“He’s a bro with no ho,” Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) joked Thursday about never-married bachelor Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to another member of the Senate Appropriations Committee — a joke that was caught on an open mike. But it is what he said next that compounded the offense. “That’s what we’d say on the South Side.”
Kirk was talking about the South Side of Chicago. That land of shattered lives and shredded English that has become synonymous with urban decay. That wasteland where hope and opportunity are strangers to its beleaguered residents. And the daily barrage of bullets killing said residents doesn’t help dispel the living-hell image. At least, that’s the stereotype. And to believe it, to even dabble in it, is to deny the existence of real people who defy it. Chief among them is first lady Michelle Obama.
Kirk’s joke stands in stark contrast to the image Obama presented in a June 9 speech at the commencement of Martin Luther King Jr. Prepatory High School in Chicago. It was a powerful address that mixed aspiration with class and racial awareness, that linked her personal journey with the one the graduates would start to take. And when I heard the Kirk say that Graham is a “bro with no ho” and “That’s what we’d say on the South Side,” I immediately thought of this passage in Obama’s remarks.
So, graduates, tonight, I am feeling so proud of you. I am feeling so excited for you. I am feeling so inspired by you. But there is one thing that I’m not feeling right now, and that is surprised. I am not at all surprised by how accomplished you all are. I’m not at all surprised by the dedication your teachers have shown, or by the sacrifices your families have made to carry you to this day. I’m not surprised because I know this community.
I was born and raised here on the South Side, in South Shore, and I am who I am today because of this community. I know, I know the struggles many of you face — how you walk the long way home to avoid the gangs. How you fight to concentrate on your homework when there’s too much noise at home. How you keep it together when your families are having hard times making ends meet.
But more importantly, I also know the strengths of this community. I know the families on the South Side. And while they may come in all different shapes and sizes, most families here are tight, bound together by the kind of love that gets stronger when it’s tested.
I know that folks on the South Side work hard — the kind of hard where you forget about yourself and you just worry about your kids, doing everything it takes — juggling two and three jobs, taking long bus rides to the night shift, scraping pennies together to sign those kids up for every activity you can afford — Park District program, the Praise Dance Ministries — whatever it takes to keep them safe and on the right track. And I know that in this community, folks have a deep faith, a powerful faith, and folks are there for each other when times get hard, because we understand that “there but for the grace of God go I.”
And over the past six years as first lady, I’ve visited communities just like this one all across this country — communities that face plenty of challenges and crises, but where folks have that same strong work ethic, those same good values, those same big dreams for their kids.
But unfortunately, all those positive things hardly ever make the evening news. Instead, the places where we’ve grown up only make headlines when something tragic happens — when someone gets shot, when the dropout rate climbs, when some new drug is ruining people’s lives.
So too often, we hear a skewed story about our communities — a narrative that says that a stable, hardworking family in a neighborhood like Woodlawn or Chatham or Bronzeville is somehow remarkable; that a young person who graduates from high school and goes to college is a beat-the-odds kind of hero.
Look, I can’t tell you how many times people have met my mother and asked her, “Well, how on Earth did you ever raise kids like Michelle and Craig in a place like South Shore?” And my mom looks at these folks like they’re crazy, and she says, “Michelle and Craig are nothing special. There are millions of Craigs and Michelles out there. And I did the same thing that all those other parents did.” She says, “I loved them. I believed in them. And I didn’t take any nonsense from them.” And I’m here tonight because I want people across this country to know that story — the real story of the South Side. The story of that quiet majority of good folks — families like mine and young people like all of you who face real challenges but make good choices every single day. I’m here tonight because I want you all to know, graduates, that with your roots in this community and your education from this school, you have everything — you hear me, everything — you need to succeed.
I included that long transcript because most folks won’t watch the video. And I’m risking it to even expect them to read it, let alone this entire post. But the first lady’s words are important. The key line in her oration being, “I’m here tonight because I want people across this country to know that story — the real story of the South Side. The story of that quiet majority of good folks — families like mine and young people like all of you who face real challenges but make good choices every single day.”
There was no mention of “bros” or “hos” from that proud daughter of the South Side. Kirk would do well to remember that and never demean his constituents like that again.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj