Some African Americans can’t stand it when the family’s dirty laundry is aired in public. They can’t stand it when someone of prominence talks about the pervasive hopelessness that leads to alienation that leads to bad choices that leads to crime — black-on-black and otherwise — that leads to decimated families, communities and their collective aspirations. And when that prominent person is President Obama, who uses himself and his own journey as proof that obstacles can be overcome with hard work and support, those aforementioned folks lose their minds. We’ve seen a lot of that since the police shooting and killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9.
But here’s the thing: The howling critics refuse to acknowledge the applause and standing ovations Obama receives from black audiences every time he dares to keep it real.
That’s what happened at the NAACP convention in July 2009 when the president said, “No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands — you cannot forget that. That’s what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses. No excuses.” And they really loved what Obama said next.
To parents — to parents, we can’t tell our kids to do well in school and then fail to support them when they get home. (Applause.) You can’t just contract out parenting. For our kids to excel, we have to accept our responsibility to help them learn. That means putting away the Xbox — (applause) — putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour. (Applause.) It means attending those parent-teacher conferences and reading to our children and helping them with their homework. (Applause.)
And by the way, it means we need to be there for our neighbor’s sons and daughters. (Applause.) We need to go back to the time, back to the day when we parents saw somebody, saw some kid fooling around and — it wasn’t your child, but they’ll whup you anyway. (Laughter and applause.) Or at least they’ll tell your parents — the parents will. You know. (Laughter.) That’s the meaning of community. That’s how we can reclaim the strength and the determination and the hopefulness that helped us come so far; helped us make a way out of no way.
There were more ovations and applause for Obama at his Feb. 2013 speech in Chicago in the wake of gun violence that killed Hadiya Pendleton. And at his May 2013 commencement address at Morehouse College, one of the preeminent historically black colleges in the country. These are just the ones I could think of off the top of my head.
But when the nation’s first black president talks about personal responsibility and speaks to the black community as only he can, he is branded “the scold of ‘black America,’” as he was by Ta-Nehisi Coates last year. But if Obama doesn’t address these issues in a way, setting and manner to the liking of some black critics, he is branded an uncaring sell-out.
Hiram College professor Jason Johnson was so unimpressed by the president’s Aug. 14 comments on Brown’s killing that he wrote, “It is painfully apparent, for those who still hold out hope, that President Barack Obama will never use the full power and influence of his office to come to the aid of African Americans while he is president.” Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson was so enraged by the president’s Aug. 18 remarks on the death of Brown that he slammed Obama as a “sometimes unreliable and distant narrator of black life.” Buying into this hysteria, even Maureen Dowd felt compelled to claim that Obama “has muzzled himself on race and made [Rev. Al] Sharpton his chosen instrument.” Hardly.
And speaking of Sharpton, take a look at the video of his remarks at Brown’s funeral. The message about personal responsibility within the black community from the president’s “chosen instrument,” who was called on by the Brown family for help and who was personally invited by them to deliver a more political eulogy, mirrors what the president has been saying, albeit in blunter language. Fast forward to 13:27 and watch the reaction of Brown’s family in the front row and the people around them. You’ll notice not much disagreement with what Sharpton had to say.
What does God require? We’ve got to be straight up in our community, too. We have to be outraged at a nine-year-old girl killed in Chicago. We have to be outraged by our disrespect for each other. Our disregard for each other. Our killin’ and shootin’ and runnin’ around gun tottin’ each other. So that they’re justifyin’ tryin’ to come at us because some of us act like the definition of blackness is how low you can go. Blackness has never been about being a gangster or a thug. Blackness was no matter how low we was pushed down we rose up anyhow…..
We never surrendered. We never gave up. And now we get to the 21st century. We get to where we got some positions of power and you decide it ain’t black no more to be successful. Now you want be a n—– and call your woman a ’ho, you’ve lost where you come from. We’ve got to clean up our community so we can clean up the United States of America.
Striking back at this defeatist mindset is part of what motivates Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” (MBK) initiative. Another part is getting at the fear and suspicion of young men and boys of color and the mutual mistrust with law enforcement, which is at the heart of the tragedy in Ferguson, Mo. The president noted this in his remarks on Aug. 18. “[I]n too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement,” he said. “In too many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear.” Saying such a thing was deemed “tone deaf” by Dyson. MBK itself was mocked earlier by Johnson as “post hoc volunteerism.” Wrong.
I’ve already dealt with the unrealistic expectations of some of Obama’s black critics who apparently never tire of questioning his care and concern for the black community. Still, I firmly believe that most African Americans know the truth. It’s never comfortable to hear tough love from a family member. But sometimes you need family to tell you hard truths to bring about some sort of change.
We’ve gone from having presidents who talk at us or about us like we’re not even part of the firmament of this country to having a president who IS us. That he is willing to say out loud for all to hear what we murmur in private is why he gets the applause and ovations his critics refuse to hear.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj