Last weekend First Lady Michelle Obama travelled to Tuskegee University to deliver remarks to the graduating class of 2015. Tuskegee’s mark in American history is significant—founder Booker T. Washington was born a slave, and the original Tuskegee campus was once the site of a 100-acre plantation. Washington would become the first black guest to dine at the White House when he accepted President Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation to dinner on October 16, 1901, at a time no one in America would have believed President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama would take up residence in the People’s House barely more than 100 years later.
Commencement addresses are typically of a joyous nature, and the First Lady did not disappoint as she started her remarks describing the remarkable achievements of the new graduates before her. This is where the tone and tenor of her remarks took a somewhat unexpected turn. Mrs. Obama rightly praised the “double duty” of the Tuskegee Airmen where she noted “[A duty] to their country and another to all the black folks who were counting on them to pave the way forward. So for those Airmen, the act of flying itself was a symbol of liberation for themselves and for all African Americans.” Here is where her remarks hit a bit of turbulence, which has reverberated on cable news and newspaper op-ed pages ever since.
After describing the historic path taken to become the first African-American First Family, Mrs. Obama took to task unnamed detractors who looked down on her and her husband. In prose at once jubilant and suddenly defiant, the First Lady noted: “The world won’t always see you in those caps and gowns…Instead they will make assumptions about who they think you are based on their limited notion of the world. And my husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be. We’ve both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives—the folks who crossed the street in fear of their safety; the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores; the people at formal events who assumed we were the ‘help’—and all those who questioned our intelligence, our honesty, even our love of this country.” Wow. Where to begin?
Who is the they the First Lady makes reference to? Presumably racist whites; but this sounds more like an indictment of our American society at large. What are the assumptions being foisted upon these new graduates of an all-black university—that Americans are bigoted and have a limited notion of blacks as being inherently inferior?
Worse, Mrs. Obama says that she and her husband have felt the sting of these slights for their “entire lives.” Does she feel insulted inside the 18 acres of the White House every day? Having served in the West Wing for four years, I can assure you that overt racism will never be tolerated in the White House today. Has she had a different experience?
Mrs. Obama is the product of two of the finest institutions of higher learning in the United States, having graduated from Princeton University and earned her law degree from Harvard Law School. Did people treat her like the help during her time in Cambridge or follow her through the stores in Harvard Square?
Having served as a Resident Fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics in 2011 I encountered no such bigotry—just respect and good-natured exchanges with my fellow faculty members and eager students. My point is that there is no such thing as the “black experience” in America—the First Lady’s remarks give the sense that such a monolithic experience exists.
This impression is further borne out by two recent articles in The Washington Post. The first, a blog by Emily Badger, is under the banner of “Michelle Obama on Being Black: ‘There Will Be Times When You Feel Like Folks Look Right Past You.’” I agree with the First Lady here, but is it exclusively due to racism? I’ve had people look right past me due to my politics, but I don’t accuse them of being racist.
Badger helpfully notes later in her piece that Mrs. Obama’s remarks “gave a thoughtful window into what it’s like to be a black American today.” So all blacks view the world from the prism of a window in which we all see contemporary American society? The comment is shocking for its insular and paternalistic view of blacks—do all whites see the world from the window of white America, Ms. Badger?
Finally, Richard Cohen penned a piece for the Post entitled “Michelle Obama Criticized for the Sin of Being Black,” in which I’m sure he thought he was being sympathetic to the First Lady but instead displays much of the usual liberal white guilt that is making race relations worse, not better. After attacking Rush Limbaugh—the left’s favorite bogey man—Cohen sniffs that this is hardly the first time Michelle Obama has come under attack from white critics who believe she has no right to be black.
Hardly. Mrs. Obama is an extremely intelligent woman who serves as a role model for many Americans and people around the globe. She is open to criticism, however, when she paints a negative and racist impression of the America she has been fortunate to live in and raise her family. Yes, racism still exists in America. However, it is not the country we have today that Mrs. Obama spoke of during her commencement remarks at Tuskegee. Instead, she sounded more like she was talking about the America Booker T. Washington encountered when he founded the school in 1881. I wish many who decry racism at the drop of the hat would be honest enough to admit the amazing strides we have made and continue to make as American citizens bound by our love for this great country.