This week, President Barack Obama gave the commencement address to the young men at Morehouse College. I was happy to see the president speak to these men, for I’m sure they were inspired by his presence. The achievements of Barack Obama are nothing short of legendary and inspirational, he deserves to be recognized as such. Morehouse College President John Wilson should also be commended for his extraordinary leadership. Dr. Wilson was gracious enough to join the presidents of Spelman and Clark in co-signing the open letter on mass incarceration written by myself and Russell Simmons.
The president’s message consisted of the same themes that I recall hearing from my grandmother: You have to work twice as hard to get half as much if you are black in America, and racism is no excuse for you to give up. I agree with this message, and I share similar messages every single day of my life.
The president’s decision to speak in ways that he knew would resonate with Morehouse men and their older black parents was an intelligent political move, without question. The president’s speeches tend to be more conservative when he speaks to African Americans (I even noticed his use of the word “Lordy” early in the speech), and this is a good fit, since black people are also very conservative. The truth is that many African Americans would be Republicans if the party would just stop being so blatantly racist.
Another thing about black people is that many of us suffer from the low self-esteem that tends to afflict oppressed individuals. We’re not much different from the housewife who believes her husband wouldn’t have had to beat her if she had not burned the cookies. When her husband is out with other women, she is simply thankful that he took the time to pay the rent. She’s ecstatic about any form of acknowledgement from her husband whatsoever, and when he berates her, she knows that she deserves it. To some extent, she comes to embrace her oppression as the natural order of things, and the tranquility of her marriage is built upon the idea that his views, needs and status are superior to her own.
When President Obama graces us with his presence, we are simply honored that he took the time to even acknowledge us. Any symbolic gesture, no matter how scant and meaningless, becomes precious to us, because for some, there is no greater achievement that any black man could aspire to than to get validation from white people. Had President Obama passed on the presidency and taken a position at an all-black school and educated thousands of black children, we would have considered it to be a wasted opportunity. Why would such an important man spend his time with us? The political harmony between black America and the Obama Administration is a carefully-designed relationship in which our job is to shut up and cheer for anything the administration chooses to do with our votes.
Part of this asymmetric partnership with the Obama Administration is that we are actually HAPPY when the president berates us. We like being told that we don’t try hard enough and that the reason so many of us struggle is because we have come to embrace an inferior set of habits and cultural norms. We ENJOY the abuse, because deep down, many of us have bought into the myth of white superiority as much as white people themselves.
So, when Obama comes to Morehouse and says, “Stop using racism as an excuse and start taking more responsibility,” we LOVE it. We also nod our heads in agreement because for the educated elite, Obama isn’t talking about us. He’s talking about “them.” You know, those n*ggaz who keep getting sent to prison, who can’t get jobs, and who are killing each other in the street. They deserve their plight because they don’t work as hard as the rest of us, at least that’s the logic. It’s easy to grab onto the simple answers: Black men love their kids less than white men do, black women are only capable of raising incompetent children who eat Popeye’s chicken for breakfast, and black people are slightly less human than whites, thus prone to more criminal activity.
But here’s the issue. Telling black Americans to stop using racism as an excuse allows President Obama to create a set of excuses for his own significant, even embarrassing, lack of action to help alleviate the clearly documented, undeniable, legislatively-enforced poison of racial inequality that continues to impact our society. As he tells the Morehouse men to take more responsibility for their own lives, the mirror of personal responsibility should also be turned on the most powerful black man in the history of the world to use his massive platform to help confront systematic racism that affects us all. I also wonder if the president is going to follow this speech with one telling gay men that they can’t use homophobia as an excuse to complain, or that women shouldn’t be speaking out about sexual assault. The double standard is actually borderline frightening: The president’s skin color creates a human shield protecting the White House from being attacked for saying things that would lead to riots were Obama 100% white instead of just 50%.
The “Super Negro Theory” is a commonly-held belief that if all 40 million black people would simply make straight As, never ever break the law in a minor way, work 80 hours a week and make no mistakes, we could overcome any form of racial oppression. “If Colin Powell can rise out of the projects and become head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then you should be able to do the same,” said the successful black man to a class of 2,000 high school kids.
