The Obamas overdo tough love for black grads

 

In recent commencement addresses to black college graduates, President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama really piled on the homework.

“Be a good role model, and set a good example for that young brother coming up,” the president told graduates at Morehouse College in Atlanta on Sunday. “If you know someone who isn’t on point, go back and bring that brother along.”

The first lady gave out similar assignments to Bowie State University grads on Saturday.

“So, if you have friends or cousins or siblings who are not taking their education seriously, shake them up,” she said. “Go talk some sense into them. Get them back on track.”

This emphasis on personal responsibility has long been a staple of the Obamas’ commencement speeches, no matter the venue. But their mandate for black graduates tends to be far more demanding — and is usually aimed at correcting some bad black behavior — than anything they ask of graduates at predominantly white schools.

“I know some of you came to Morehouse from communities where life was about keeping your head down and looking out for yourself,” Obama told graduates at the all-male, historically black college. “Maybe you feel like you escaped, and you can take your degree, get a fancy job and never look back. . . . But I will say it betrays a poverty of ambition if all you think about is what goods you can buy instead of what good you can do.”

Obama might well have singled out those who had “escaped” for special admiration. They had, in fact, avoided the traps that lead so many young black men to prison or the morgue. Instead, the president all but discounted their achievements, injecting the unseemly specter of a “poverty of ambition” and raising the insulting prospect of their interests becoming limited to shopping sprees.

Some have speculated that Obama is simply trying to strike a political balance between calling for individual responsibility and advocating a larger role for government. Or, maybe he was just showing whites that he wasn’t the “food stamp” president.

Others have noted, correctly, that many black audiences appreciate having the Obamas occasionally give them a Bill Cosby-esque beat down.

“If you look at the transcripts of the speeches by the president and first lady to black audiences, you’ll see that the lines about personal responsibility get applause,” Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, told me. “Black people have always been critical of the irresponsible. But these things were usually discussed behind closed doors. Now, because of the news media, everything is out in the open.”

And yet, there is something vaguely contemptuous about the president’s style of criticism when addressing black audiences. Invariably, his rosy rhetoric comes with insensitive scolding — his mesmerizing visage leaving them oblivious to the blood he has drawn.

“We’ve got no time for excuses,” Obama said at Morehouse, adding, “Nobody is going to give you anything that you haven’t earned.”

If Obama thinks that is an appropriate commencement message, why doesn’t he ever say such things to white graduates? When he gives commencement addresses at the Naval and Air Force academies this month, will he tell them to stop raping those female recruits?

Last year, President Obama spoke to graduates at Barnard College in New York. His words to the young women were laudatory, almost fawning, and unconditionally supportive.

“Fight for your seat at the table,” he said. “Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table. And if you’re willing to do your part now, if you’re willing to reach up and close that gap between what America is and what America should be, I want you to know that I will be right there with you.”

In his address to black graduates at Hampton University in 2010, however, Obama took a different tack. He cautioned them against being so obsessed with themselves that they lose sight of their “separate responsibility” to serve and sacrifice.

“And now it falls to you, the Class of 2010, to write the next great chapter in America’s story, to meet the tests of your own time, to take up the ongoing work of fulfilling our founding promise,” Obama said.

But, unlike at Barnard, he wouldn’t be “right there” with them.

“I’m looking forward to watching,” Obama told the Hampton grads.

And no doubt criticizing, too.

© 2013, The Washington Post

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • Self-acceptance is a revolutionary act

    “Hair is political.”

  • Our blind spot about guns

    If we had the same auto-fatality rate today that we had in 1921, by my calculations we would have 715,000 Americans dying annually in vehicle accidents.

  • Too much paranoia about kids alone in parks

    A couple of weeks ago, the Debra Harrell story made national headlines. Harrell was arrested in North Augusta, S.C., and charged with a felony for letting her 9-year-old daughter play at a park while Harrell worked a shift at a local McDonald’s. Now, it has happened again, in Port St. Lucie, Fla., where a mother was charged with child neglect after letting her son go to a park by himself.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category