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Obamas Under Fire for 'Personal Responsibility Finger-Wagging' at Black Audiences

'Why doesn’t he ever say such things to white graduates?' Or to Bankers?

Common Dreams staff

President Barack Obama and First lady Michelle Obama are drawing criticism from progressives for "stereotyping black youth" and for "personal responsibility finger-wagging" in commencement speeches last week.

President Obama was the commencement speaker this year at Morehouse College in Atlanta and Michelle Obama at Bowie State University in Maryland—both historically black colleges and universities.

A sampling of progressive voices speaking up this week:

Trevor Coleman, a former speechwriter for ex-Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, told the Washington Post he was disappointed that Obama almost always defaults to the clean-up-your-act message when talking to predominantly black audiences.

“The first couple of times, it was okay, but I and a lot of other people are beginning to grow weary of it... 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.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor at The Atlantic, in a piece titled "How the Obama Administration Talks to Black America" writes:

"...Some day historians will pore over his many speeches to black audiences. They will see a president who sought to hold black people accountable for their communities, but was disdainful of those who looked at him and sought the same. They will match his rhetoric of individual responsibility, with the aggression the administration showed to bail out the banks, and the timidity they showed in addressing a foreclosure crisis which devastated black America (again.) They will weigh the rhetoric against an administration whose efforts against housing segregation have been run of the mill. And they will match the talk of the importance of black fathers with the paradox of a president who smoked marijuana in his youth but continued a drug-war which daily wrecks the lives of black men and their families. In all of this, those historians will see a discomfiting pattern of convenient race-talk."

"I think the president owes black people more than this."

Anti-racism activist and writer Tim Wise wrote in a piece on his website titled Bullying Pulpit: Racism, Barack Obama and the Selective Call for Personal Responsibility:

..."It’s hard to know what’s more disturbing."

"Either that President Obama thinks black grads at one of the nation’s best colleges really need to be lectured about such matters; or, alternately, that White America is so desirous of exculpation for the history of racial discrimination that we need him to say such things, and he knows it, thereby leading him to feed us the moral scolding of black men we so desperately desire, and which he must know will be transmitted to us by way of media coverage of his talk."

"Either way, the result is tragic."

Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy wrote yesterday:

"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."


..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.

...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?"

Aura Bogado, who writes about racial justice, Native rights, and immigration for The Nation, wrote in her article "The First Couple’s Post-Racial Bootstraps Myth":

"When the first lady addressed Bowie graduates last Friday... she talked about a long tradition of black students’ hunger for education, she added that about 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and more than fifty years after Brown v. Board, “too many of young people just can’t be bothered” to pursue an education. Michelle Obama said that rather than walk miles to school everyday, black students sit “on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV.” And the stereotypes didn’t stop there. “Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader,” proclaimed the first lady, “they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.”"

"...her remarks appear to put the onus not on a system designed to ensure black failure but on lazy individuals."

Leola Johnson, chair of the Media and Cultural Studies Department at Macalester College, told the Washington Post that:

"The Obamas’ speeches “are actually not aimed at black people.”

“They’re actually for white people, liberals especially. It’s the legacy of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and that whole group of white liberals who want to say it’s not just about structural problems that black people aren’t doing well, it’s about their own values.”

And A. Scott Bolden, a Washington lawyer and Morehouse graduate, told the Washington Post:

“It’s interesting that President Obama is always asking black people to take responsibility for themselves. It would be really nice if he’d take responsibility for black people in his second term.”

Obama's Next Commencement Speech? US Naval Academy

Trevor Coleman also told the Washington Post that he’ll find the president’s next commencement speech, Friday at the US Naval Academy, particularly "instructive":

“That will be interesting given the reports of sex harassment in the military,” Coleman said. “Is he going to chide those cadets about addressing the social pathologies in that population?”

And Courtland Milloy wrote:

"When he gives commencement addresses at the Naval and Air Force academies this month, will he tell them to stop raping those female recruits?"

* * *

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