I expected a slew of criticism about President Obama’s commencement address to the graduates of Morehouse College this weekend, but I was taken aback by Boyce Watkins‘ statement that President Obama had “no moral authority” to say some of the words he spoke.
Citing what he says is the president’s failure to enact effective policy to help black people, Boyce wrote, “Hence, this lopsided approach to racial inequality does not give Barack Obama the moral authority to come into a room full of black people and talk about what’s wrong with us. Chris Rock, Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan and Harry Belafonte could make these very same statements and have credibility because they are not afraid to speak the same way to whites.” (http://www.blackbluedog.com/2013/05/news/dr-boyce-president-obama-lacks-the-moral-authority-to-give-his-lopsided-speech-at-morehouse/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=dr-boyce-president-obama-lacks-the-moral-authority-to-give-his-lopsided-speech-at-morehouse)
In his article, Dr. Boyce states that black people are “happy when the president berates us. We like being told that we don’t try hard enough and that the reason so many of us struggle is because we have come to embrace an inferior set of habits and cultural norms.” Boyce cites what he calls the president’s “significant, even embarrassing lack of action to help alleviate the clearly documented, undeniable, legislatively enforced poison of racial inequality that continues to impact our society.” He says that the president tends to be more conservative when he talks to black audiences than he is when he talks to white ones, and he is critical of that.
But as I read through the president’s address, I failed to see where he was talking in a way that was offensive to African-Americans. Yes, he spoke about the need for these African-American men not to make excuses: “I’m sure every one of you has a grandma, an uncle or a parent who’s told you at some point in life that, as an African-American, you have to work twice as hard as anyone else if you want to get by. I think President (Benjamin) Mays put it even better: “Whatever you do, strive to do it so well that no man living and no man dead, and no man yet to be born can do it any better.” I promise you, what was needed in Dr. Mays’ time, that spirit of excellence and hard work and dedication, is needed now more than ever. If you think you can get over in this economy just because you have a Morehouse degree, you are in for a rude awakening. But if you stay hungry, keep hustling, keep on your grind and get other folks to do the same – nobody can stop you.” (http://www.ajc.com/news/news/local/prepared-text-for-president-obamas-speech-at-moreh/nXwk2/)
The president cited “a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: ‘excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments to nothingness.'” What President Obama said is certainly what I heard in my house growing up; it had something to do with race, yes, but it had more to do with being an individual. Excuses, my mother would say, won’t work “out there. Nobody cares in the real world what your issues are. They just want to get things done.” She was right. She said to us all, yes, that as African-Americans, and, to me and my sisters, that as women, we would have to do better than our white sisters and brothers. It was a valuable lesson. Nobody caters to those who make excuses, she said. In fact, those who make excuses get passed by. S0, what the president said on that subject was not problematic to me.
What IS problematic, however, is that many, too many young African-Americans, both male and female, hear nothing about how important it is to forge ahead, to confront walls in front of them. Too many of them hear that the world owes them something because they are African-American, or poor, or female. Too many women still think men are supposed to do something FOR them. Too many African-Americans still want to blame the society for their ills.
Society for sure has been unfair and unkind to minorities; that is undeniable; it always has, and it still is. I think that the Congress has been largely responsible for President Obama not having been able to pass more policies that will make the playing field more even for the oppressed; it seems the Congress has been hell-bent on opposing almost everything the president has proposed.
But this message about not using this racist (and sexist and homophobic) society as an excuse is a viable and important lesson for these new graduates to hear. Just because they have a Morehouse degree does not mean they will have an easy time; Langston Hughes wrote that “life ain’t been no crystal stair.” It isn’t and it will not be. “Out there,” the ones who succeed are the ones who take the unfairness and the meanness on the chin, maybe get knocked down, but refuse to be knocked out. The president’s message to the graduates that they have a responsibility to teach that lesson to the young kids who are coming along …is vital. The president said, “Be a good role model and set a good example for that young brother coming up. If you know someone who isn’t on point, go back and bring that brother along. The brothers who have been left behind – and who haven’t had the same opportunities we have – they need to hear from us. We’ve got to be in the barber shops with them, at church with them, spending time and energy with them, spending time and energy and presence, helping pull them up, exposing them to new opportunities and supporting their dreams. We have to teach them what it means to be a man …” Quoting W.E.B. DuBois, he said they are called to be a “class of highly educated, socially conscious leaders in the black community.”
Yes, yes, and yes.
President Obama may not have come up with enough policies to help “the least of these,” but he probably has done as much as he can, given the political climate in Washington. The unemployment rate for black people is still too high; the rate of incarceration for black people is so disproportionately high that it is unconscionable, but he has begun to chip away at the thick walls of oppression that have for too long been characteristic of American democracy. His charge to the Morehouse grads to take up the baton and build on what he has begun was not ill-spoken; he knows the struggles of being African-American even though, as Dr. Boyce points out, he is “half white.” I don’t see where that matters all that much. In the eyes of the world, he is the “first African-American president.” Nobody cares about his white blood much; the color of his skin is the telling feature of who he is to the world, not the color of his mother.
That being said, he knows enough about being black in America to have the moral authority to say what he said. Even more, he has the responsibility to say what he said…and hopefully what he said will be taken to kids who never hear words of encouragement, and lessons on how not to use excuses as they live their lives. The more kids who hear it – black , white, Hispanic and any other color or ethnicity, the better equipped they will be to handle this disease called oppression which unfortunately in America is still too often connected to the color of one’s skin.
A candid observation …