Last week, President Obama addressed a crowd of 500 young sub-Saharan Africans, fellows of his administration’s Young African Leaders Initiative. In a speech that lasted over 20 minutes, Obama told the fellows that the world needs a “prosperous and self-reliant” Africa but also that he believes in them and that they have the full support of the American government in revolutionizing their countries and communities — inspirational words uncommon in many of his other speeches to mostly-black audiences.
“I want to thank you for inspiring us with your talent and your motivation and your ambition,” he said, looking out to the fellows. “You’ve got great aspirations for your countries and your continent. And as you build that brighter future that you imagine, I want to make sure that the United States of America is going to be your friend and partner every step of the way.” Later in the speech, he added, “So the point of all of this is we believe in you. I believe in you. I believe in every one of you who are doing just extraordinary things.”
The comments were beautiful, heartwarming even, but made me a little jealous.
As a black American who works in media, mainly around black issues and news, I couldn’t help but notice a distinct difference in the way Obama addressed the audience of young African fellows and the way he consistently speaks to American blacks. Where the fellows received praise, support and inspiration from the American president, American blacks are too often dressed down with messages of respectability, charges of pathology and calls for accountability.
Obama’s record of scolding black audiences is pretty solid and well-covered in the media. In 2012, in response to a question about his administration’s lack of support for black business, he told Black Enterprise magazine, “I’m not the president of black America. I’m the president of the United States of America.” To the problem of violence in inner-city Chicago, Obama said last year, “…this is not just a gun issue; it’s also an issue of the kinds of communities that we’re building. When a child opens fire on another child, there is a hole in that child’s heart that government can’t fill. Only community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole.”
It was this repeated rhetorical approach to black audiences, in lieu of public policy solutions, that made Jesse Jackson, Sr. infamously want to “cut his nuts off” in 2008. Many forget that Jackson was reacting to what he felt was then candidate Obama “talking down to black people” in a Father’s Day speech aimed at derelict black dads.
But, perhaps, no example stands more in parallel and contrast to Obama’s recent speech to the young African fellows than that of his commencement address to the Morehouse College class of 2013.
From President Obama’s remarks at Morehouse College’s 2013 commencement ceremony.
On probably one of the happiest days of their young lives, President Obama told roughly 500 new graduates of the nation’s only institution for educating black men that the time for excuses was over.
“We’ve got no time for excuses — not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven’t. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that’s still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned,” he said.
No “we believe in you.” No “the United States of America is going to be your friend and partner every step of the way.”
The Morehouse class of 2013 weathered a storm during their commencement.
Delivering that message to roughly 500 black men who just finished college was a proposition so jarring it warranted a reaction from The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. Trevor Coleman, a former speechwriter for former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, told the Washington Post, “What made it so gratuitous was this was Morehouse College! In the African American community, the very definition of a Morehouse man is someone who is a leader, who is taught to go out and make a difference in his community.”
So how can the difference in Obama’s tone addressing Africans and black Americans be explained?
In the Washington Post piece on Obama’s Morehouse speech, Leola Johnson, a professor of media and cultural studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., explained that Obama’s speeches “are actually not aimed at black people” but whites, “liberals especially,” she said. With that in mind, there is something to be gleaned from his speeches in understanding African and black American identities in the public imagination, or at least how President Obama leverages them.
In Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream, political scientist Christina M. Greer examines perceptions of black ethnic groups and their status in American society. In a survey of black New York City public service workers, she found Africans were deemed the most industrious of all blacks. Afro-Caribbeans were ranked nearly as favorably. Black Americans, however, were perceived to be the least hard-working — even by native-born blacks.
Greer explained her book’s findings by saying, “There are whites and elites and people in power who do see a distinction. They may not necessarily understand the distinction but they are seeing Caribbeans as immigrants, who may necessarily work harder, or Africans as immigrants who have greater aspirations than this — quote, unquote — last-place category of black Americans. Essentially, I argue it’s no longer whites versus non-whites but this category of blacks versus non-blacks.”
Let’s hope that the current U.S. president doesn’t see it this way, even if his rhetoric suggests otherwise.