The other day, Barack and Michelle Obama both spoke at two different HBCU’s Commencement Ceremonies–Morehouse and Bowie State. Their presence, in theory, is extraordinary and significant for all of the obvious reasons: Whether or not they went to an HBCU, their success is the result of the efforts and purpose HBCUs have served over the last 150 years. At the same time, what they said holds another significance, a different significance.
“But today, more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, more than 50 years after the end of “separate but equal,” when it comes to getting an education, too many of our young people just can’t be bothered. Today, instead of walking miles every day to school, they’re sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.”
“We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. Growing up, I made a few myself. And I have to confess, sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man. 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 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. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and overcame.”
These were the same words that Bill Cosby gave nearly 10 years ago, where he stated black people cannot continue to blame white people for the problems that collectively plague African Americans today–joblessness, poverty, poor education, mass incarceration, etc etc.
It is ironic that these views are no longer coming from just whites who are fed up with discussing racism. They also comes from African Americans, many of which are middle class. The last six months I’ve been seeing the Cosby statements resurface on Facebook and get a lot of positive feedback from many of my black friends.
When it comes to racism in America, so often do we see ourselves, myself included, placing the individual blame solely on African Americans. So often do we discriminate against others who our less fortunate than ourselves and feel their problems stem from laziness. So often do we feel this need to lecture those around us on personal responsibility. As an African American, it’s what we were brought up being told, because thinking anything else would drive us mad. If we were brought up to believe that we had no control over our destinies in a country with so much racial tension, then it is safe to say we’d be far worse collectively than we already are.
What makes Barack and Michelle’s statements more significant, however, isn’t what they said, but rather who they are and what they represent: A post-racial America. So many people stand behind the Obama presidency as a testament that racial matters are obsolete in a country that has elected a black man to the most powerful political position in this country. They use the Obama presidency as the proof that America is past racism. If a black man, with a single mother, can make it to the white house, then perhaps racial and social impediments don’t really exist to the extent that so many people argue. So when Obama wags his finger to Morehouse graduates, it holds great significance because he–the poster child of post-racialism–is outwardly advocating the same ideology so many others used him for.
These type of statements on personal responsibility that the Obamas and Cosby make are problematic because it misdiagnoses the problem, and allows racism to spread unchecked. If racism isn’t adequately acknowledged in all of it’s obvious forms, then it perpetuates and becomes worse.
Sure, many of the statements Cosby makes about blacks’ “cultural choices” are partly true. We’d be fooling ourselves and missing the point if we didn’t acknowledge the current state of much of black America. I’m not disillusioned. I understand the reality. But what Cosby fails to do is accurately acknowledge what is this culture a product of: Slavery, Jim Crow, the formation of Ghettos and unfair housing policies, unequal schools, mass incarceration, and a level of discrimination that transcends institutions and individual interactions and reinforces inequality. When we only see current racial inequities as products of individual and cultural behaviors, then we fail to acknowledge a history, a Country, and a capitalist society that structured its institutions around perpetuating inequalities. Someone as educated as Barack, Michelle, or Bill Cosby should understand those very real social impediments that are still in much effect today.
Even more problematic is this notion of the “Super Negro”.Dr. Boyce writes that the super negro “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.”
She continues: “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.”
It’s the walking contradiction we’ve too often acknowledged and ignored all at the same time. Too often do people realize that the conditions of much of black America are unequal. We realize the schools are inferior, the neighborhoods are crime infested, and that the odds are disproportionately against black youth to succeed. Yet, despite all of these blatant facts, we expect it to be blacks’ responsibility to move around these barriers, the same barriers that were installed to keep them in a hole of oppression–because they were black. When government funded institutions have functioned with a racial agenda that perpetuated inequality, the solution shouldn’t be individual responsibility by the victims, the solution should be the State making a new racial agenda. An agenda that works on behalf of African Americans in order to compensate for working against them for so long.
When the only solution people like Obama–who is the Head of State, a racist State–offer is the “Super Negro,” that isn’t personal responsibility, that’s personal blame.
Everyone, black and white, needs to acknowledge the privilege they have been given and how that puts them in advantage over others. I know that myself, even though I am black, I am middle class and male, and being such hold many advantages over others. Where I am may be some part of individual effort, but it is also a product of the privilege I have been given. When we can see how our privilege has propelled us, then we can see how others’ under-privilege has crippled them, and maybe we can then make proper assessments to reaching real solutions.
It’s time to wake up from this disillusionment and realize that racism is as real today as it was 60 years ago. It still holds tangible outcomes for many disadvantaged and keeps them down while allowing others to succeed.
Racism may not reach all of our personal spaces, but whether we chose to acknowledge them or not, those spaces where racism thrives still exist and persist.