Thursday, May 23, 2013

"Taking Obama to task for sounding like my father is way, way over the top"

That's what Jack White writes in response to the people who are criticizing President Obama's commencement speech at Morehouse College.
They're determined to find fault with Obama even when he does something right -- and in this case at least, they are as out of touch as the president's right-wing opponents.

That's the conclusion I reached after rereading Obama's Morehouse remarks in light of the strong critiques from Coates and Kai Wright, my esteemed former colleague at The Root. I didn't hear the "convenient race talk" that Coates detected or the browbeating that troubled Wright. I didn't even hear the voice of a politician.

I heard the voice of my father.
Stop. Take a breath. Grab a kleenex. Read on.
It could have been my dad lecturing me across the dinner table when Obama declared, "You have to work twice as hard as anyone else if you want to get by."

And again, when he admonished the graduates to "be a good role model, set a good example for that young brother coming up. If you know somebody who's not on point, go back and bring that brother along. Those who've been left behind, who haven't had the same opportunities we have -- they need to hear from you."

And yet again, when he urged them to "recognize the burdens you carry with you, but to resist the temptation to use them as excuses. To transform the way we think about manhood, and set higher standards for ourselves and for others. To be successful, but also to understand that each of us has responsibilities not just to ourselves, but to one another and to future generations. Men who refuse to be afraid. Men who refuse to be afraid."

Those are the messages that my father, a medical-school professor at Howard University who died 25 years ago, pounded into my head as I was growing up, and that I've tried to convey to my own children.

And they're pretty much the same sentiments I've heard expressed in every HBCU commencement address I've ever attended. To have them delivered by the first black president brings joy and inspiration to my heart -- as it seems to have done to the graduates, who, perhaps lacking the critics' exquisite sensitivity to condescension, stomped, cheered and whooped in response to the speech. To accuse the president of talking down to the throng is to miss the occasion. What he said was entirely appropriate -- and entirely familiar.
Thank you Jack!


  1. This is why it is so alienating to a white dude like me - he sounded like a black preacher lecturing black boys.

    Given what I saw him do in the past I am firmly convinced that he did this *on purpose*.

    Another way to say "no excuses" is to use Dr. King's message from his "last sermon": "they can only ride your back as long as it is bent!".

    White people are so lucky that the oppressed under "white supremacy" ideology are morally so much greater than "we" are.

    1. I'm sorry that you feel alienated, but this is what racism does. How could you possibly feel a part of something that own society has said is beneath you because you're a white dude? This is why despite the struggles, I don't envy white people. People of color know way more about you than you do about us. And what about empathy? Obama talked about that in his speech, but was anybody paying attention?

      And your second sentence still misses the point. Honestly, Obama is being no different than any established, successful, black person speaking in front of a crowd of gifted and talented younger black people. I've heard these same words spoken before at similar gatherings and at home from my own family. And just like Obama's speech, in my own life, I heard these same words with no BS 'race talk,' 'browbeating,' or condescension...only love and respect.

      For Obama to go before that crowd and proclaim that everything is fine would have been more suspect. The fact of the matter is that blacks do have to work twice as hard. It's still like that in 2013. It doesn't matter how educated we are, how many money we have, or how caring we are, in this society, we are still seen as "less than."

      And I seriously don't get your last sentence. I stay away from making comments that judges the morality of an entire race of people (even in jest). Racism is a social construct with very little biological basis. I wish it would go away, but as long as institutions and individuals behave in racist ways, in order to eliminated it (or at least minimize it); we need to address it. We can't pretend that it doesn't exist.

      I believe most white Americans do live in a bubble. But, living in a bubble is not the same as being morally bankrupt. If it was, I wouldn't have any white friends. I wouldn't be able to safely work with white people or even be around them. Even the most moral and just can be prejudiced. It's a human flaw that we all possess. However, not everybody (or group) gets to impose their prejudices on other people...hence, racism.

      Finally, I'm just as unconvinced by the "shame on us evil, immoral, white people," line as I am with the "we whites are superior" nonsense uttered by white racists. This self-pity does little to progress the dialogue. Understanding and empathy are not the same as self-pity. Having pity assumes that just feeling bad and sorry about a situation is enough. In most cases, it's not. I prefer respect over pity (even when it's directed towards one's self).

      Respecting yourself doesn't have to come at the expense of other people.

  2. VERY late eve'nin to you, Ms. Pants

    I absolutely intend to give my two cents worth re: this amazing occasion that I was blessed to witness. Got back to St. Louis VERY late Monday nite and have been trying to repay some serious sleep debt ever since. Actually, Jack and I talked a bit before he published this. And, yeah...he nails it. And, PBO was NOT lecturing. But, again...more to come. BACK to sleep.

    1. Sooooo good to hear from you Blackman. I knew you were there for the speech (not a little bit jealous, I was) and have been waiting with baited breath to get your take on all this. Of course I thought of you immediately when I read what Jack wrote.

      Rest well, my friend. But know that I will absolutely HOUND you until you share your thoughts with me about all this ;-)