Obama, Blacks and Personal Responsibility

His Morehouse graduation speech reignited the debate over his posture toward blacks.

President Obama receives an honorary degree at Morehouse University. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
President Obama receives an honorary degree at Morehouse University. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama addressed freshly minted African American graduates over the weekend, reopening a debate that has dogged him since he was a candidate. On such occasions, how much emphasis should he give to addressing the “personal responsibility” of African Americans? How much should he focus instead on the responsibility of the government he leads to address African Americans’ plight?

Underlying the question is the obvious fact that Obama is the nation’s first black president and African Americans are his most loyal voting bloc. What is Obama’s own responsibility?

By all accounts, the president was a hit Sunday at Morehouse College in Atlanta, as the first lady was the previous day at Bowie State University in Maryland, another historically black institution.

The first couple separately implored graduates to set examples for those whose achievements they have already surpassed. “Your generation is uniquely poised for success unlike any generation of African Americans that came before it,” Obama told the Morehouse crowd.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have work — because if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that too few of our brothers have the opportunities that you’ve had here at Morehouse. In troubled neighborhoods all across this country — many of them heavily African American — too few of our citizens have role models to guide them. Communities just a couple miles from my house in Chicago, communities just a couple miles from here — they’re places where jobs are still too scarce and wages are still too low; where schools are underfunded and violence is pervasive; where too many of our men spend their youth not behind a desk in a classroom, but hanging out on the streets or brooding behind a jail cell. . . .”

Many in the media immediately jumped on the “personal responsibility” angle. “Two Excerpts You Should Read From Obama’s Morehouse Speech,” read a headline over a piece by Eyder Peralta of NPR, pointing to sections on “personal responsibility” and “family.” The conservative Washington Times ran this headline: “Obama at Morehouse: Black men cannot use racism as a crutch.”

That was just the kind of emphasis that irked Ta-Nehisi Coates, recent winner of a National Magazine Award for a piece about race and the Obama presidency. He wrote in the Atlantic:

“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.’ “

Wayne Bennett, a lawyer who acts as a magistrate for the First Judicial District’s Domestic Relations Division, working with families in the Philadelphia court system, disagreed. In his Field Negro blog, he wrote, “Look, without getting too personal, I work in an area of law that unfortunately has to confront a lot of dysfunction when it comes to families, and I can say without question that not having a good father figure at home is a major cause of problems with families here in my city. I suspect that this is the case all over the country. Asking young African American graduates to go out into their communities and be good family men is exactly the type of message that the president should be sending.

“But Field, why didn’t he deliver a similar message to the graduates of Ohio State University? Why doesn’t he talk about being a responsible parent when he talks to white folks? Why does he only choose to lecture us?

“Because, as a black man, he has a stake in how we progress as a race,” Bennett wrote.

Trevor W. Coleman, a former Detroit Free Press editorial writer and gubernatorial speech writer, sided more with Coates. Coleman wrote on Facebook, “those kids are Morehouse graduates and if they weren’t aware of the internal challenges facing Black men when they started there, they most certainly are now. Does he always have to play in to that slanderous narrative that we as Black men suffer from some sort of moral deficit and are incapable of being nurturing parents lest we are shamed in to it?

“His commencement address would have been more helpful if he affirmed those young leaders and then challenged them to use their skills to become vigorous and relentless fighters against racism, classism, sexism, economic and political exploitation. The dirty little ‘secret’ of his very own presidency is that he is the ultimate example of how constrained Black achievement really can be, if it is not accompanied by a vigorous fight against structural and institutional racism. . . .”

Salim Muwakkil, longtime writer for the Chicago-based In These Times, argued on Facebook that the narrative that Obama chose was the only one the media would accept: “The patriarch-in-chief once again patronized his black audience. But condescension is the only public attitude Obama is allowed to express when making explicit racial connections. Were he, by chance, to speak of shared racial grievances with his black male audience or of the structural impediments he faces in a racist Congress, his presidential image would take a severe media battering. This media take-down would feed the (well-nourished conservative) narrative that the first black president is a feckless complainer who plays the race card to excuse his failures.”

Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African & African American Studies at Duke University, wrote that he saw “a lot of digital space being spent on issues that really don’t get us anywhere in terms of policy issues.” After all, hadn’t Obama already made these points in his Father’s Day speech of 2008, back when he was a first-time presidential candidate?

Jarrett L. Carter, founding editor of HBCUDigest.com, came at it from the perspective of historically black colleges. “Some will call the president’s speech good medicine for black America to cure the prevalent self-imposition of fear and failure in our culture,” Carter wrote on HuffPost BlackVoices. “Some will call it racial contempt and a lack of nuanced awareness or concern about the painful and lasting affects of slavery. But in any interpretation, the most glaring omission from his address was the need for education, and specifically historically black colleges and universities, to be at the center of any cultural reform for Black America. . . .”

Michael H. Cottman of BlackAmericaWeb.com was one of the Obama enthusiasts. “Obama’s address to 500 black male graduates was his most direct public speech about the experiences of black men during his second term in the White House and one of his most straight-forward lectures about race since he took office,” he wrote. Cottman called it “arguably one of the most significant speeches of Obama’s presidency.”

Bennett seconded the motion. “Mitt Romney, as America’s president, would not have spoken at Morehouse College (or any other HBCU), and Anne Romney would not have been caught dead speaking at Bowie State University in her capacity as First Lady. (Loved how Michelle Obama went there about black kids thinking other black kids are acting white if they are hitting their books.) So rather than rip the man for telling you Negroes what you need to hear, you need to take stock of yourselves and see why there is a need for him to say it in the first place. . . .”

James Fallows blog, the Atlantic: The Impossibility of Being Barack Obama

Keli Goff, the Root: Did Michelle Obama Send Jay-Z a Message?

Kevin Alexander Gray, Counterpunch: Vilifying Black Men to Win Favor with the Man: Why Does Barack Obama Hate My Family? (2008)

Jason Johnson, Politic365.com: Obama Gives Morehouse Commencement Missed by Too Many Students and He’s Responsible

Roland S. Martin, Creators Syndicate: Morehouse College Prez Angers Alumni While Protecting Obama (May 10)

Remarks by the First Lady at Bowie State University Commencement Ceremony

Tim Wise blog: Bullying Pulpit: Racism, Barack Obama and the Selective Call forPersonal Responsibility

Pinkston Sign-Off Recaps ’63 Appearance by Medgar Evers

Randall Pinkston, who is leaving CBS News after 33 years, signed off Sunday night with the story of an unprecedented appearance on WLBT-TV in Jackson, Miss., by civil rights leader Medgar Evers one day shy of 50 years ago, at a time when African Americans were not allowed on the air there. Evers would be assassinated a month later.

The appearance helped to pave the way for integration of the station’s newsroom and led to the Pinkston’s hiring. He was shown in the report anchoring WLBT’s 10 o’clock news.

Did Pinkston choose this bit of history as a fitting final piece?

“It was a serendipitous event,” Pinkston told Journal-isms by email. “About three months ago, I dropped by the office of Executive Producer Jennifer Siebens. She told me she was working on ideas for 50th Anniversary Civil Rights stories.

“We talked about the March on Washington and the assassination of Medgar Evers. I mentioned that a little known story about Evers was his effort to gain access to media.

“Jennifer said she had never heard about that. I added that I began my career at the station where Medgar made his speech — that Evers had blazed the trail for diversity. She immediately green lighted the story and told me and producer Phil Hirschkorn to make sure part of my story was in the report.

“At the time, I had forgotten that my retirement coincided with the anniversary of Evers’ speech. When I realized the convergence of the date, I was pleased — that I could reveal a little reported contribution of Medgar Evers and connect his sacrifice to the opportunity that was opened for me and many, many others.

“It’s the perfect closing of ‘this’ chapter of my career. On now, to the next thing…”

Pinkston expanded on Evers’ contribution last week as he accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York Association of Black Journalists. Read the script.

