Maybe it was that we had just come through a humiliating week of watching a parade of white, male senators talk down to a highly accomplished Latina federal appellate court judge and nominee to the United States Supreme Court, but I wasn’t feeling President Obama’s “tough love” message to the NAACP national convention.
Obama delivered what I fear has now become his “black speech”—you know, the one about personal responsibility. (Disturbingly, with a bit of tinkering it sounded similar to aspects of the speech the president delivered to Africans on his recent trip to Ghana.) In the climax of the convention speech, President Obama, using a preacher’s cadence, offered familiar exhortations, one to black students and parents to take a “no excuses” attitude toward academic achievement and another to black people as a whole to refrain from using race as an explanation for our condition. The government can’t solve all our problems, he reminded us.
Good advice, to be sure, but this year Obama’s now-familiar personal responsibility black speech struck a discordant note. I certainly understand and appreciate his candor about the importance of black people stepping up to save our children and our communities. It can’t be said enough. But it can be said enough by the nation’s president. Preachers, community leaders, motivational speakers and even Bill Cosby already deliver this message. This year Obama came to the NAACP convention not just as a political candidate or a community organizer. He came as the president of the United States, and, perhaps more significantly, the first African-American president of the United States, arguably the most powerful man in the world. And he came to address the 100-year celebration of the oldest and most venerable civil rights organization in the country. Indeed, the most moving part of Obama’s speech was the segment in which he acknowledged the great debt we all owe the NAACP. He explicitly and directly thanked the NAACP for making the successes of his extraordinary life possible.
But in the end, the “personal responsibility” part of the speech was really the takeaway message. It couldn’t be a surprise to President Obama that his “no excuses” comments (a phrase that eerily echoes conservative commentator Bill Bennett’s election-night summation of the significance of Obama’s victory for the black community) would be gobbled up by the media. And the president also is well aware that most black people know that government is not the solution to all our problems. Those of us who are active churchgoers hear that on Sunday morning. Community leaders know it. Parents know. Certainly the solidly middle-class attendees at the NAACP convention know.
But even President Obama would agree that the government can do some things to alleviate the condition of black people who are suffering deeply from the overwhelming number of foreclosures ravaging middle-class communities; from unemployment rates that are twice as high as that of whites; from hate crimes that continue to victimize innocent blacks more than any other group in the U.S.; from education policies that undermine our schools; from employment discrimination; from the lack of affordable housing; from historical and still-unremedied government practices that discriminated against black farmers; from disparate criminal justice policies.
As the leader of the federal government, President Obama has the power to affect these policies. It would have been more gratifying if he had used the opportunity of the NAACP speech to highlight the initiatives the federal government is undertaking to do its part to promote racial and economic equity. Simply identifying, as the president did, the problem of the disproportionate incarceration of black men is not the same as speaking directly to federal law enforcement, criminal justice and sentencing policies that contribute to that stark reality.
It was only last year, as a candidate, that Barack Obama came to speak at the NAACP convention weeks after the Rev. Jesse Jackson was caught on an “open mic” making intemperate remarks in which he accused Obama of using a Father’s Day speech to “talk down to black people.” Obama used his 2008 speech at the NAACP convention to tell black Americans that he would not stop talking about personal responsibility, about our obligation to our families and our communities. He received huge and well-deserved applause for his refusal to back down on speaking honestly with us.
But this year we had the right to expect much more.
Perhaps this speech signals that it’s time for African-American advocacy groups and organizations to make the first move in renegotiating our relationship with the president. Six months into the Obama presidency, African Americans must move from a kind of dreamy complacence at the momentous election of the first black president and begin to press for real and substantive federal policies and executive action that can better the material conditions in the lives of African Americans. These are demands we would make of any president. We should respect this president enough to make the same demands of him. Then perhaps the next time President Obama comes to address the NAACP convention, he can present a more balanced discussion of responsibility—both personal and presidential.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a regular contributor to The Root.