Bill Cosby must be his speech writer
When the then-Senator Obama campaigned for the presidency, his most salient message to Black audiences was on our need to accept personal responsibility. On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama frequently returned to the topic of parenting and personal responsibility, particularly for low-income Afrikan American families. At church after church he railed against absentee fathers, saying, “We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception.” Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, directly addressed this very real issue in the Afrikan American community: whether absent fathers bore responsibility for some of the intractable problems afflicting Afrikan Americans. Mr. Obama noted that “more than half of all black children live in single-parent households,” a number that he said had doubled since his own childhood.
Speaking in Texas in February, Mr. Obama told the mostly Black audience to take responsibility for the education and nutrition of their children, and lectured them for feeding their children “cold Popeyes” for breakfast. “I know how hard it is to get kids to eat properly,” Mr. Obama said. “But I also know that folks are letting our children drink eight sodas a day, which some parents do, or, you know, eat a bag of potato chips for lunch. Buy a little desk or put that child at the kitchen table. Watch them do their homework.”
As president he has maintained that same messaging. During a recent speech delivered at Morehouse College’s commencement, Obama admonished black men to take care of their families and their communities and told the graduates that despite the lingering legacies of slavery and discrimination, “we’ve got no time for excuses.” Obama also used the occasion to talk about his own life, touching on the fact that he was raised by a single mother and that growing up he sometimes blamed some of his bad choices on society. “Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing…Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and they overcame them. And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too.”
Obama's speech had some strong and lofty parts, including passages honoring Morehouse graduate Martin Luther King Jr., but his main point was about personal responsibility, the “clean-up-your-act message.” Surprisingly, Michelle Obama, who I often considered more on point and having a more congenial relationship to the Black community, when speaking at the historically Black Bowie State University’s commencement ceremony, she in essence, gave the same message of personal responsibility. She told her audience that the problem with Black youth is that they are “sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV….fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.”
Trevor Coleman, a former speech writer for Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, has pointed out the inanity of Obama speech on personal responsibility to the "Morehouse men." The cookie-cutter nature of his speeches to Black audience was exposed here. It was the wrong audience, because a Morehouse man more than any other Black college graduate, at least in Afrika America, “is someone who is a leader, who is taught to go out and make a difference in his community.”
Coleman says he’ll find the president’s next commencement speech, scheduled for Friday at the U.S. 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?” Of course, when Obama addressed the cadets he made no mention of this controversy that is raging through the US military. Male and female rapes are at record highs in the US military.
Other Black folks have noticed this tendency of Obama to chastise us on this issue of personal responsibility. Jesse Jackson Sr. was incensed by what he saw as Obama’s “talking down to black people.” Kevin Powell, an activist based in New York who travels the country encouraging Black men to take responsibility for their lives, said he has no problem with Obama challenging the black community, but . . . .“You also have to challenge the system, just as you challenge the people. It’s not an either/or,” said Powell. Leola Johnson, an associate professor and chair of the Media and Cultural Studies Department at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., said the Obamas’ speeches “are actually not aimed at black people.” She continued, “They’re actually for white people, liberals especially.” Liberal bloggers were brimming with praise for Obama after the Morehouse speech. “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.”
Obama returned to his personal responsibility theme again at the March on Washington commemoration speech. According to Obama, Black folks lost their way when “legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior.” Another commentator, Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report (BAR) said that Obama bemoans that, at some unspecified point in the Black struggle the “transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination.” According to Ford, Obama puts the onus squarely on Blacks for destroying the promise of racial harmony, when he said: “All of that history is how progress stalled. That's how hope was diverted. It's how our country remained divided.” “What had once been a call for equality of opportunity,” said Obama, “the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead, was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.”
No one in their right mind would disagree with the idea that Black people (or any people for that matter) should have a sense of personal responsibility. But talking about personal responsibility devoid of social context can be very misleading. Michelle Alexander has document a new system of Jim Crow in her recent book The New Jim Crow. This was a system that has been put in place by the same forces that were against the civil rights movement. The new Jim Crow has been in effect for nearly thirty years, according to Alexander, and it has impeded Black progress. As a manifestation of white supremacy, which is alive and well in post-racial America, the new Jim Crow has been highly effective. Consequently many of the historical problems in America have remained and continue to resist progressive changes, especially on the state level. The recent rise of “Black on Black” crime is an example of white supremacy at work. Crime is a governmental concern but by focusing on Black-on-Black crime you racialize crime, and rather than address it as a governmental issue, it becomes a Black problem. This implies that either Black folks have to solve it; or it is an inherent problem within the race. These conclusions serve to criminalize Black people to the larger white society and to Blacks themselves. This can then be use to justify “stop and frisk,” racial profiling, and to help build and sustain the prison-industrial complex. In essence, you have blamed the victim.
The grandfather of all these problems Afrikan people face in America, is white supremacy. White supremacy has created a social and intellectual environment that created racism, white privilege, Black inferiority, the post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome, and the Willie Lynch Syndrome. There are so many systemic and psychological problems that mitigate against the development of healthy Black self-esteem and empowerment. And don't you believe that Afrikan people are impervious to mental health disorders. But none of these issues are addressed by the "stop making excuses" or personal responsibility spiels. Obama, like so many conservative politicians is blaming the victim! Never do you hear any funding or programs that will remedy the crises facing Black people in America, like homelessness, unemployment, poverty, quality education, the AIDS epidemic, nutritional deficiencies, or mental health disorders. To refer to these very real issues Black folks are confronted with as making “excuses” or individuals skirting personal responsibility is ridiculous. Shouldn't his administration be fighting to remove some of these inequalities and injustices? Some of the money expended on the US war machine needs to be redirected, re-prioritized, and channeled back into social programs. Heck, the Obama's administration didn't even bring hate crime charges against Zimmerman. What did we get, a speech. President Obama gave us what he does best--a speech.
Though the president reminds us that he is the president for all people, people form constituents--voters-with unique concerns and interests. As Afrikan people we are a politically powerful voting bloc that has many concerns. What has Obama given our bloc. We gave him our vote now where's the quid pro quo. I hope it wasn't our votes for his speeches. That is not enough! Obama the politicians owes us something.
P.S. The White House has become whiter under Obama. Obama is still far behind other administrations in cabinet diversity (Obama 4; Clinton 9 (in 8 years); Bush 6 (in 8 years), in terms of Afrikan Americans). In regards to diversity, Obama like to say his cabinet is diverse. He stated: “So if you think about my first four years, the person who probably had the most influence on my foreign policy was a woman. The people who were in charge of moving forward my most important domestic initiative, health care, were women. The person in charge of our homeland security was a woman. My two appointments to the Supreme Court were women, and 50 percent of my White House staff were women. So I think people should expect that that record will be built upon during the next four years." The problem is that everyone he made reference to was white with the exception of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Sonia Maria Sotomayor. (This doesn't look too good, especially when supposedly Michelle is the first Black woman Barack ever dated!!!)