While President Obama certainly has had moments of oratorical splendor, pundits generally agreed that his speech at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was not one of those occasions; some even found much to object to in his remarks.
Rather than lift a people and challenge the status quo, some said, Obama chose the moment to castigate black people.
“Why did the president decide to go all Mitt Romney at yesterday’s speech at the March on Washington?” writer and retired Time magazine Washington correspondent Jack White posted on his Facebook page.
During his speech, Obama said that there were moments in the nation’s history in which “some of us claiming to push for change lost our way,” suggesting that some bought into the notion of victimhood a little too deeply.
“The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior,” the president said. “Racial politics could cut both ways, as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support — as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself,” Obama said.
“Surely he knows that conservatives will use his remarks castigating blacks for their supposed bad behavior to undermine any policy proposals he makes to uplift the black poor,” White wrote. “And since he wrote the speech himself, there’s no doubt that he said exactly what he meant to say. What in the world is in his head?”
Ta-Nehis Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine, likened the president’s speech to one in 1897 by W.E.B. Du Bois, who also criticized some behavior in the black community, arguing that “black people ‘must be honest’ and fearless in ‘criticizing their own faults.’ Those faults included a disturbing number of black boys succumbing to ‘loafing, gambling and crime,’ and a ‘vast army of black prostitutes that is today marching to hell.’”
“Much like Du Bois more than a century ago, Obama positioned himself as an airer of laundry, and speaker of bold, necessary truths,” Coates wrote.
Du Bois, Coates wrote, saw his role as one to urge black people to strive to be twice as good as whites to control their destinies. Coates also noted that Du Bois biographer David Levering Lewis has said that Du Bois, in later years felt some embarrassment over the remarks.
“I don’t know that Barack Obama will ever reach such a conclusion,” Coates added.
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Even Obama’s inspirational moments in his speech lacked the proper context, said Jamelle Bouie in The Daily Beast.
“African-Americans, however, weren’t the only beneficiaries of the movement. The struggle for civil rights inspired other groups and causes. …The fight for black freedom, he stressed, was a fight to actualize the promise of the Declaration of Independence, of the Constitution—because of that, its legacy belongs to all of us,” Bouie said.
“Except that’s only somewhat true. What Obama didn’t say, but what the civil-rights movement recognized, is that the specific experience of African-Americans requires—and required—a specific response. It’s what motivated the Freedman’s Bureau of Reconstruction and Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for an inner-city ‘Marshall Plan’ during the Second Reconstruction of the 1960s.”
Noting the huge disparities in median income, that the poverty rate for African- Americans has changed little since the mid-70s, and that the unemployment rate still remains about double that of whites, Bouie said Obama was wrong to suggest that remnants of the official barriers that once held black people back do not exist.
“Writ large, however, the American public has convinced itself that these ills are the result of some black cultural pathology, as if African-Americans will fix themselves when they put on some Dockers, crank up some REO Speedwagon, and stick to a diet of casseroles and cucumber sandwiches,” Bouie added.
“Even Obama dips into this pool, routinely calling on African-Americans to fix their ‘culture,’ even as he acknowledges systemic constraints to racial equality.”
Obama may have sought to inspire and motivate, and no doubt did in places, but it was a questionable move on such a momentous anniversary to bring along his alter ego, Commander-in-Scold.
Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”