Obama at Morehouse: Try Another Listen

You might find that attacks on his commencement speech -- a hit among graduates -- missed the mark.

President Barack Obama at Morehouse College (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)

This is, of course, nothing new. It’s been evident since Obama’s first election that America was dividing into two different worlds, broadly defined by demographics. He was swept into office by a relatively youthful, ethnically diverse coalition in which huge majorities of blacks and Hispanics were allied with a minority of whites. His opponents consisted mainly of older whites unsettled by the emergence of a new America. These were people, as I wrote some years ago, who “went to sleep in their America on Election Day 2008 and woke up in another country, as though they had been swept up in a spaceship and transported to an alien world.”

But now, if we can judge by the disagreement between highbrows such as Coates and Capehart, a similar disjunction may be starting to develop in some rarefied segments of black America. Obama’s conservative white critics twist his every word and action into further proof that he is a socialist, crypto-Muslim bent on destroying the country. In much the same way, his emerging cadre of black, usually leftish, critics interpret his every move as evidence that he is a pro-establishment cynic using his speeches to black folks to send coded “Sister Souljah” speech messages to white folks. They’re determined to find fault with Obama even when he does something right — and in this case at least, they are as out of touch as the president’s right-wing opponents.

That’s the conclusion I reached after rereading Obama’s Morehouse remarks in light of the strong critiques from Coates and Kai Wright, my esteemed former colleague at The Root. I didn’t hear the “convenient race talk” that Coates detected or the browbeating that troubled Wright. I didn’t even hear the voice of a politician.

I heard the voice of my father.

It could have been my dad lecturing me across the dinner table when Obama declared, “You have to work twice as hard as anyone else if you want to get by.”

And again, when he admonished the graduates to “be a good role model, set a good example for that young brother coming up. If you know somebody who’s not on point, go back and bring that brother along. Those who’ve been left behind, who haven’t had the same opportunities we have — they need to hear from you.”

And yet again, when he urged them to “recognize the burdens you carry with you, but to resist the temptation to use them as excuses. To transform the way we think about manhood, and set higher standards for ourselves and for others. To be successful, but also to understand that each of us has responsibilities not just to ourselves, but to one another and to future generations. Men who refuse to be afraid. Men who refuse to be afraid.”

Those are the messages that my father, a medical-school professor at Howard University who died 25 years ago, pounded into my head as I was growing up, and that I’ve tried to convey to my own children.   

And they’re pretty much the same sentiments I’ve heard expressed in every HBCU commencement address I’ve ever attended. To have them delivered by the first black president brings joy and inspiration to my heart — as it seems to have done to the graduates, who, perhaps lacking the critics’ exquisite sensitivity to condescension, stomped, cheered and whooped in response to the speech. To accuse the president of talking down to the throng is to miss the occasion. What he said was entirely appropriate — and entirely familiar.

To be sure, there have been times when I’ve had problems with the way Obama speaks to our people. I don’t like the preacherly cadences he often adopts before black audiences, and I thought he was way out of line when he told the Congressional Black Caucus in 2011 to “take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes” and stop grumbling and crying. And as I said at the beginning of this piece, he has plenty of shortcomings as a political leader.

But it seems to me that in the case of the president’s Morehouse speech, his critics have overreached. They’ve twisted the meaning of his remarks, transmuting their understandable impatience with Obama’s inability to push a progressive agenda into a questionable attack on his character and racial bona fides.

It’s almost as though we’ve reverted to the days before Obama was elected, when some of us asked if he was black enough to command our support. Now, based largely on the speech he delivered at Morehouse, some of us are getting all worked up over the idea that he’s a hypocrite who talks tough to blacks and lets whites off the hook — which would make him who? Clarence Thomas? 

I don’t think so. Taking Obama to task for sounding like my dad is way, way over the top.

Jack White, a former columnist for Time magazine, is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va., and a contributing editor at The Root.