(The Root) — Last week, in his remarks commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, President Obama did what many would argue has become a signature move in his speeches to black audiences: In the midst of a professorial history recap featuring paragraphs of his characteristic soaring rhetoric, he slipped in several hundred words about cultural pathology.
Specifically, he primarily blamed African Americans for the way “progress stalled” after the civil rights activism that was being celebrated. “The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior,” he said. He chastised those who he said acted “as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.”
Some called it “tough love.” Not surprisingly, people like conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly ate it up.
But from the point of view of plenty of black observers — people whose full-time professional focus is on race, politics and history — the commentary amounted to unhelpful and ahistorical victim blaming: inappropriate at best and a cynical version of Bill Cosby-level armchair sociology at worst. And they weren’t alone. Mother Jones’ Lauren Williams reported on the immediate post-speech reactions of listeners on Twitter, who were, to put it mildly, ticked off.
It’s worth noting that we’ve been here before. The response to this chunk of the president’s speech was not unlike the reception to his , in which he made the perplexing choice to lecture men graduating from a top HBCU about making excuses. (Is it that any remarks to African Americans, no matter how successful they may be, demand a personal-responsibility theme?) Even the first lady has followed this pattern, conjuring an unfounded myth at Bowie State’s graduation when she referred to “the slander that says a black child with a book is trying to act white,” and lamenting that “too many of our young people” aim to be “a baller or a rapper.”
But guess what? As the dust settles around the latest iteration of this now pretty predictable commentary, I’m almost looking forward to when the president does it again.
To be clear, it’s not because I agree with him. Not at all. In fact, as I listened last week from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I was full of dread at the idea of hearing a distorted and painfully oversimplified message.
No mention of how black people need to parent and dress better *holds breath till end of speech*
— Jenée (@jdesmondharris) August 28, 2013
After all, I’m one of those people who exist in a constant state of frustration about the shallow nature of our nation’s discourse around race and the African-American experience in particular. It’s frustrating when racism is oversimplified and individualized and when, despite all of the structural issues and all the insight that’s available, we still hear the same broken-record focus on sagging pants, violent stereotypes and bad fathers, along with all their “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” rhetorical relatives.
It’s all the more distressing when these ideas are perpetuated by a president — the first black president — who, I would argue, has demonstrated that he has plenty of capacity to offer a little more sophistication and nuance.
But you know what? I’ve decided that I’m not going to hold my breath the same way the next time he gives a speech to a black audience. Here’s why: These types of tone-deaf (and, some would argue, hypocritical) remarks — the ones that can make a cheering crowd go kind of uncomfortably silent — may be jarring and frustrating, but they also provide the basis for a uniquely rich analysis of race and racism.