Over the weekend, the Obamas—both Barack and Michelle—gave commencement speeches to historically black colleges and universities. At Bowie State University in Maryland, the First Lady mixed praise and encouragement with the kind of moral scolding that is familiar to anyone who has spent time with a certain generation of African Americans:
But today, more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, more than 50 years after the end of “separate but equal,” when it comes to getting an education, too many of our young people just can’t be bothered. Today, instead of walking miles every day to school, they’re sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper. […]
And as my husband has said often, please stand up and reject the slander that says a black child with a book is trying to act white. Reject that.
The perennial problem with this kind of rhetoric is that it assumes a world where white, Latino and Asian kids aren’t also fantasizing about being an actor, or a model, or a football player, or a famous musician. This is what modern American teenagers do. But, as with so many things in American life, when black people engage in the same behavior as their non-black peers, it becomes a problem or pathology.
Of course, you could argue that there are real problems of achievement among African American students, and you’d be correct. On a whole host of measures, they underperform the national average. But it’s not as if those students aren’t receiving a message of community uplift—they hear the same rhetoric from the adults and elders in their lives as well.
It’s easy to blame individual effort—or the lack thereof—for personal deficiency. What’s harder is to look at the full history of a community, and try to understand particular outcomes. There’s no question that individual black people and black families have acted irresponsibly. But that irresponsibility happens against a backdrop of policies—stretching back to the late 19th century—designed to keep blacks from advancing up the economic and social ladder. That too many black students live in poor neighborhoods, attend segregated schools, and don’t have much access to the outside world has nothing to do with their effort or their priorities.
Michelle Obama is a native of Chicago. I have no doubt she knows this history. Ignoring it, and focusing on the daydreams of teenagers as the real problem, is a considered choice, and a bad one at that.
As for President Obama’s commencement speech to graduates at Morehouse College in Georgia, you should read Ta-Nehisi’s take on the many problems with it.