An Asian American’s Perspective On Obama, That Morehouse Speech, and “Personal Responsibility”

We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. Growing up, I made a few myself. And I have to confess, sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. But one of the things you’ve learned over the last four years is that there’s no longer any room for excuses. I understand that there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: “excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.”

We’ve got no time for excuses — not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven’t. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that’s still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and overcame.

Those comments, made by President Obama at Morehouse, a historically black college, have been widely criticized and debated among black commentators. Many object to a president who has not done enough to address racial injustice making “personal responsibility” a centerpiece of his addresses to black Americans.

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates has been one of the more eloquent voices on this issues saying,

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.”

Others have argued that the president’s detractors fail to see the good he’s done for black communities in spite of powerful opposition. The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart said of detractors,

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. They seem to overlook the enforcement actions the administration has taken against the discriminatory practices of banks and mortgage lenders who preyed on the black community with higher fees and interest rates.

As a person of color, the fog of racism surrounding this president is obvious to me. While I believe that he has not done nearly enough to address racism and has done all together too much in the way of ignoring human rights, I also see that he doesn’t get some of the credit he deserves because his record is distorted, both by detractors and by those who unfairly hold him to a higher standard because of his race.

But, as an Asian American, I also see how comments that suggest that black people are especially irresponsible play out in other communities. Among Asian Americans, many of whom have internalized the lie that says that Asians have done well in the U.S. based solely on being exceptionally responsible, the effect can be especially powerful. Too many of us overlook the legacy of Jim Crow and slavery in the U.S. We don’t understand how different that experience is from that of Asian Americans, much less the way Asian Americans have benefited from the Black civil rights struggle. And we’re not alone in that. The irony of internalizing negative racial stereotypes amongst a community targeted by negative stereotypes only brings into stark relief a much wider spread and growing problem of anti-black racism that our president singling out blacks for lectures about personal responsibility only serves to feed.

We are still both separate and unequal by race. In 2012 the New York Times reported that 43 percent of Latinos and 38 percent of blacks attend schools where fewer than 10 percent of their classmates are white. And the poorer the students, the worse the segregation. Meanwhile, due in no small part to Roosevelt-era federal programs that excluded blacks as they invested in building the American middle-class, a persistent and worsening racial wealth gap between blacks and whites continues to plague black families. This presents an unfair and often insurmountable barrier to opportunity in a society in which the most powerful indicator of success is your parents’ financial status. Yet, too many of us, more all the time actually, believe that the problem of black poverty is black irresponsibility.

The president’s comments worsen this problem. Why? Because they aren’t just heard by or meant for black people. They’re also acts of political theater, meant to play in public. And to the broad public, our liberal black president singling out blacks for lectures on personal responsibility undermines the credibility of legitimate black complaints of persistent racism, even as it feeds the damaging stereotype that there’s a particular problem of irresponsibility in black communities. And, as I said before, those stereotypes are strongest amongst those of us who aren’t black, and that can cause people who should be allies to become enemies.

Avatar photo

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

9 replies on “An Asian American’s Perspective On Obama, That Morehouse Speech, and “Personal Responsibility””

Scott thank you again for your consistent, clear, insightful, and fact-based work.

The excerpted quotes below speak to the prescient impact of a troublesome (false) narrative. A narrative making the bar higher in efforts to guide resources to building of equalizing structure and platforms.

I think the recent choice by Dre and Lovine to support USC and not an HBCU hints at this impact.

Quoting: “I also see how comments that suggest that black people are especially irresponsible play out in other communities… … The president’s comments worsen this problem. Why? Because they aren’t just heard by or meant for black people. They’re also acts of political theater… … (the) president singling out blacks for lectures on personal responsibility undermines credibility… and, …cause(s) people who should be allies to become enemies.”

This post reminds of a lesson learned in your exchange with John Powell in Seattle; “leadership wraps evidence and events in words that become the narrative of change.”

