Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Obama's Morehouse Speech

President Obama gave the commencement speech at historically black Morehouse College the other day, and Ta-Nehisi Coates didn't like it.  The speech was basic Obama affair, he pointed out that the historic realities of racism and discrimination have caused in the development of social problems in black communities, talked about how he experience similar dynamics in his own youth and then in a classic Obama shift he called for more personal responsibility among black men:
We've got no time for excuses -- not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven't. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that's still out there. It's just that in today's hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven't earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured -- and overcame.
In short is was a speech very similar to what he's been saying for years.

Coates saw this as something much worse:
Taking the full measure of the Obama presidency thus far, 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."
Singular scold?  While Al Sharpton certainly doesn't say things like this, this message of improvement through self-reliance is a thread in black political thought that goes back to the Brooker T. Washington and beyond.  It was a driving force behind the founding of elite black colleges like Morehouse and Bouie State University where First Lady Michelle Obama spoke along similar themes last week as well.  Indeed, it was the main message of a series of motivational speeches given by Bill Cosby only a few years ago.  Coates should know this, because he wrote a long article about in 2008.        

In addition, James Fallows pointed out that taking a different tone when addressing "our own" isn't necessarily a bad thing, in fact it's quite normal:
We all take a different tone in setting expectations for "our own." I can hold Americans overseas to a different standard than I would Russians or Japanese; I can harangue (and have!) my colleagues in the press about why we should do better; I expect something from myself and my kids I wouldn't expect from you and your kids, and so on. The challenge for Obama, exactly as Ta-Nehisi pointed out, is that he is simultaneously addressing all Americans as his own (apart from those who consider him alien) while also in this speech addressing as his own the most historically distinct subset of our population.
Both Coates and Fallows are right that Obama's role as both the being the President and the first black President is what often puts him in very difficult situations, what Fallows likes to call "walking a tightrope."  But Obama's response to this predicament, to give a speech that calls for both more equality and more personable responsibility as a necessary condition of more equality is hardly "scolding" anyone.  It's the commencement equivalent of Uncle Ben's speech from Spiderman

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.