This week, President Barack Obama honored the men at Morehouse College by serving as their commencement speaker. The theme of the president’s address centered around taking responsibility and not using racism as an excuse for your lack of success. The message is a good one on the surface, but a consistent tone of discomfort has resonated with some social commentators, particularly those who contrast this speech with those that the president gives to the white community.
Some are saying that the president gave these young black men the kind of speech he’d never have the courage to give to a white audience. The president’s message on personal responsibility might seem appropriate to some, but it has been argued that President Obama’s administration uses black personal responsibility as an escape from their own responsibility to back meaningful policy against racism. For example, the Obama Administration has yet to unveil a plan to deal with chronic black unemployment which has worsened since Obama came into office in 2008, while white unemployment has improved.
Tim Wise, a white anti-racism essayist, says that the president is often quick to lean on this racial double standard when speaking with members of the black community:
Sometimes, white privilege is as simple as knowing that, generally speaking, if you’re white, you’ll be perceived as competent and hard-working until proven otherwise, while people of color — even those who have proven themselves competent and hard-working — will still be subjected to presumptions that they just might not be, and that somehow, they (but not you) need to be reminded of the importance of hard-work and personal responsibility, lest they (but never you) revert to some less impressive group mean.
The president also spoke to black men about his own black father not stepping up and taking responsibility for his life. But Yvette Carnell states that while Barack Obama’s father wasn’t the most extraordinary role model, neither was his mother Ann Dunham. Carnell says that during many of the president’s early years, his mother often “dumped” him with his grandparents so she could live the life of a single woman with no kids.
What criticism does Obama have for the mother that first dragged him to Indonesia, where he was relentlessly bullied, and then dumped him to live with his grandparents? Not much. Even though Obama professes to have adored his grandparents, he revealed during his Jeremiah Wright speech that they both harbored racist resentments. This was no life for a young Black man to live, being abandoned by his mother, left to be raised by racist whites.
Dr. Boyce Watkins also chimed in, arguing that President Obama’s message might resonate were it coming from someone who is in the trenches fighting against racism. But Dr. Watkins says that the president lacks the much-needed moral authority to criticize black men while refusing to support them in their fight against systematic obstacles that continue to keep black people oppressed.
Here’s another memo for the president: You’re not just half black, you’re also half white. So, as you speak to African Americans and tell them to stop using racism as their excuse for achievement, I encourage you to give similar speeches to your white “brothers and sisters,” telling them the same things. The fact is that the Obama White House has a much more sympathetic ear when whites complain about 7 percent unemployment than it does when black Americans complain about 14% unemployment.