The point here is that black people are the only group of people who are severely punished for being average. If a young black male grows up in a neighborhood where he might get shot everyday on the way to school, the educational system is dilapidated, he is being racially-profiled on every corner and there’s no food in the house, we expect him to be able to rise to extraordinary levels of focus and capability to overcome all of this. Sure, a few kids can be born and raised in the violent chaos of South Central LA and go to Harvard, but statistical theory clearly says that a large percentage of these kids are going to end up dead or in jail. The point is that the “Super Negro” theory may apply to that rare kid who can leap systematic oppression in a single bound, but you can’t expect that same degree of personal power and focus to apply to 40 million people. Unfortunately, some of our kids are going to be average, which for black people, is analogous to being pathetic, lazy, ignorant, trifling and worthless, thus giving white people an excuse to mistreat you and Obama an excuse to ignore you.
The best way to confront racism in America is through POLICY. I can’t tell you how many hard-working, law abiding black doctors, lawyers and professors I meet who are discriminated against in the workplace. Most studies show that when black kids make the same mistakes as white kids, they are more severely punished both in the schools and the courts. There are a pile of studies which show that kids who are traumatized by living in violent neighborhoods with horrible schools and no jobs are far more at risk than those who do not. So, why do we allow any politician to speak as if these issues don’t affect our outcomes?
Similar to the man who tells his wife that she needs to lose a few pounds, she also has the right to ask her husband why he himself is obese. When he sleeps with other women, she can use that as her explanation for why another man was in her husband’s bed while he was at work. The point here is that every single mandate that President Obama is putting on the men at Morehouse College (and those who could not be there) to “man up” and stop making excuses must be applied to a president who has continuously used Republican racism as his excuse for contributing almost nothing to fight the curse of black unemployment, mass incarceration, educational inequality, workplace racism and all the other social ills that we face every single day of the week.
Here’s another memo for the president: You’re not just half black, you’re also half white. So, as you speak to African Americans and tell them to stop using racism as their excuse for a lack of achievement, I encourage you to give similar speeches to your white “brothers and sisters,” telling them the same things. The fact is that the Obama White House has a much more sympathetic ear when whites complain about 7 percent unemployment than it does when black Americans complain about 14% unemployment. This is patently and undeniably unfair, and even the president knows it.
Hence, this lopsided approach to racial inequality does not give Barack Obama the moral authority to come into a room full of black people and talk about what’s wrong with us. Chris Rock, Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan or Harry Belafonte, could make these very same statements and have credibility because they are not afraid to speak the same way to whites. My mother could talk about me like a dog growing up because I knew that after the criticism was over, my mother would go into the world and fight others who sought to do me harm. Black men must openly question whether or not their president is truly willing to go to bat for them as quickly as he’s willing to go out and fight for the gay community. Don’t get angry with me for stating the facts, we must openly confront the nonsense.
This, folks is racism 101, whether we like it or not. I’m sure that at least half of the people reading this are going to call me a “hater,” or perhaps even say that I’m jealous (I would never want to be president). But the reality is that these simple-minded responses (with very few facts to support them) are reminders that some of us are doing exactly what the Obama Administration wants most black people to do: Give up your votes, turn off your brains and when someone expresses dissent, ignore the issue at hand and attack the messenger instead. As I mentioned to those who were upset with me for undermining Lil Wayne’s deal with Mountain Dew: Brainwashing DOES work, and free-thinking is not encouraged during the era of our first bi-racial president.
As the president tells the men at Morehouse to “man up” and stop using racism as an excuse for failure, I say to the president: Man up and stop using Republican racism as an excuse for not addressing the black unemployment crisis. If white people had 14% unemployment, Obama would declare a state of emergency. Part of demanding equality means putting an end to blatant double standards.
I’m not sure if the Morehouse Men applauded the message or not, but they also hosted the rapper “2 Chainz,” who had them all reciting the chorus “All I want for my birthday is a big booty hoe.” So, needless to say, these poor brothers are getting a series of mixed messages. But the consistent message is that if a black man has enough power, then any rhetoric, no matter how distorted, is reshaped so that it seems to make sense. But this speech doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, and we should refuse to sit quietly while black people are being disrespected.