To critics, Obama’s scolding tone with black audiences is getting old

May 20, 2013

Trevor Coleman thinks it’s time for President Obama to get a new speech for black audiences. The personal responsibility finger-wagging, delivered most recently Sunday at Morehouse College’s commencement, is getting old.

During the speech, 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 “the world trying to keep a black man down.”

The half-hour speech in Atlanta drew a rousing response from those who had sat in pouring rain waiting for the president to speak.

Coleman, a former speechwriter for former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, said that although parts of the talk were strong and lofty, including passages honoring Morehouse graduate Martin Luther King Jr., he was disappointed that Obama almost always defaults to the clean-up-your-act message when talking to predominantly black audiences. First lady Michelle Obama issued a similar tongue-lashing last week at Bowie State University’s commencement ceremony. She told graduates at the historically black Maryland school that too many young people are “fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.”

“The first couple of times, it was okay, but I and a lot of other people are beginning to grow weary of it,” said Coleman, adding that the message was particularly galling at Sunday’s event at the historically black Georgia school. “What made it so gratuitous was this was Morehouse College! In the African American community, the very definition of a Morehouse man is someone who is a leader, who is taught to go out and make a difference in his community.” (The White House declined comment.)

Obama has been making this point — and stirring controversy — since he was a candidate in 2008. Jesse Jackson Sr. was incensed by what he saw as Obama’s “talking down to black people,” yet it was Jackson who was criticized. Many in the black community believed that Obama’s chastisements were necessary to make himself politically palatable to white voters.

The president’s most recent such remarks — there were only a few Sunday, but they were widely reported — triggered a debate on blogs and social media that, in part, asked why Obama continued his lecturing.

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.”

“They’re actually for white people, liberals especially,” she said. 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.”

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, president and founder of BK Nation, an organization focused on education and civic engagement.

The Morehouse speech offered an instance of Obama discussing race, a topic he has been criticized for avoiding given his unique vantage point as the country’s first African American president. Some African Americans have been disappointed at Obama’s frequent refrain that he is president of all Americans when asked why he hasn’t specifically addressed problems that afflict many black communities, including chronic unemployment and failing schools.

On this front, A. Scott Bolden, a Washington lawyer and Morehouse graduate, and Coleman, the former speechwriter and Detroit-based writer, offered finger-wagging lectures of their own.

“It’s interesting that President Obama is always asking black people to take responsibility for themselves,” Bolden said. “It would be really nice if he’d take responsibility for black people in his second term.”

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?”

Vanessa Williams is a deputy national editor at The Post and edits the She The People blog. She has covered and edited local and national politics for the paper. Contact her at Vanessa.Williams@washpost.com.
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