(The Root) — As I suspect is the case with many African-American voters who hoped against hope that Barack Obama's presidency would bring about a sea change in the condition of our people, I've been disappointed with what he has been able to accomplish.
I give him full credit for the considerable achievements of his first term, such as Obamacare, that are often underestimated by his critics. But I've been frustrated and mystified by Obama's overly conciliatory approach to his archenemies in the Republican right wing, whose highest — indeed, only — priority is to thwart his proposals, even when that puts the nation's welfare at risk. Despite his relatively high approval ratings from voters, Obama has yet to discover an effective strategy for coping with his diehard conservative opponents.
That's a problem that can only get worse because of the swirl of miniscandals, real and invented, that have now erupted in Washington, threatening to entangle Obama's second term in a morass of hyperpartisan dysfunctionality. If it was difficult for Obama to get anything remotely transformational through the GOP-controlled Congress in his first term, it will be next to impossible now. If the president ever had a black agenda in mind, he'll never be able to enact it. I wish he could get more done, but given what he's up against, I don't expect much more in the way of achievement.
But for all my problems with his performance in office, Obama has never let me down as an orator — especially on those occasions like the aftermath of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, when he seeks to bind up our wounds and pull us together as a nation.
So I've been a bit surprised, to say the least, by the negative spin that some black commentators have put on the president's Morehouse College address, suggesting that it opens a window into a dark corner of his political soul. It seems like a lot of energy is being spent on a rather innocuous topic.
The criticism started when blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic posted a widely circulated critique depicting the speech as hypocritical and condescending, an example of "targeted scorn" directed at Obama's most loyal supporters. As Coates wrote:
Some day historians will pore over his many speeches to black audiences. They will see a president who sought to hold black people accountable for their communities, but was disdainful of those who looked at him and sought the same. They will match his rhetoric of individual responsibility, with the aggression the administration showed to bail out the banks, and the timidity they showed in addressing a foreclosure crisis which devastated black America (again.) They will weigh the rhetoric against an administration whose efforts against housing segregation have been run of the mill. And they will match the talk of the importance of black fathers with the paradox of a president who smoked marijuana in his youth but continued a drug-war which daily wrecks the lives of black men and their families. In all of this, those historians will see a discomfiting pattern of convenient race-talk.
That harsh critique — joined by a number of other Obama bashers — provoked an equally passionate rejoinder from the Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart, who wrote off Coates and his fellow black Obama critics as unrealistic and misinformed. The naysayers, Capehart wrote,
… seem unaware of what the Obama administration has actually done. They discount the increases in education funding, particularly for historically black colleges and universities. They completely ignore the nearly 7 million African Americans who will get health care thanks to Obamacare. They seem to brush off the Fair Sentencing Act the president signed in 2010 that reduced the glaring disparity in punishment for those charged with crack offenses and those with powder cocaine offenses … To expect the president to introduce an explicit and definable "black agenda" in a Congress filled with people who believe him to be a socialist destroying the country while illegitimately occupying the Oval Office is seriously naive.
Once again we have an example of two sets of people looking at one set of facts and drawing diametrically opposed conclusions. It reminds me of the bifurcated, highly partisan views of the unfolding brouhahas emerging in Washington over the Internal Revenue Service, the investigations of leaks to reporters and the tragic mishandling of the murders of U.S. diplomats.
To the president's detractors in the GOP, these events make a strong case for Obama's impeachment. To his defenders, they amount, at worst, to a series of embarrassing problems that his foes are exaggerating for political gain. There seems to be no middle ground.
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.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.