As commencement speakers at black schools, the Obamas pile on the homework


President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks during the Morehouse College 129th Commencement ceremony on Sunday in Atlanta. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)
Courtland Milloy
Columnist May 21, 2013

In recent commencement addresses to black college graduates, President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama really piled on the homework.

“Be a good role model, and set a good example for that young brother coming up,” the president told graduates at Morehouse College in Atlanta on Sunday. “If you know someone who isn’t on point, go back and bring that brother along.”

The first lady gave out similar assignments to Bowie State grads on Saturday.

“So, if you have friends or cousins or siblings who are not taking their education seriously, shake them up,” she said. “Go talk some sense into them. Get them back on track.”

This emphasis on personal responsibility has long been a staple of the Obamas’ commencement speeches, no matter the venue. But their mandate for black graduates tends to be far more demanding — and is usually aimed at correcting some bad black behavior — than anything they ask of graduates at predominantly white schools.


Graduating students listen as President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during a ceremony at Morehouse College on Sunday. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

“I know some of you came to Morehouse from communities where life was about keeping your head down and looking out for yourself,” Obama told graduates at the all-male, historically black college. “Maybe you feel like you escaped, and you can take your degree, get a fancy job and never look back. . . . But I will say it betrays a poverty of ambition if all you think about is what goods you can buy instead of what good you can do.”

Obama might well have singled out those who had “escaped” for special admiration. They had, in fact, avoided the traps that lead so many young black men to prison or the morgue. Instead, the president all but discounted their achievements, injecting the unseemly specter of a “poverty of ambition” and raising the insulting prospect of their interests becoming limited to shopping sprees.

Some have speculated that Obama is simply trying to strike a political balance between calling for individual responsibility and advocating a larger role for government. Or, maybe he was just showing whites that he wasn’t the “food stamp” president.

Others have noted, correctly, that many black audiences appreciate having the Obamas occasionally give them a Bill Cosby-esque beat down.

“If you look at the transcripts of the speeches by the president and first lady to black audiences, you’ll see that the lines about personal responsibility get applause,” Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, told me. “Black people have always been critical of the irresponsible. But these things were usually discussed behind closed doors. Now, because of the news media, everything is out in the open.”

And yet, there is something vaguely contemptuous about the president’s style of criticism when addressing black audiences. Invariably, his rosy rhetoric comes with insensitive scolding — his mesmerizing visage leaving them oblivious to the blood he has drawn.

“We’ve got no time for excuses,” Obama said at Morehouse, adding, “Nobody is going to give you anything that you haven’t earned.”

If Obama thinks that is an appropriate commencement message, why doesn’t he ever say such things to white graduates? When he gives commencement addresses at the Naval and Air Force academies this month, will he tell them to stop raping those female recruits?

Last year, Obama spoke to graduates at Barnard College in New York. His words to the young women were laudatory, almost fawning, and unconditionally supportive.

“Fight for your seat at the table,” he said. “Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table. And if you’re willing to do your part now, if you’re willing to reach up and close that gap between what America is and what America should be, I want you to know that I will be right there with you.”

In his address to black graduates at Hampton University in 2010, however, Obama took a different tack. He cautioned them against being so obsessed with themselves that they lose sight of their “separate responsibility” to serve and sacrifice.

“And now it falls to you, the Class of 2010, to write the next great chapter in America’s story, to meet the tests of your own time, to take up the ongoing work of fulfilling our founding promise,” Obama said.

But, unlike at Barnard, he wouldn’t be “right there” with them.

“I’m looking forward to watching,” Obama told the Hampton grads.

And no doubt criticizing, too.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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