President Barack Obama is probably the hardest working president in the history of presidents of the United States. He won the presidency when America was in the midst of the worst financial and foreign policy crisis in about 50 years and he battles a level of racism and obstructionism in Congress that would make Lincoln blink. It is for these reasons and many more that many African Americans not only support Obama and his policies but fiercely defend him as well. Unfortunately that well intended desire to see Obama succeed sometimes overshadows legitimate concerns being expressed about his policies and actions, especially in regards to African Americans. In other words, Obama gets a free ride, from the very group that is most responsible for electing then re-electing him to office. How else could you explain the tin eared speech he gave to Morehouse College graduates on Sunday May 19th?
Obama is already in legacy mode as a president since he’s secured a second term. Consequently when he decides to speak at the commencement at one of the nation’s proudest Historically Black Colleges and Universities expectations and tensions are running high. Reverend Kevin Johnson, a 1996 Morehouse Alum was disinvited, then re-invited to give the baccalaureate speech at Morehouse after he wrote an op-ed in the Philadelphia Tribune criticizing Obama for his failure to appoint more African Americans to his cabinet and ambivalence about speaking up for black voters, his strongest base. More importantly, simmering in the background was the administration’s horrific failures regarding the Plus One – Loan debacle which has devastated Historically Black Colleges and Universities over the last 6 months. Education Secretary Arnie Duncan quietly changed the criteria for which PLUS Loans could be granted, making credit checks more stringent for parents which resulted in thousands of students from HBCU’s being denied loans and having to leave halfway through the year or not being able to attend college at all. When HBCU presidents and members of the Congressional Black Caucus brought this to the administration’s attention late last summer the White House told everyone to “be cool” and to not make a fuss since it was an election year. After promises from the White House to fix the issue, and tapping into that inner desire to protect our first black president, the HBCU leadership and CBC agreed to keep quiet. Yet, there Obama was, standing proudly in front of Morehouse graduates, having not done a thing almost 5 months into his second term and almost a year after the problem was brought to his attention.
A commencement address is not the time to hash out complicated policy issues, but it is an opportunity for a president, especially this president, to speak to a specific community that has doggedly supported him through thick and then. But Obama dodged all that; he slipped in and slipped out of the Morehouse commencement with platitudes and personal stories. And while he was certainly inspiring in some areas his main theme, that the time for excuses is over, was particularly problematic in the face of what the men in that audience are facing today.
But one of the things you’ve learned over the last four years is that there’s no longer any room for excuses. I understand that there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: “excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.” 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 hyperconnected, hypercompetitive 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.
Obama’s penchant for diving face first into “Culture of Poverty” rhetoric dismissing institutional racism and discrimination as still being “out there” somewhere but placing the onus of success on the shoulders of Black men is problematic. If there is anyone who knows how institutions often work against the noble efforts of individuals it should be a president who ran on a slogan of “Change” in Washington.
I personally like President Obama, and I find myself defending his policy attempts and goals more often than criticizing them. He often gets a raw deal from the press, his own party and definitely Republicans. However that does not give him a free pass sashay into any African American environment he wants, drop some empty bromides and scoot back to the Whitehouse without having to address anything he’s said or done to the black community. Obama spoke passionately about how there are no excuses for Black men in America and we have to be compassionate towards those who aren’t as fortunate as those in the audience. But I wonder how that sounds to the hundreds of African American men who weren’t at that graduation last Sunday because their loans were snatched out from under them by his administration? I wonder how many African American men will never be able to walk the hallowed halls of Morehouse College because their loans were denied due to a policy quirk that Obama could solve with the flick of his pen? The time for excuses is over, not just for those Morehouse grads heading into the real world, but this president as well. With record turnout in 2012 African Americans deserve better from Obama than a pat on a back and a boot-strap lecture. The question is when will we as a people start holding President Obama to the standards that he clearly is comfortable holding African American to?