How the Obama Administration Talks to Black America

"Convenient race-talk" from a president who ought to know better
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The first lady went to Bowie State and addressed the graduating class. Her speech was a mix of black history and a salute to the graduates. There was also this:

But today, more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, more than 50 years after the end of "separate but equal," when it comes to getting an education, too many of our young people just can't be bothered. Today, instead of walking miles every day to school, they're sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they're fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.

And then this:

If the school in your neighborhood isn't any good, don't just accept it. Get in there, fix it. Talk to the parents. Talk to the teachers. Get business and community leaders involved as well, because we all have a stake in building schools worthy of our children's promise. 

... And as my husband has said often, please stand up and reject the slander that says a black child with a book is trying to act white. Reject that.

There's a lot wrong here.

At the most basic level, there's nothing any more wrong with aspiring to be a rapper than there is with aspiring to be a painter, or an actor, or a sculptor. Hip-hop has produced some of the most penetrating art of our time, and inspired much more. My path to this space began with me aspiring to be a rapper. Hip-hop taught me to love literature. I am not alone. Perhaps you should not aspire to be a rapper because it generally does not provide a stable income. By that standard you should not aspire to be a writer, either.

At a higher level, there is the time-honored pattern of looking at the rather normal behaviors of black children and pathologizing them. My son wants to play for Bayern Munich. Failing that, he has assured me he will be Kendrick Lamar. When I was kid I wanted to be Tony Dorsett—or Rakim, whichever came first. Perhaps there is some corner of the world where white kids desire to be Timothy Geithner instead of Tom Brady. But I doubt it. What is specific to black kids is that their dreams often don't extend past entertainment and athletics. That is a direct result of the kind of limited cultural exposure you find in impoverished, segregated neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods are the direct result of American policy.

Enacting and enforcing policy is the job of the Obama White House. When asked about policy for African Americans, the president has said, "I'm not the president of black America. I'm the president of all America." An examination of the Obama administration's policy record toward black people clearly bears this out. An examination of the Obama administration's rhetoric, as directed at black people, tells us something different.

Yesterday, the president addressed Morehouse College's graduating class, and said this:

We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. Growing up, I made a few myself. And I have to confess, sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. But one of the things you've learned over the last four years is that there's no longer any room for excuses. I understand that there's a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: "Excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness."

We've got no time for excuses—not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven't. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that's still out there. It's just that in today's hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven't earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured—and overcame.

This clearly is a message that only a particular president can offer. Perhaps not the "president of black America," but certainly a president who sees holding African Americans to a standard of individual responsibility as part of his job. This is not a role Barack Obama undertakes with other communities.

Taking the full measure of the Obama presidency thus far, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people—and particularly black youth—and another way of addressing everyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the president telling the women of Barnard that "there's no longer room for any excuses"—as though they were in the business of making them. Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of "all America," but he also is singularly the scold of "black America." 

It's worth revisiting the president's comments over the past year in reference to gun violence. Visiting his grieving adopted hometown of Chicago, in the wake of the murder of Hadiya Pendleton, the president said this:

For a lot of young boys and young men in particular, they don't see an example of fathers or grandfathers, uncles, who are in a position to support families and be held up in respect. And so that means that this is not just a gun issue; it's also an issue of the kinds of communities that we're building. When a child opens fire on another child, there is a hole in that child's heart that government can't fill. Only community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole.

Two months earlier Obama visited Newtown. The killer, Adam Lanza, was estranged from his father and reportedly devastated by his parents' divorce. But Obama did not speak to Newtown about the kind of community they were building, or speculate on the hole in Adam Lanza's heart.

When Barack Obama says that he is "the president of all America," he is exactly right. When he visits black communities, he visits as the American president, bearing with him all our history, all our good works, and all our sins. Among recent sins, the creation of the ghettos of Chicago—accomplished by 20th-century American social policy—ranks relatively high. Leaving aside the vague connection between fatherhood and the murder of Hadiya Pendleton. Certainly the South Side could use more responsible fathers. Why aren't there more? Do those communities simply lack men of ambition or will? Are the men there genetically inferior?

No president has ever been better read on the intersection of racism and American history than our current one. I strongly suspect that he would point to policy. As the president of "all America," Barack Obama inherited that policy. I would not suggest that it is in his power to singlehandedly repair history. But I would say that, in his role as American president, it is wrong for him to handwave at history, to speak as though the government he represents is somehow only partly to blame. Moreover, I would say that to tout your ties to your community when it is convenient, and downplay them when it isn't, runs counter to any notion of individual responsibility.

I think the stature of the Obama family—the most visible black family in American history—is a great blow in the war against racism. I am filled with pride whenever I see them: There is simply no other way to say that. I think Barack Obama, specifically, is a remarkable human being—wise, self-aware, genuinely curious and patient. It takes a man of particular vision to know, as Obama did, that the country really was ready to send an African American to the White House.

But I also think that some day historians will pore over his many speeches to black audiences. They will see a president who sought to hold black people accountable for their communities, but was disdainful of those who looked at him and sought the same. They will match his rhetoric of individual responsibility with the aggression the administration showed to bail out the banks and the timidity it showed in addressing a foreclosure crisis, which devastated black America (again). They will weigh the rhetoric against an administration whose efforts against housing segregation have been run of the millAnd they will match the talk of the importance of black fathers with the paradox of a president who smoked marijuana in his youth but continued a drug war which daily wrecks the lives of black men and their families. In all of this, those historians will see a discomfiting pattern of convenient race-talk.

I think the president owes black people more than this. In the 2012 election, the black community voted at a higher rate than any other ethnic community in the country. Their votes went almost entirely to Barack Obama. They did this despite a concerted effort to keep them from voting, and they deserve more than a sermon. Perhaps they cannot practically receive targeted policy. But surely they have earned something more than targeted scorn.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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