement rhetoric that Bill Cosby has long employed. Bouie in particular cast the debate Obama’s rhetoric as “the kind of moral scolding that is familiar to anyone who has spent time with a certain generation of African-Americans.”