Racial Uplift or Racial Scolding: The Baggage of Symbolic Representation in President Obama’s Speeches to Black Americans
I was invited to stay around another month but a personal loss and the press of grading papers overwhelmed me. With apologies to the organizers, this is my first and last post for this month.
President Obama’s commencement speech at Morehouse College on May 19th triggered a debate in some corners of the blogger sphere that included notables like PBS’ Gwen Ifill and white studies scholar Tim Wise about his tendency to scold black folks. In its heyday Morehouse College, a private all-male historically black institution in Atlanta, educated many of the black male elite like Martin Luther King, Jr., filmmaker Spike Lee, former Bank of America Chairman Walter E. Massey, former United States Surgeon General David Satcher, former Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan, film star Samuel Jackson, and social activist Julian Bond. Today it continues its mission producing Rhodes, Fulbright, Marshall and Luce Scholars, and Watson and White House Fellows. Thus he was speaking to a group of future leaders who happened to be overwhelmingly black.
I was a bit surprised at the uproar, especially when several acquaintances thought the Morehouse speech more significant than his speech a few days later on his administration’s drone policy. I have been increasingly troubled by this administration’s extrajudicial killings by drones of American citizens abroad. Thus I decided to more closely examine the controversy.
Some critics claim that President Obama’s “scolding” remarks at Morehouse were reminiscent of his 2009 speech at the NAACP Centennial Convention. In that speech he urged the overwhelmingly black audience to do a better job of educating black children who lag educationally behind their white counterparts saying: “we’ve got to say to our children, yes, if you’re African American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher. Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that somebody in a wealthy suburb does not have to face. But that’s not a reason to get bad grades — that’s not a reason to cut class — that’s not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school. No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands — you cannot forget that. That’s what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses. You get that education, all those hardships will just make you stronger, better able to compete….”
In my mind he was urging black parents to be racial realists, much like the teachers in my de jure racially segregated public school urged us to be “twice as good.” Perhaps it is generational differences or simply the weariness of always having to try extra hard for things solely because of race that causes some of my colleagues to prickle at this suggestion.
Paul Butler on CNNOpinion worried in advance that the President would once again scold black audiences when he spoke at Morehouse. So I rushed to get the transcript. The President started off by saying: “My job, as President, is to advocate for policies that generate more opportunity for everybody.” This message, the same one he and his campaign team have consistently advanced since the 2008 campaign, was a warning; do not expect “special favors” from me. Then he shifted his focus specifically speaking about black Americans, saying:
“one of the things you’ve learned over the last four years is that there’s no longer any room for excuses. I understand that there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: ‘excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.’
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.”
The President also talked about “pursuing excellence and setting an example” for less fortunate black Americans. The same message was handed down to me by my maternal grandmother. Standing alone his comment has a communitarian ring. But moments later President Obama urged the Morehouse men to be present for their children and involved in their lives, unlike his own father; meditating on how he tried with his own family to be the husband and father his father was not – a better man. These are not comments he has made to white audiences. A thoughtful, but critical analysis by Ta-Nehisi Coates a senior editor at The Atlantic, accused the President of reserving his personal responsibility speech for black audiences. Others question why these speeches are only reserved for black audiences, and predicted, for example, the President would not similarly scold the graduating cadets at the Naval Academy a few days about the high rate of sexual assaults in the military, but he did.
Perhaps the problem is not so much what President Obama is saying, but rather with his strong identification with and by African Americans. Throughout his 2008 campaign Candidate Obama seemed willing to adopt whatever racial persona was imposed on him. Paul Butler writes: “Obama’s identity as a black man is usually communicated subliminally, with the swag in his walk, the basketball court on the East Lawn, the sexy glances at the first lady, his overall cool.” I would add that his Al Green impersonation also helped advance his race credentials in some circles. Still questions linger about Obama’s blackness.
Consider the debate within the black community about whether a child of interracial parents, raised by a white mother and grandparents, none one of whom was descended from enslaved Africans in the Americas, was an “authentic” black American. Brent Staples in a 2007 New York Times editorial opined: “The arguments being raised about Mr. Obama’s blackness – or his lack of blackness – seem positively antique at a time when Americans are moving away from the view of ancestry as a central demographic fact and toward a view that dispenses with those traditional boundaries.”
Without question President Obama’s experiences growing up are distinctly different from most black Americans. Having lived myself briefly in Hawai’i I know that living in that state as a person of partial African descent is dramatically different from living in any other state in the union. As he was coming of age the President admitted to having an identity crisis. He pragmatically chose to self-identify as black (as opposed to bi-racial) in part because his physical features betrayed his partial African ancestry. He solidified his choice by marrying a brown-skinned black woman.
Yet throughout the 2008 campaign Candidate Obama also reminded voters that his mother was a white woman from Kansas and spoke lovingly of his white grandmother in Hawai’i. Thus in 2008 some readers chastised nationally syndicated columnist Clarence Page, a black man, asking him to stop calling Obama “black” because of his interracial parentage. Perhaps this is an example of racial identity being imposed on Obama, but it also can be seen an example of his welcoming a racial identity other than black or African American.
The controversy about President Obama’s race is understandable. According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report on racial attitudes, “Americans tend to construct their own view of [President] Obama’s race based on their backgrounds. … 55 percent of black respondents said Obama is black, … a third said he is mixed race. Among whites, the pattern is reversed. Fifty-three percent said he is mixed race, … just a quarter said he is black. Hispanics were even more inclined than whites to see him as mixed race; 61 percent identified him that way.” Yet President Obama is touted to the world as the first black president, and this title carries with it certain baggage.
Terry Smith writes in his book, Barack Obama: Post-Racialism, and the New Politics of Triangulation: “[t]he hopes of 41 million blacks were transposed onto his election.” According to Smith, Candidate Obama “used the symbolism of race to cabin expectations of blacks…. [in a way] that deploys racial symbolism to (ironically) dissuade any race-specific policy aspirations of black voters.” During the 2008 campaign Candidate Obama’s team, when asked about the agenda for black America, replied: “It’s the same as Barack Obama’s agenda for all America.” As Smith documents, the response while “impeccable” ignores the fact that race neutral universal uplift programs have never closed the socio-economic gap between whites and blacks. According to Smith, the symbolism posed by electing a black President proved too intoxicating, so blacks in 2008, and again in 2012, looked the other way, blindly trusting that their needs would be addressed in the long-run. Their payback is public scolding addressed only to them.
The President also said some very positive things. Near the end of his Morehouse speech he urged the graduates to reach even further: “And finally, as you do these things, do them not just for yourself, but don’t even do them just for the African American community. I want you to set your sights higher. … it’s not just the African American community that needs you. The country needs you. The world needs you.” He continues: “As Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; know what it’s like to be marginalized; know what it’s like to feel the sting of discrimination. And that’s an experience that a lot of Americans share”, citing Latinos, Muslim Americans, gay and lesbian Americans.
Read the speech and the commentaries then ask yourself whether President Obama seems to be treating black audiences differently from other audiences when he talks about social problems. If so, does he have the same legitimacy as the black elders who made similar speeches to me in the early 1950s? In light of the President’s past statements and actions does he have standing as a black man to make a racial uplift speech (lift as we climb), or has he been so non-committal that he lacks the legitimacy to make that speech since he does not claim to be a black leader? I am starting to have my doubts.