The Black Face of White Privilege: An Analysis of President Obama's 2013 Commencement Address to Morehouse College
B Y N AT H A N B A I L E Y
After The Civil Rights Act of 1968, it became socially unacceptable to be overtly racist in America. However, with the use of language that makes racial comments without actually mentioning race, people, particularly whites could downplay racism, inequality and discrimination and use the language of equal opportunity, meritocracy and work ethic to explain segregation, inferior education, devalued property, racial profiling by the police, disproportionate crime vs. punishment ratios and a host of other cultural, systematic and institutional racisms.
President Barack Obama’s commencement address at Morehouse College, an all-male historically black liberal arts college, was on its surface about the need to take responsibility for one’s life and actions and how to be a successful black man in America. But, beneath the glossy exterior lies a text that could actually be a case study in the use of political, colorblind language to promote racist ideas. Obama used ideas from liberalism — meritocracy, individualism, choice, and work ethic — to claim that equal opportunity still exists despite racial inequality. He used the idea of “naturalization” to claim segregation, inferior schools, mass incarceration of people of color, employment and wage inequality were naturally occurring and not a racially-charged phenomenon (Bonilla-Silva 28). Lastly, in several places in the speech, Obama asserted that institutional, individual or cultural racism, inequality, and discrimination did not represent a realistic impediment to progress for people of color in America.
Throughout his address, President Obama spoke about many relevant issues to blacks in America — racism, discrimination, poverty, incarceration, segregation along with many other things — but whenever he did so he was quick to point out, and quite adamant when he did, that those obstacles do not and should not inhibit progress in America because a black man can achieve and can even serve as “President of these United States of America,” but he may to work twice as hard to do so (Obama 2). The following is an excerpt from his address which highlights his minimization of discrimination and its effects:
“Well, we’ve got no time for excuses. Not because the bitter legacy of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they have not. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; we know those are still out there. … Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and they overcame them. And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too. … ” (Obama, 2013).
Obama is adamant that racism against blacks in America is faded and sparse. His use of the phrases “vanished entirely” and “still out there” indicate he feels discrimination is something that is very seldom if ever encountered and if it does exist, it does so in an impotent form. Obama could have easily said “vanished,” but he added the adverb “entirely” to further distance himself from claiming the legacy of slavery and segregation were relevant. He describes racism and discrimination as being “still out
P h o t o b y M o n i c a P e d o m o P h o t o b y L u i s T a c o a m a n
there,” a phrase rarely used, and when it is, it is usually used to describe Sasquatch or that long lost serial killer who duped the detectives 10 years ago (The Zodiac Killer is “still out there”) or a rare vintage camera you might be able to find on eBay (it’s “still out there” if you get lucky and know where to look). To describe racism and discrimination as elusive and rare certainly indicates he does not believe these things to be relevant in the lives of black men in America. Obama must be aware that the United States “imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of the apartheid (Alexander 7), and that despite the fact that whites use crack more than blacks, blacks make up almost 80 percent of the prison population for crack convictions (Porter 10). Obama claimed all that remained of segregation was an almost entirely vanished legacy and not in fact a very real, very racially motivated issue. In New York City, more than half of the 1,600 public schools are more than 90 percent Black and Hispanic (Kleinfield 1). Furthermore, despite the fact that white New Yorkers were 50 percent more likely to be carrying a weapon or drugs, people of color constituted 84 percent of the “stop and frisk” victims (deBlasio 2). Those are only a few examples of the many institutional, cultural and systematic racism and discrimination faced by blacks in this country. Yet, Obama’s rhetoric ignores these relevant realities. This belief leads him to make the claim “nobody cares” because in his mind these things are not a realistic impediment, especially since he is a black man and also the president of the United States.
In the book Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a sociologist at Duke University, outlines what his research has shown to be the lingual mechanisms of expressing racist ideas while not directly addressing race, in other words, the use of colorblind language. In the book, Bonilla-Silva does not theorize that blacks would be using this framework, only whites, but remarkably, Obama’s speech highlights each of Bonilla-Silva’s “Central Frames of Color-Blind Racism.” One of the first concepts Bonilla-Silva discusses is the aforementioned “minimization of racism,” in which the speaker suggests that discrimination is not significant in the lives of minorities (Bonilla-Silva 28). Obama is seemingly disinterested in even addressing the obvious systematic ways in which African Americans are discriminated against. He makes this clear when he states, “Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination.” In his disregarding of the facts of racism in our country, it becomes clear that when he says “nobody” he is also talking about himself. According to Bonilla-Silva, the individual frameworks rarely, if ever, appear alone, but rather are used in conjunction with other frameworks like “abstract liberalism” and “naturalization,” which Obama also used throughout his speech (Bonilla-Silva 29).
Obama’s ideas are quite contradictory. He uses ideas associated with liberalism, ideas like individualism, meritocracy, choice, work ethic among others allow him to state that equal opportunity exists, but, he states, a black man may have to work twice as hard for it. During the speech, after Obama stated that Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr achieved great things amidst much racism he went on to say that, “But when it came to their own accomplishments and sense of purpose, they had no time for excuses” (Obama 4). He follows up that claim with the following:
“Every one of you have a grandma or an uncle or a parent who’s told you that at some point in life, as an African American, you have to work twice as hard as anyone else if you want to get by. I think President Mays put it even better: He said, “Whatever you do, strive to do it so well that no man living and no man dead, and no man yet to be born can do it any better” (Obama 2013).
It is important to point out that Obama indicates he believes the aphorism that African Americans must work “twice as hard” to get by, to be at the very least true and at the most something good to believe when he says, “President Mays put it even better…” (Obama 4). If President Mays put it “even better,” the original must have, by definition, been at least “good.” He also signals that this is how leaders in the African American community have always done it. That is to say, Obama did not raise issue with this as something deplorable in a country claiming people are endowed with inalienable rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but rather that they were words to live by (Jefferson 1). It speaks volumes about the values of a country when its highest leader publicly states in a positive way that a historically oppressed minority of people must work “twice as hard as anyone else if [they] want to get by,” and he is applauded (Obama 4). Just as in the case of the “minimization of racism,” Obama’s language fits into one of Bonilla-Silva’s frameworks. Bonilla-Silva argues that “abstract liberalism” is the foundational principal of “new racism” (Bonilla-Silva 26). Obama has mastered this method of colorblind language. His ability to claim that despite overwhelming evidence that blacks in America are on every level, cultural, institutional and individual level kept “underprivileged” there are no excuses because if you work twice as hard, you can achieve.
Lastly Obama made claims about the black community at large as though perceived cultural tendencies were in fact racial traits. He made the following statement about black neighborhoods:
“In troubled neighborhoods all across this country — many of them heavily African American — too few of our citizens have role models to guide them. Communities just a couple miles from my house in Chicago, communities just a couple miles from here — they’re places where jobs are still too scarce and wages are still too low; where schools are underfunded and violence is pervasive; where too many of our men spend their youth not behind a desk in a classroom, but hanging out on the streets or brooding behind a jail cell.”
To address each of these issues without mention of the roles of whites in power like New York’s “master builder” Robert Moses who in the 1950’s and 60’s geographically, economically, racially and culturally isolated African Americans, or the white organizations who went out in droves in opposition of bussing and integration, or the practice of redlining that very much inhibited the integration of many urban areas and increased segregation. This disregard for black history is disgraceful. Bonilla-Silva calls this framework “cultural racism,” which “relies on culturally based arguments to explain the standing of minorities in society.
Obama has seemingly embraced colorblind language to express and reinforce racist ideas as he incorporated all four of Bonilla-Silva’s “Central Frames of Color-blind Racism.” Obama seemed to forget or decided to negate the role whites in power and positions of privilege did everything to oppose integration and in fact increase all forms of segregation in urban, now “troubled communities” and claimed tacitly that these were unfortunate, but de facto, natural progressions. He clearly suggested racism, discrimination, and inequality were not as potent as they once were and that the effects are negligible. He also claimed that there are no excuses to not achieve in America, because if Langston Hughes, George Washington Carver and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. could achieve great things while enduring racism and working twice as hard to get by, so can you. ∞
W O R K S C I T E D
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press. 2010. Print.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Racism without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2003. Print.
deBlasio, Bill. “Stop and Frisk and the Urgent Need for Immediate Reforms.” Office of the Public Advocate for the City of New York. May 2013. PDF file.
Declaration of Independence. July 4, 1776
Kleinfield, N. R. “A System Divided: Why Don’t We Have Any White Kids?.” The New
York Times. The New York Times Company, May 11, 2012. Web. June 4, 2013.
Obama, Barack. Morehouse College. Century Campus, Atlanta, GA. 19 May 2013.
Podair, Jerald E. The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002, Kindle file. Porter, Nichole D., Valerie Wright. “Cracked Justice.” The Sentencing Project. March 2011. PDF file.
Pritchett, Wendell. Brownsville, Brooklyn: Blacks, Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Print.