Panel on Diversifying City Magazines Draws Little Interest

As the recent uproar over the Philadelphia magazine cover story “Being White in Philly” demonstrated, regional and city magazines are usually geared toward white people. That’s one reason why Rebecca Burns, former editor of Atlanta magazine, secured a spot during the City and Regional Magazine Association’s annual conference to discuss diversity.

“One reason [for the discussion] is to see who you’re attracting,” and who needs to be represented, Burns told Journal-isms by telephone. She is now director of digital strategy for Emmis Publishing, Atlanta magazine’s parent company. “Otherwise you’re going to go the way of the Republican party” as it stood after the November election, demographically challenged.

It was a “fascinating” discussion, Burns said. Participating were Hank Klibanoff, Pulitzer Prize-winning co-author of “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation,” former managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and director of the journalism program at Emory University, and William Jelani Cobb, associate professor of history and director of the Institute of African American Studies at the University of Connecticut.

Unfortunately, Burns said, the forum attracted only about 20 people, while sessions about other topics drew 90 to 100.

Those who did show up “said they were inspired.” Among the bright moments, she said, was testimony from the publisher of the city magazine of Madison, Wis., about the conscious effort that magazine made to further diversity. “It’s a leadership issue,” Burns said. “It’s the right thing to do, but also the smart thing.”

Without diversity, Cobb said, the full story of the community isn’t being told, and readers lose. He tweeted on his way to the session, “I’m about to do a panel on diversity in magazine publishing. 88 people here, I’m the only black person. Sigh,” and, “It’s Malcolm X’s birthday and I’m off to do a panel on the absence of black writers in magazine writing. How not-ironic.”

Cobb told Journal-isms by email that “even in academia, where the attainment of a PhD is a pretty high barrier to entry, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a gathering that was that white.

“In a nutshell, I said that people had to be intentional, that in the era of blogs it’s never been easier to find black voices, that they shouldn’t simply seek out one black voice since there’s a diversity of opinion among us and they shouldn’t necessarily get the black writer whose views on race make them feel most comfortable. Also, that black writers don’t necessarily want to write only about black issues. 

“Also, there’s really no easy way to understand why police forces can diversify and magazines really can’t. . . . I also made some common sense suggestions about diversifying where people advertise for interns and gave the example of David Carr during his time at Washington City Paper doing a lot to change that paper’s staff by doing this. Hank Klibinoff made a lot of good points about editors having the capacity to change who their reporters talk to or who they write about simply by asking for something different.”

Klibanoff said by email that he made these points: “Diversity is an ethical issue. I discussed how I teach diversity each semester in my journalism ethics course at Emory University and that it is part of the quid pro quo that comes with the privilege of the First Amendment. It is also important to any publication that wants to stay relevant with its ever-changing potential readership. It’s good business.

“If diversity of coverage, of staff/contributors, in distribution, marketing and advertising can be achieved naturally by example and by leadership, that’s wonderful. If it cannot, it should be built into all the standard corporate incentives — the MBO [management by objective] and other salary and bonus packages, for example.

“I spoke a lot about intentionality — how an editor should have no qualms about being very intentional in pursuit of diversity. That means building Rolodexes/address book that are purposefully diverse. I cited the story we tell in The Race Beat about how, when the Montgomery bus boycott began and the Montgomery Improvement Association was getting started, no one from the Montgomery Advertiser had the names of black ministers in their address books. Reporters found themselves at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church quoting black ministers without their names — including Martin Luther King Jr. (As the story goes, he was actually misquoted in a way that made him sound anarchistic, but the quote was attributed to an unnamed black minister. Only later when a tape of his speech became public was it clear it was King speaking and he was misquoted).

“But the point is to have a diverse set of resources, lunch mates, invitees to events sponsored by your publication, etc. I suggested steering away from usual suspects as ‘experts’ and finding a fresh and diverse set of wise people to seek comment from, to feature, to celebrate. I mentioned that when I was at The Boston Globe, we had the FEAF book, a binder stuffed for many years with after 5 p.m. phone numbers for everyone under the sun. FEAF stood for Find ‘Em After Five. Every newsroom needs a similar book for finding a diverse set of explainers/commenters/observers on every issue that might emerge.”