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.