May I rant about how fucking racist Barack and Michelle Obama’s commencement speeches were?

Barack Obama

From A Better World Is Probable:

Over the past several days President Barack and Michelle Obama delivered commencement speeches at two historically black universities.  At both they gave the same condescending lecture to Black students about dismissing racism and embracing personal responsibility.  For instance, here’s what President Obama’s had to say to Morehouse’s class of 2013:

“Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing…Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and they overcame them. And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too.”

And Michelle Obama’s speech at Bowie State wasn’t any better.  She told her audience that the problem with Black youth is that they are “sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV….fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.”

This is far from the first time Obama’s came down on a Black audience.  Rather, this is virtually his  only message to predominantly Black audiences.

During his re-election campaign, for instance, the solution he offered to Chicago’s recent spike in murders was for Black people to  “provide stronger role models than the gang-banger on the corner.”  Nevermind keeping Black kids schools open or providing young Black people with jobs.  Those are just the things their teachers recommended. And what the fuck do they know?

One would be hard pressed to imagine President Obama ever taking such a tone with predatory lenders or police officers who systematically discriminate against and terrorize Black people.

But, as Leola Johnson, a professor at Macalester College, pointed out in the Washington Post, the these speeches aren’t meant for the Black audience in the first place.  They’re meant for white people, especially liberals. “It’s the legacy of Daniel Patrick Moynihan,” she said, “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.”

Indeed, consistent with Johnson’s argument, NPR was gleeful with Obama’s paternalistic finger-wagging. The tone of condescension and self-satisfaction is enough to make you cringe.  “President Obama…delivered a rare, very personal commencement address,” they wrote.  “It was a short speech, but Obama did not shy away from the subjects of race and responsibility…here are two excerpts you should read.”

Time and again Obama and other politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, treat Black audiences like punching bags.  How often do we hear politicians or talking heads chastising Black viewers over not taking enough “personal responsibility.”  Whenever politicians have anything to say about race it’s usually an endless litany of stereotypes characterizing Black people as irresponsible or criminal.  The message is clear.  Racism, at least structural racism, is extinct.  If Black people in America face any crisis at all it’s their own fault.

Never do you hear any reference to the systemic crises facing Black people in America.  For everything you hear about Black youth, never do you hear the names of Alan Bluford, Ramarley Graham, Kimani Gray, Aiyana Jones, or any of the other countless Black teens shot dead by the police.  They never say anything about the range of inequality experienced by Black people in America.  By almost every standard of measurement imaginable, Black people are held at the bottom of American society.  In homelessness, unemployment, poverty, access to education, access to food, access to healthcare, and on.

To refer to this reality is not making “excuses” for Black people, as Barack Obama would have it.  And to suggest so is nothing less than outright racism.  By deflecting responsibility for racial inequality from the state and this society on to individuals, it is Obama who is making excuses for the racist system of oppression he oversees.

By employing such rhetorical tactics, Obama is paving the path for the further racial discrimination.  The criminalization of Black people, for instance, or the dismantling of public assistance programs relied upon by many poor Black people, is repeatedly justified by the kind of racial stereotypes referenced by Barack and Michelle Obama in their speeches.  Consider the NYPD’s outrageous stop-and-frisk program which has subjected 685,724 people in 2011 to random frisking, almost all of them Black or Latino.  The program is continuously defended by Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelley by deploying these kind of stereotypes.

The myth of the “welfare queen” was used to clear the way for virtually every form of social assistance, and really, for the stripping down of any kind of public program.  By emphasizing personal, rather than social responsibility, the state itself became less of an administrative body, and more of a collective disciplinarian.  Rather than electing politicians who decided how and when to use public resources, people began electing nagging parental units to tell us how awful we’ve gotten.

Indeed, Obama’s re-election campaign used these same arguments when he attacked Mitt Romney for supposedly creating programs that helped poor people get cars during his time as governor of Massachusetts.  As one author for Jacobin commented, it was as if Obama was channeling Reagan’s ghost.

It is for this reason precisely that so many of us on the Left argued against the pervasive “lesser evilism” of the election season.  Obama’s racist commentary offer a perfect example of how the “lesser evil” often serves as the “more effective evil.”  Coming from a liberal Black president, he’s less likely to be criticized when he does or says racist things–even though the outcome is the same, and the politics continues to shift toward the right. By harping on racist stereotypes, the President is providing a justification for even more economic, political, and social discrimination.

Advertisements