It’s graduation time, and just a few days ago, President Obama gave a commencement speech at Morehouse College, a historically black college. In his speech, he urged graduates not to make excuses and to set a good example. Michelle Obama gave a similar speech at Bowie State, where she urged black graduates to seek to become professionals rather than celebrities. This is the same advice that many Asian parents give to their kids. You would think that these kinds of values would be applauded, that people would clamor to hear the advice of people like the Obamas who have succeeded and are now in positions of power. Here are some of Obama’s words:
But along with collective responsibilities, we have individual responsibilities. There are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves. There are some things, as Morehouse Men, that you are obliged to do for those still left behind. As Morehouse Men, you now wield something even more powerful than the diploma you’re about to collect — and that’s the power of your example.
So what I ask of you today is the same thing I ask of every graduating class I address: Use that power for something larger than yourself. Live up to President Mays’s challenge. Be “sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings, and the injustices of society.” And be “willing to accept responsibility for correcting (those) ills.”
In general, these speeches were applauded. But not in the ethnic media, at least not with one writer from Colorlines. Kai Wright writes:
Of course, it’s also true that unemployment among the black graduates Obama addressed will be twice the rate of their white peers if nothing changes in the government he leads.
So…the responsibility of your employment is due to the…government? The government decides what you learn and what you earn? Really? That’s defeatist thinking if I ever heard it. This kind of defeatist thinking is exactly what Obama was speaking against. Sorry, Kai, but I think Obama would disagree with you on this.
This is what I mean when I say that the lectures of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammed have been tossed aside by the media. The blame game is just out of control. Lest we make the mistake of thinking it’s a “black” thing, we need to remember two things:
1. First, this is the black MEDIA who feels this way. Normal black folk are often fine with the idea of working hard and doing less blaming of the Man. Check out some of the comments below the Colorlines article. The first commenter correctly points out that Obama’s speech is just another example of JFK’s “ask not what you can do” speech, and that Obama has made the speech to white people as well.
2. The Asian and Hispanic ethnic media is just as guilty of perpetuating the same kind of trope. So it’s not a black thing; it’s an ethnic media thing. They just don’t believe we have agency.
Sure, there’s structural inequality in the world, but if you want to succeed in most jobs (most jobs, that is, outside of the media and academia, which reward feelings of doubt and uncertainty), your primary focus needs to be on YOUR role in your life, not what other people are doing or saying. President Obama is right.