Although I get the reasoning expressed by Johnathan, these well known examples represent half measures (imho) and too often the least structural half. I thank you again for the leadership in your work and I hope the message in Ta-Nehisi’s and your writings is increasingly heard.

‘keep it movin’ – rhesa j

Thanks, Rhesa. Your comment is truly appreciated and the sentiment is reciprocated. Thank you for the good work you do.

The problem with your post, Scot, is that you deny agency to black people. You seem to view black people as perpetual victims, which is a perspective that is not only destructive to the fabric of our multicultural society but is also dangerous for black people. When people believe themselves to be perpetual victims, they stop believing in themselves. They stop believing that they are in charge of their own destiny. They cease to live.

President Obama didn’t deny the reality of racism. In fact, he agreed that racism still continues to plague black America. What he said was that many young men in the black community continue to make bad choices. Is this not true? I know it’s definitely true among Asians. It’s the exact same message shared and expressed by Bill Cosby, Russell Simmons, Michael Nutter, Herman Cain, Ben Carson, Oprah Winfrey, Elijah Muhammed, and Malcolm X. So many strong black people have stood up against perpetual victimhood, and when they do, the ethnic media attacks them. What’s a successful black person to do?

I’m sorry, but I’m appalled by the way in which some have attacked the President on this one. I find it sad that so many ethnic minorities are looking for role models, but the minute a good role model steps up to offer advice, the ethnic media shoots him down. Let me close with a quote from Elijah Muhammed:

““The slavemaster is no longer hindering us, we’re hindering ourselves. The slavemaster has given you all he could give you. He gave you freedom. Now get something for yourself.””

It’s high time that the ethnic media started encouraging minorities to get something for themselves.

Oh, by the way, I’m bigWOWO from the blog Sorry for not introducing myself. But this topic absolutely gets under my skin. We need minorities to encourage minorities to get something for themselves, but too often our media writers instead focus on the Man. We desperately need to get out of that mindset.


I found this post interesting, as I’ve found many of yours. Since reading Being Black, Living in the Red by Dalton Conley last year, I’ve become particularly interested in the ways race and class interact, especially in the housing market.

The financial status of parents, as you write, is a key determinant of kids’ social outcomes. It’s actually much more important than race. And specifically, wealth — not income — appears to be the key. Racial discrimination in the housing market, first, and secondarily, in credit markets, seem to play important roles in perpetuating class divisions. Where you write, “due in no small part to Roosevelt-era federal programs that excluded blacks as they invested in building the American middle-class,” I wanted you say much more. I think our collective, progressive analysis of the mechanisms involved are too imprecise to allow effective action. Roosevelt-era federal programs played a role, I’ve no doubt. But active, race-based discrimination by realtors, neighbors, and loan officers may play a much larger role. Anyway, much more to explore on that topic, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.

Hi Alan,

Thanks for this comment. I totally agree that the wealth of one’s parents dictates one’s success more than any other factor, that having in part, I think, to do with one’s parent’s level of education which is more wealth than income related because wealth generally includes some form of inheritance. And, yes, home ownership is a huge factor in determining wealth, so New Deal era programs like the GI bill that provided home ownership assistance to returning military personnel after WWII but excluded many veterans of color along with red lining play a huge role both in the racial wealth gap and the income and unemployment, and educational achievement gaps, etc. New Deal programs also provided educational assistance to some, and extended workers rights to white workers but not to workers of color, especially black workers.

What dictates this is not class but race. Race is a class category that, like economic class, can be transcended, but not without facing tremendous obstacles, especially when one’s community is immersed in structural racism, which includes once coded and now socially perpetuated segregation and interpersonal racism. I think we need to think beyond race, but we also need to think beyond class. We live in a society organized as much by race as by class.

I envy your ability to say things the way you do. Thanks for this post, Scot. The solidarity is much appreciated.

Comments are closed.