On the heels of President Obama’s commencement speech to Morehouse College last weekend, there has been a resurgence of the minor uproar that seems to accompany this president whenever he or his wife address an audience that is primarily black. Ta-Nehisi Coates over at The Atlantic, ever the critic of race in politics, speaks up about the speech and its companions through the years that Obama has been in the public spotlight in “How the Obama Administration Talks to Black America.” Though Coates is unabashedly a fan of the first couple, he takes issue with the way that the Obamas speak to black audiences. And he makes some pretty good points. But I think that the response to such a speech in the black community should be different. Instead of annoyance and resentment, perhaps we should be responding to the president by speaking more ourselves.
First, a quick examination of the origins of such speech is in order. Given the circumstances and times under which President Obama and his wife grew up (poor and in the '60s) as well as his career path (community organization), are we who are young and enlightened expecting too much from him in a speech to black audiences? I can't believe that Obama is so disconnected that he really feels that black audiences need to be bashed over the head with the “no excuses” track every time he’s in a room alone with a group of us. But perhaps from his perch in Washington, he may not see that the sermonizing (which is what it is – black congregations get these messages in church all the time) falls on deaf ears at best, and inspires more than passing annoyance at worst.
Some might think that his background in community organizing should give him an edge in being able to speak the language of chronically disadvantaged people. But given when and where he was organizing, this may be exactly the type of speech that he used in those efforts. And why not? It’s powerful stuff. Sermons from black pulpits have a reputation for getting people stirred up, ready to move and make a change. That was one of the lessons of the Civil Rights era, that if black pastors preached, people would get up and move. There are entire seminary classes devoted to the style of black preaching, even in majority institutions. The style is persuasive and powerful. But somehow, we expect better from our president. We seem to expect him to overlook the faults within the community that still persist. We expect him to address policy instead of people even when the occasion might merit a more personalized approach. But his background suggests that his speeches are in line with a rich tradition that, while it may be out of date for the current generation, can still be effective in some circles.
Coates’s real problem seems to be that Obama saves this speech specifically for black audiences, going with a less "scornful" approach with whites. Citing the overwhelming black turnout in favor of the president in this past election, he says, “Perhaps they cannot practically receive targeted policy. But surely they have earned something more than targeted scorn,” referring to black audiences. It’s fortunate that Coates does not suggest that Obama apply the type of muscular rhetoric that he uses with blacks when speaking to white audiences. Can you imagine the president, any president, telling a predominantly white graduating class to (basically) get their lives together, avoid the stereotypes, and go out and make something of themselves? That would be absurd given the common notion that the majority of whites already have their stuff together and suffer little from stereotypes. The perception is that black people, especially black males, have an extra burden that can only be alleviated through a swift kick in the pants. It is this script that Obama follows to the letter, and it is the same script that has been read and re-read since well before Martin Luther King, Jr. was old enough to spell his own name.
The script, though venerated in many places, is outdated and in desperate need of revision. But who should take responsibility for leading the change? By the assertion of Coates and others, the president and every other upstanding black person should take the reins and offer a more constructive narrative for black people to live up to. And just maybe the country’s first black president should lead the way — even though he’s more than a bit busy with the economy, a few wars, an obstinate Congress, natural disasters, and a few other minor issues. He’s got the platform. He should use it, right? But in this hyper-connected world where each person has the ability to broadcast their own voice and possibly influence millions of others, we should question whether it is really the job of the political and economic elite to tell us what we should already know. Perhaps those of us out here who are doing well, those of us who have already done exactly what Obama has been preaching, should show the way. We should use our platform to speak in a manner that causes the dominant narrative around black youth to change for the better. We have the opportunity and the resources. It's time we use them. Maybe then we won’t have to endure any more sermons on responsibility and excuses.