Poverty, Race, and Obama’s Morehouse Speech

U.S. President Obama gives commencement address at the graduation ceremony of the class of 2013 at Morehouse College in Atlanta

Recently, President Obama touched off a good bit of controversy with his “No Excuses Black People” commencement speech. It prompted both critics and defenders of his decision to tell black people, “There’s no longer room for any excuses.” The scuttlebutt was that it was leftist, black intellectuals who didn’t appreciate the speech, but black conservatives were curiously vocal in their criticism as well given that it’s just the kind of message they eat up (but then in conservatives’ eyes, he can’t do anything right). One of the harshest liberal critics was Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic, who 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.”

Along those same lines, Tim Wise wrote,

“Barack Obama knows how demanding a school Morehouse is. So to preach hard work to these men, as if they had never heard of it — as if they now intended to kick back and wait for things to be handed to them — is to not only insult their intelligence, but also to feed every vicious stereotype already held by too many white Americans about black males, no matter how educated.”

Washington Post’s Vanessa Williams quotes speech writer, Trevor Coleman, when he says he is “disappointed that Obama almost always defaults to the clean-up-your-act message when talking to predominantly black audiences.” Williams goes on to quote Macalester College Professor of Media and Cultural Studies, Leola Johnson who said Obama’s speeches “are not actually aimed at black people. They’re actually for white people, liberals especially. It’s the legacy of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and that whole group of white liberals who want to say it’s not just about structural problems that black people aren’t doing well, it’s about their own values.”

Even before his speech, many in the African American community have expressed frustration that the President did not seem to be keenly tuned into the policy needs of Black Americans. For example, Reverend Kevin Johnson wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer,

“For those of you who have read my articles in The Philadelphia Tribune, you know I have been a very strong supporter of the president and worked hard to get him elected in 2008 and 2012…I supported then-Senator Obama not because he was Black, but because I truly believed in my heart that he was the best candidate to empathize, understand, and develop policies to help the African-American community, the poor, and previously under-represented communities…If President Obama does not make some changes soon, at the end of his presidency he will be known as a historical leader – the first African-American president, but not a transformational leader – the president who truly uplifted and catapulted Black people from cycles of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and despair.”

Coming to the President’s defense were Lauren  Burke of Politic365.com who pointed out how many Black Congressional members liked the speech, Jack White writing for TheRoot.com, who thought Obama’s words echoed his own father’s, and Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post who wrote,

“Johnson and others seem unaware of what the Obama administration has actually done. They discount the increases in education funding, particularly for historically black colleges and universities. They completely ignore the nearly 7 million African Americans who will get health care thanks to Obamacare. They seem to brush off the Fair Sentencing Act the president signed in 2010 that reduced the glaring disparity in punishment for those charged with crack offenses and those with powder cocaine offenses. They seem to overlook the enforcement actions the administration has taken against the discriminatory practices of banks and mortgage lenders who preyed on the black community with higher fees and interest rates.”

Capehart makes some excellent points. But a policy wonk wouldn’t accept this wholesale defense. First, let’s take the good. President Obama has certainly passed historic healthcare legislation, and it will improve access for millions of African Americans. However, Obama’s education policies have been highly inconsistent. He has substantially increased Pell Grants, and he has managed to prevent the interest rate on student loans from doubling. While only 20% of black students attend historical black college and universities, they have gotten more funding. Then, there is the truly bad education policy. Educators who specialize in working with children in poverty have become increasingly flummoxed with the President’s K-12 agenda and his lack of support for the Johnson-era anti-poverty educational opportunity programs. For example, one director of an Upward Bound program, Adam Kirk, writes,

“Obama, instead of modifying No Child Left Behind and making it more equitable, gave out waivers and then implemented his cash-driven program aimed not at children and teachers in the classroom, but at administrators and consultants and template designers. Districts participating in the program are buried in lesson plan templates, designed to remove the “professional” from the teaching profession and to centralize power among many who have never set foot in a classroom.”

Kirk also weighed in on the Morehouse speech,

“I read Obama’s patronizing Morehouse College commencement speech, where he takes on his role as the Scold of Black Folk. He throws in his usual talking points about “strengthening the middle class,” as if to say, “Trust me, I’m not a president for the poor.” And then he repeats that charter-school refrain, “No excuses.” When you tell African-American college graduates not to make excuses based on their upbringing, you are telling them that a social critique of poverty is not legitimate. You are sending the message that poverty and unemployment are self-inflicted personal failings.”

What an honest evaluation of Obama’s effect on the African American community would have to conclude is that he has put in place policies that will no doubt positively affect segments of the population, while those left most neglected, most dangling, are the poor. There are no recent policies that one can point to which improve the lives of people living in poverty. If anything, conditions have worsened. Obamacare won’t affect them. They already receive Medicaid. But, their food stamps, TANF, WIC, Head Start, and numerous other programs are seeing nothing but cuts. His Pell Grants won’t reach the poor if only 10% of low-income youth graduate from college, because they aren’t even getting to the door. By cutting funding to educational opportunity programs (these programs have been cut more during this administration than even during Reagan’s or the two Bushes’), poor youth don’t even build the skills they need to get to college. By introducing “Race to the Top,” educators insist poor children are doing worse, not better. These educational initiatives are not policy decisions affected by Republicans like the budget or the sequester. They are entirely within the purview of the administration.  

Charles Badger notes that the unspoken demon in the room is not necessarily inescapable racism, but poverty,

“For saying “We’ve got no time for excuses,” Obama stands accused of singing bootstrap homilies whilst giving only muted voice to the travails of being black in America. Yet both Obama and his critics err in not realizing the most vexing disadvantage today is not racism, but disadvantage that isn’t traceable to any individual act of racism.”

Critics of his speech invariably bring up disadvantaged African Americans. This makes sense, because it is they who seem to be the target of the “no more excuses” refrain. Middle and upper-class African Americans have nothing to make excuses for; they have achieved success, perhaps in spite of racism, perhaps, as Obama suggests, because racism really is less crushing than it once was. Poor African Americans, indeed all poor people, can throw up many legitimate excuses. Just one is the research showing that poverty affects the brains of children so severely as to mimic the damage of a stroke. President Obama has experience with being black, being from a single-parent family, and being successful. What he doesn’t know is grinding poverty. It is becoming increasingly apparent that this lack of exposure is alienating him from the parts of the African American community that do. He still has three years to demonstrate his understanding of and concern for those in poverty, and many are holding out hope that he will.

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