There has been quite a bit of reaction to the president’s commencement speech this past weekend at the historically-black Morehouse College, and it seems as if there were as many people who disliked it as there were those who loved it. As usual, the president had some blatant and gratuitous moments of self-congratulation and campaign untruths. And as he’s known to do when speaking to black audiences, he again appropriated the preacher cadence and black dialect, which I think is as unneeded as it is condescending. The speech did contain several moments of honest transparency regarding his upbringing as well as some tough truths regarding black America.
I credit the president for highlighting such notions as personal responsibility, integrity and dignity, hard work and the importance of manhood; I also appreciated the fact- especially and ironically, considering the source- that he condemned racial excuse making for the lack of achievement. Lord knows that black America needs to hear and imbibe these realities now more than ever before.
The president is right when he asserts that blacks need to stop using racism as an excuse for their lack of achievement. The time when that particular excuse held validity has come and gone. No one suggests that racial discrimination doesn’t exist; it’s a manifestation of sin that will continue to exist on this side of heaven. But racial discrimination isn’t the all-encompassing impediment that prevents blacks from personal and professional achievement as it once was. Blacks would do well in acknowledging this reality and being accountable for their decisions and actions. The president’s admonition is correct.
In addition the president noted that the hardships blacks encountered in previous generations were more extreme than most of the hardships faced by blacks today. To drive home this point, the president noted that the graduates’ contemporaries in China, India and Brazil are facing and overcoming hardships much greater than the hardships currently experienced by blacks here in America. (This is in addition to the black Africans and black Islanders who are also overcoming great hardship to achieve success whom the president didn’t mention.)
Again, the president is absolutely correct.
That said, many blacks were vociferously disappointed with the tone of the President’s speech with Dr. Boyce Watkins (the people’s scholar) presumably leading the way. Though Dr. Watkins applauded the president for his somewhat conservative message, he was offended by the president’s attempt to “morally berate” black America. He also lamented black America’s role as the battered housewife in its relationship with the president and the party he represents.
I couldn’t agree more with Watkins’ assessment. I’ve long made the same analogy regarding the undying loyalty that blacks give Democrats who receive nothing in return. And I don’t necessarily blame Democrats. Just like the wife beater, Democrat politicians will get away with as much as blacks allow them to.
But I disagree with Watkins’ assertion that the president was “morally berating” the audience at Morehouse and I’m not necessarily sure about the president’s “lack of moral authority” when saying it. Truth is truth no matter who delivers it. Much of what the president said is what most blacks need to hear- on a continuous basis, not simply during a graduation speech.
Watkins suggests that “[t]elling black Americans to stop using racism as an excuse allows President Obama to create a set of excuses for his own significant, even embarrassing, lack of action to help alleviate the clearly documented, undeniable, legislatively-enforced poison of racial inequality that continues to impact our society. As he tells the Morehouse men to take more responsibility for their own lives, the mirror of personal responsibility should also be turned on the most powerful black man in the history of the world to use his massive platform to help confront systematic racism that affects us all.”
I partially agree. I think the president has missed several opportunities during his presidency to significantly impact segments of black America considering the historicity of his presidency and the overwhelming influence and popularity he once had.
However, I disagree with Watkins’ argument that blacks are suffering from systemic racism. It echoes the president’s assertion that “if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that too few of our brothers have the opportunities that you’ve had here at Morehouse. In troubled neighborhoods all across this country — many of them heavily African American… they’re places where jobs are still too scarce and wages are still too low; where schools are underfunded and violence is pervasive; where too many of our men spend their youth not behind a desk in a classroom, but hanging out on the streets or brooding behind a jail cell.”
This perpetuates the “black-as-victim” narrative that has hamstrung much of black America- at least since the sixties. This narrative claims that the majority of the problems that blacks face- especially as it pertains to violence and imprisonment- are inflicted upon them as a result of evil and nefarious societal forces bent on black destruction.
In other words, the problems blacks face are seen as external rather than a result of personal decision-making and the behaviors that result from them. This narrative infantilizes and objectifies blacks. It says that blacks lack the capacity of ingenuity and pragmatism to take care of themselves and as such, are perpetually in need of help.
I reject that notion as it’s condescending and debilitating, and I would argue that black victimhood has done more to inhibit black progress than racism ever could.
When Dr. Watkins suggests that “black people are the only group of people who are severely punished for being average. If a young black male grows up in a neighborhood where he might get shot everyday on the way to school, the educational system is dilapidated, he is being racially-profiled on every corner and there’s no food in the house, we expect him to be able to rise to extraordinary levels of focus and capability to overcome all of this…[t]he point is that the “Super Negro” theory may apply to that rare kid who can leap systematic oppression in a single bound, but you can’t expect that same degree of personal power and focus to apply to 40 million people,” he’s way off base.
First, this is a straw man argument. No one says that blacks are the only people punished for mediocrity or that they have to embrace the ‘super negro’ theory. If someone did, who said it? When? Dr. Watkins is passively excusing the ills that afflict black America- which again, is embracing victimhood.
Second, Dr. Watkins discounts the many people of various racial and ethnic origins who were born into less than stellar environments and overcame problems much more grievous than those of the inner cities.
Many of those who aren’t in school and hanging out or behind bars are victims of choice and a sub-par value system. Many of these “youth” choose crime. It may sound shocking to say, but go back and look at generations past in American history. Many of them were poor- much poorer than today’s ‘poor’ yet they didn’t engage in crime or frequent penitentiaries anywhere near the level of today’s youth. Why? Because though poor, they maintained an intact value system which was largely predicated on biblical values, which meant that despite poverty, they still married; though poor, they at least attempted education; though poor they found work; though poor they still believed in God. In actuality, the problems that Watkins- and the president- lament are what results when moral values are inverted in the communities where these problems arise.
Prime examples of this are the heroes that Obama cited in his speech- specifically Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver all of whom were born slaves and yet they learned how to read when it was against the law to teach slaves; they all sought some form of education after slavery ended; none of them died from starvation which means they all found food. In other words, these men all rose to ‘extraordinary levels of focus and capability to overcome all of [these obstacles].’
Surely Watkins isn’t suggesting that blacks born into harshness of slavery could overcome- SLAVERY– to reach the heights of meritorious success but blacks born into the most prosperous and promising time in history, can’t?
There’s quite a bit in this speech that is very much a concern for disagreement and dislike- for example foolishly celebrating the passage and implementation of Obamacare- a policy that not only continues to bleed support from the American people, it’s directly contributing to the increased cost of premiums, difficulties of state exchanges and increased doctor shortages; claiming schools are underfunded (they’re not), and giving credibility to the narrative of black victimhood as I mentioned above.
But stating the obvious- encouraging blacks, especially black men (who were the prime audience for the speech) to take manhood and fatherhood seriously; to recognize the importance of limiting excuses by taking personal responsibility for one’s actions as well as being socially accountable is difficult to disagree with and in my opinion needs to be commended and repeated.