Patronizing Paternalism, White Supremacy and The Obamas’ Commencement Addresses at HBCUs
After learning about the content of President Obama’s speech at Morehouse, I let out a tired sigh because it was actually worse than I expected. To be clear, he is a great orator with a skill that is truly a gift and a honed craft. He will probably be memorialized in history among the Presidents who are great orators such as Lincoln, FDR and Kennedy. But that’s not the point right now. I am not discussing ability. I am discussing content and context.
I was so bothered by his speech yesterday that I actually posted one of my favorite commencement addresses in recent times, Toni Morrison at Rutgers in 2011. Toni rarely holds back and every word she says or doesn’t say is deliberate. She critiqued Thomas Jefferson, let alone discussed the commitment to justice that those graduates need to have. She had no White approval to seek. Rejecting that approval while having a commitment to justice has garnered her success in spite of White supremacy and racism, not by downplaying their existence. I not only chose to post her speech because it is one in stark contrast to President Obama’s at Morehouse and First Lady Michelle Obama’s at Bowie State University, both HBCUs, unlike Rutgers, but because both of them have cited Morrison as among their favorite authors. I now find this ironic, actually.
In How the Obama Administration Talks to Black America by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic he examined several instances by President Obama where his words to Black Americans seem targeted and pathology-oriented. About the Morehouse speech he wrote:
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.’
Despite the fact that sexism, homophobia, transphobia and anti-Semitism are problematic in our society, women, LGBTQ people and Jews are never addressed with bootstrap theory and patronizing paternalistic content. Why? All of those oppressed groups still involve Whites. Blacks, as an oppressed group via race, does not. White supremacy remains in tact when those groups are not critiqued and Blacks are, despite those groups having intersectional experiences with oppression. Because of the stark differences in power when an oppressed group involves Whites versus when it does not, it is much more dangerous for President Obama to critique the former versus the latter, in terms of political fallout.
In Tough Love or Stereotypical Shot? Michelle Obama’s HBCU Graduation Speech on Clutch Magazine, the author Harmony raises a great question. The problem is both answers are awful. This intraracial maternalism that Michelle Obama engaged in with her speech seemed like an assignment hoisted on her by a White supremacist society where she is the Black mom who will try to fix the ills of the “arbitrarily pathological” Black child; the Black American population. She was among Black elites—college graduates, in a country where only 30% of all adults have Bachelors degrees and only 20% of Black adults have Bachelors degrees and it was a time for “tough love” as the “best” outcome of a speech? Even the “best” outcome for this speech is one I find beneath who I thought Michelle Obama was and beneath those graduates who worked hard to have that special day. Respectability politics, victim blaming, bootstrap theory, intraracial classism and more filled that speech. I’ve always loved Michelle Obama and defended her from the racist, sexist and misogynoirist attacks that she faces in general society and even from within progressive spaces, but this speech was just as problematic as President Obama’s.
This isn’t to say that those “tough love” speeches should be hoisted at the poor and those who aren’t college graduates, as President Obama did in Chicago with his gun violence speech. As long as the effects of structural inequality and oppression on Black life is portrayed as “arbitrary pathology” that “personal responsibility” can fix, then Black people remain the ones who have to be responsible for the effects of racism, While Whites claim no responsibility for anything, continue to benefit from racism and continue to deny it through White privilege.
While I’ve never truly felt that either of them were fully committed to social justice (whether by a combination of force in a White supremacist society and by choice; and I’ve read so much on them and studied them beyond MSNBC or Fox News), yet I do realize the relevance of their ascension into political, social, and cultural power as Black individuals, a Black couple and a Black family (obviously I do; I’ve shared many positive photographs as well as some nuanced posts illustrating my complex views on them, especially on Barack Obama’s role as President), there is no way I can or will positively spin these speeches into something that they are not. They were patronizing, paternalistic, White supremacist, classist, minimized the role of racism and oppression and played into very old stereotypes about Blackness, ones that never should have to surface and be given so much space on such a large platform, but also ones that seem genuinely out of place at college graduations. If by society’s own (problematic) standards, the elites that are college graduates are still not “responsible” enough if they are Black, when are Black people good enough? When?
In addition to my anger about this, I also got a good laugh from the satirical yet poignant short essay, The Obamas Double Teamed That Ass by Son of Baldwin, because he animates the Obama’s manifestation of exceptionalism and how utterly problematic and dangerous it has become. There are no excuses to be made for these speeches. They have no election to win and no Whites to pacify to win it. They spoke around Black people, not to Black people with these speeches. They affirmed the negative views of Black people and played into exceptionalism.
Patronizing paternalism disguised as “tough love” for Black people yet no “tough love” messages are crafted for Whites to challenge them on the systemic, institutional and structural inequalities that create the racist oppression that Black people face, impacting their choices? Toni Morrison found a way to do just that with her commencement address, in part of which she said “personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it is a trivial one.”
It is truly amazing how “personal responsibility” only applies to Blacks. Whites continue to have zero accountability when it comes to White privilege, racism and White supremacy. Both of these speeches reminded them of that. I suspect that was the intent, especially amidst these recent faux and real scandals that the White House faces. Unfortunately, the price of pacifying Whites in a White supremacist society is always the re-affirmation of the “justified” oppression of Blacks, who need to simply “man-up” and “get over” the oppression which has never ended. I don’t support such a message, whether the messenger is White or Black, whether the messenger is someone non-famous or someone I voted for to become the first Black President and First Lady of the United States.