Bring on More Black Blame, Obama

(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 commencement address at Morehouse College, 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.


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.

Here's the public debate to which we're normally treated when a racial statement with problematic undertones (or overtones) hits the news: "Paula Deen wants a slavery-themed event. Some say that's racist. Some say it's not. Some say to forgive her. How 'bout that n-word? Bad or not so bad?"


When someone from whom we don't expect much is at the center of a debate, we cover biases and blame, boycotts and black friends. Maybe we unceremoniously place another checkmark in the "Yes, racism still exists" column, in case anyone is keeping score. Because the nature of the wrong is so obvious, no one feels moved to do the work of explaining why.

But when President Obama — who, we assume, has good intentions and an informed perspective, as well as a deep understanding of the black experience in America (not to mention the attention of the nation) — falls short, it's a different story. As Politics 365's Lauren Burke put it in her reaction to the speech, "That's the exact same language clowns like Bill O'Reilly use to keep the welfare-queen theme of their southern strategy alive. But I don't care what O'Reilly is doing, I'm sitting here trying to figure out what President Obama is doing."


When we hear something so unsettling from the leader of the free world, there's no room for dismissiveness and no room for mocking. In the case of the March on Washington speech in particular, the response was immediate, emphatic and detailed:

* Burke pointed out in her piece, "It's hard to imagine a similar paragraph directed at any other group of Americans in tone or substance — let alone one hit by 400 years of injustice."


* The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, who called the version of President Obama revealed through the events "heartbreaking," explained in great detail why he saw the remarks as "using a tank to bravely plow through an army of strawmen."

* At the Daily Beast, Jamelle Bouie wrote a firm "No, Obama. Frustration with discrimination and brutality set off those riots, not some cultural problem. And both linger."


* The New Yorker's Jelani Cobb highlighted the way the president's "tendency to chide black America in public appears all the more cynical when compared with his refusal to point to his own responsibilities to that community as Commander-in-Chief."

* Cobb and historian Imani Perry talked to The Root in detail about the insidious historical inaccuracies embodied by and promoted by the remarks.


* An analysis of whether Obama singles out African Americans for criticism also got a national television audience on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry show.

And I can guarantee that no one was planning to talk publicly about these things until Obama went there — again. No one was going to dig into these widely and lazily held assumptions about black blame. If the highest-profile American speech hadn't put those ideas on the table for discussion, they would have remained dormant and unchallenged in the psyches of countless Americans.


But thanks to the speech, why "progress stalled" after the civil rights movement was placed solidly on the table for discussion. It was debated earnestly on the public record in a way that just doesn't happen when we dismiss the offending speaker as a dead-wrong racist jerk. There's a greater sense of urgency, more detail, more care and, I would argue, more progress.

Maybe, when it comes to race in America, President Obama's role isn't going to be that of the nation's professor after all. Instead of teaching, it's looking more and more as if his role might be to force us to teach ourselves. When that happens and a chorus of voices gives him his tough love right back — plus tough analysis, tough context and tough history — I think we all win.


Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer and White House correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.