The Obamas' Tough Talk to Black Grads

Kai Wright gives his take at Colorlines on the controversial angle of last weekend's high-profile commencement addresses. 

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Members of the graduating Class of 2013 at Morehouse College (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)

Kai Wright gives his take on Colorlines on the controversial angle of last weekend's high-profile commencement addresses.

Graduation season is upon us, and with it the time-honored ritual of big, important graduation speeches. This weekend, Barack and Michelle Obama each gave theirs at historically black colleges -- the president spoke at Morehouse, the first lady at Bowie State. This is a fabulous thing on its face. And both talked explicitly about race and opportunity.

The problem is that both also continued a pattern we have too often been forced to examine -- using the world's largest bully pulpit to browbeat black people for the personal failings that the Obamas seem to believe are our largest challenge.

In both speeches, the Obamas veered into finger-wagging lectures about personal responsibility's triumph over structural inequity. The president issued now-familiar urgings for black people to stop making “excuses”—a plainly strange demand to give a room full of young people who are celebrating a big, hard achievement. The first lady told us even our dreams are insufficient, that black kids must fantasize about being successful professionals rather than celebrities. You'll not find similar themes in their speeches to non-black audiences.

This is familiar stuff, of course. From Booker T. Washington through to Bill Cosby, there's always been a deeply conservative strain of black politics that embraces the American ideal that we get only what we earn. That we dwell on racism and inequity at our own peril, because America helps those who help themselves. That we bring the white man's scorn down upon ourselves with our sloth. Pull up your pants and turn off that darn rap music! You look like a hoodlum! That kind of thing.

Read Kai Wright's entire piece at Colorlines.

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