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Michelle Singletary: Obama’s unfortunate remarks on people’s misfortunes

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Did the president of the United States really tell the Congressional Black Caucus to stop whining?

“Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes,” President Obama said at the CBC Foundation’s annual dinner Saturday night. “Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying.”

Stop crying?

Those are perhaps the most jarring words I’ve ever heard Obama say. I know they came at the end of a long speech aimed at rallying his supporters. But does he really think CBC members and their constituents, many of whom are suffering in this awful economy, should just “shake it off”?

Was Obama trying to appeal to the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps crowd, which believes government should do less to help those in need? Or to those in Congress who want to dismantle the social welfare safety net?

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told me he spent much of Monday fielding calls from CBC members, ministers and Obama supporters who took exception to the president’s parting remarks.

“I think he got caught up in the moment,” Cleaver said. “I don’t think he intended anything. I think he was saying to supporters around the country, ‘You don’t have any more time to complain.’ ”

Still, Cleaver noted that one woman, who had been excited to attend the dinner, solemnly told him: “He didn’t have to go there.”

For much of Obama’s speech, I was with him. He showed empathy when pointing out that blacks have kept the faith even though the official unemployment rate in the African American community is nearly 17 percent, the highest it’s been in almost three decades. He expressed compassion for the 40 percent of black children living in poverty.

“We’ve needed faith over these last couple years,” Obama said. “Times have been hard. It’s been three years since we faced down a crisis that began on Wall Street and then spread to Main Street, and hammered working families, and hammered an already hard-hit black community.”

But things turned ugly for me when Obama, in closing, said: “I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I don’t have time to complain.”

Whether Obama was referring directly to black leaders or indirectly to their financially stressed and frustrated constituents, his point was unnecessary.

The people I hear from and personally counsel aren’t sitting around in bedroom slippers grumbling. They don’t have time nor can they afford to just complain. They’re trying desperately to make ends meet. CBC members whose districts have been financially decimated by the recession haven’t been lounging in slippers crying, either. They’ve been holding job fairs.

Cleaver said the slippers and marching shoes reference was unfortunate.

“I think the people who drafted the president’s speech thought it was a catchy little phase,” he said. “If I had reviewed the speech, I would have nonchalantly suggested another line.”

I resent any suggestion that anyone should say “shake it off” to people earning wages far below what is necessary to support their families. As if I’ll tell the mothers and fathers whose children are crying because they’re hungry to stop complaining. When a family can’t afford adequate medical care because it doesn’t have health insurance, I’ll tell those family members to stop grumbling. And when I’m working with people who have lost their jobs, I’ll tell them to stop feeling sorry for themselves as we try to figure out how they will pay their rent or mortgage.

It’s fair to ask the administration to do more to help the disadvantaged, who aren’t just the poor anymore. That’s not complaining. That’s asking Washington to look out for the less fortunate. That’s advocating for the people who just want to earn a decent living and have access to health care. It’s fighting against business practices that take advantage of the underprivileged.

Were the bankers we bailed out told to just shake it off? Or did we give them billions of dollars to get their businesses back on their feet?

When American auto manufacturers were struggling, did we tell the executives to stop complaining? Or did our leaders bail them out, too?

“We’re going through something we haven’t seen in our lifetimes,” Obama said. “And I know at times that gets folks discouraged. I know.”

Well, Mr. President, please act like you know. Don’t dismiss the members of the CBC or African Americans as complainers and grumblers for urging you to be as aggressive as you can in addressing their plight, too.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail address is singletarym@washpost.com. Questions are welcomed, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible.

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