[I tried to work in an only Nixon could go to China and Obama went to Morehouse quip but it didn't work out. Alas.]
More seriously, at the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates puts in (as usual) some great work on deconstructing the offensiveness at the heart of both Obama's speech at Morehouse and the First Lady's address at Bowie State.
Coates was particularly on point here:
This clearly is a message that only a particular president can offer. Perhaps not the "president of black America," but certainly a president who sees holding African Americans to a standard of individual responsibility as part of his job. This is not a role Barack Obama undertakes with other communities.
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..."
But I also think that 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.Taking on another angle, Tim Wise also offers up a great intervention regarding how black folks are worthy of public chastisement, but white folks, elites especially, are never held up to similar standards of personal responsibility:
Needless to say, Barack Obama will never tell white people at a traditionally white college or university to stop blaming affirmative action for every job we didn’t get, or every law school we didn’t get into, though we’ve been known to use both of these excuses on more than a few occasions.
He won’t tell white graduates at a traditionally white college or university to stop blaming Latino/a immigrants, for “taking our jobs,” which excuse we’ve also been known to float from time to time.
He would never tell graduates at a mostly white college to stop blaming immigrants, or so-called welfare for our supposedly high tax burdens, even though these remain popular, albeit incorrect, scapegoats for whatever taxes we pay.
He won’t tell white grads at white colleges to reject the entreaties of their right-wing radio hosts and talking heads, who keep blaming the Community Reinvestment Act and other fair housing laws for the mortgage and larger economic meltdown, even though such things were not to blame.
In short, to Barack Obama, it is only black people who need lectures about personal responsibility. Onlythey who make excuses when things don’t go their way. Only they who need to be reminded to do their best, because white graduates — like the majority of the grads at Ohio State to whom he also spoke recently — have got all that on lock. Their work ethics are unassailable. They would never make excuses for their failings. They would never blame a 35 percent tax rate, or capital gains taxes, for instance, for causing them to not invest their money, or create jobs. They would never blame gay marriage for threatening their own heterosexual marriage.
Because white people never make excuses for anything.
And so we get to remain un-lectured, un-stigmatized, un-bothered, and un-burdened with a reminder of our own need to be responsible. We get to remain, in short, privileged and presumed competent, presumed hard-working, presumed responsible, until proven otherwise, while even some of the best and brightest black men in America will start their careers having been weighted down with the realization that even the president, at some level, doesn't really trust them to do the right thing, unless reminded to do so first, and by him.There is much to unpack there.
Of course, such immunity is one of the material and psychic wages of whiteness. But, it is not just race. Because claims on virtue, thrift, and moral responsibility are intimately tied to race and class in America, white folks are a priori assumed to posses such virtues in this country until they severely deviate from them by a huge margin. By comparison black Americans, and to a lesser degree Latinos and Native Americans, are already assumed to be poor and thus morally defective, lacking in impulse control, and thus deserving of their fate.
To point. "White trash" is a statement about deviation from the norm of respectable Whiteness. "Ghetto" is taken to be synonymous with "blackness" and black folks' authenticity. This notion is reproduced by the culture industry and also internalized by too many young people of color, and others who judge them by such a low and twisted standard.
Obama is the national Scold-in-Chief for black America. African-Americans are not the audience for his rhetoric as from Clinton onward the Sister Souljah moment is obligatory for New Democrats and their public.
President Obama's fondness of chastising black people comes out of a long tradition of black respectability. However, that tough love approach was offered up by race men and race women who were proud of the race, and invested in the Black Freedom Struggle all the while calling for black self-improvement and success.
Obama is President of the United States of America. He rejected the mantle of "race man" long ago.
Remember, you cannot get upset at Obama for a lack of transparency on this issue. He told the black community exactly where he stood on "the race question" and social justice years ago with his statement that "I am president of the United States of America" and not black America.
Ironically, President Obama dons the robe and hem of Chief Executive of Negroes only when necessary to criticize African-Americans as only he, the country's first black president, is uniquely able to do.