“I’m a black man…” “Obama Uses Commencement Address to Recall Jim Crow, Racism of 40s, 50s…” “As an African American you have to work twice as hard…” Those were the three headlines on the Drudge Report this morning about President Obama’s commencement speech yesterday at historically black Morehouse College. (Hat tip to my Beast colleague David Frum whose tweet alerted me to them.)
The implication was clear: far from the gaze of white America, Obama had exposed himself as the militant, separatist, blame-whitey black nationalist conservatives have long thought him to be. Breitbart’s Matthew Boyle made the point explicit, tweeting: “Sorry to break it to you Mr. President, but your race is IRRELEVANT to all the problems and scandals facing the country right now.”
It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. In fact, Obama never used the phrase “I’m a black man.” What he did say was that “there are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves.” He went on to declare that “we know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. And I have to say, growing up, I made quite a few myself. Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing. But one of the things that all of you have learned over the last four years is that there’s no longer any room for excuses … Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you’ve suffered some discrimination.”
After that he extolled the importance of fatherhood, telling the graduates to “be the best husband to your wife, or your boyfriend, or your partner. Be the best father you can be to your children. Because nothing is more important … If you have had role models, fathers, brothers like that—thank them today. And if you haven’t, commit yourself to being that man to somebody else.”
In other words, Obama gave exactly the kind of tough-love, individual-responsibility speech that conservatives claim African-American liberals don’t give. The students at Morehouse responded with thunderous applause. Drudge and Boyle responded by calling Obama a whiny race-baiter. Makes you wonder whether maybe, just maybe, they’re less interested in the black poor than in using their plight to demonize black political leaders.
In fact, Obama’s Morehouse speech was one of the most extraordinary of his presidency. Although he stressed individual responsibility in the black community, his speech was the opposite of separatist. He told the graduates that because “many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider” they have a special responsibility to defend the rights of women, Muslims, Hispanics, and gays and lesbians. Contrast that with congressional Republican efforts to get African-Americans to blame Hispanic immigrants for their high unemployment rates. Or the GOP’s bid to lure African-American support by opposing gay marriage.
Obama’s Morehouse speech reminded me of the closing lines of his March 18, 2008, speech on race in the midst of the Jeremiah Wright crisis. Back then he mentioned a young white campaign volunteer from South Carolina named Ashley Baia, whose family went bankrupt from health-care costs when she was 9 and who to relieve her mother’s burden said that she’d be happy just eating “mustard and relish sandwiches.” Then Obama talked about an elderly black man who when asked why he was volunteering on the campaign said, “I am here because of Ashley.”
The message, in 2008 and again this weekend, was about mutual responsibility: not merely the responsibility of white Americans to combat the ongoing plague of racism, not merely the responsibility of African-Americans to care for their own families and communities, but true mutual responsibility in a country in which everyone—black, white, gay, lesbian, straight, Hispanic, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, male, female, whatever—can either oppose dignity and freedom for people who are not like them or see someone else’s thirst for equal citizenship as the moral equivalent of their own.
“In the final analysis,” declared Obama, “the weakness of Black Power is its failure to see that the black man needs the white man and the white man needs the black man. However much we may try to romanticize the slogan, there is no separate black path to power and fulfillment that does not intersect white paths, and there is no separate white path to power and fulfillment, short of social disaster, that does not share that power with black aspirations for freedom and human dignity. We are bound together in a single garment of destiny.”
Actually, that wasn’t Obama. It was the man he channeled yesterday at Morehouse: Martin Luther King Jr. Had Drudge and Boyle been around then, they’d have slandered him too.