Many argue that the president’s speeches have a much harsher tone when addressing a predominantly Black crowd that drastically differs from the tone he generally has with a predominantly white audience.
“It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people — and particularly black youth — and another way of addressing everyone else,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in a 2013 essay published by The Atlantic. “I would have a hard time imagining the president telling the women of Barnard that ‘there’s no longer room for any excuses’ — as though they were in the business of making them.”
For those who say the president is the leader of an entire nation and not just the Black community, Coates says that argument is null and void.
“Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of ‘all America,’ but he is also singularly the scold of ‘black America,'” Coates added.
It’s that type of rhetoric that many believe has trickled down to the president’s agenda as some feel his time in office has actually been the cause of the Black community’s regression rather than progression.
So is his change of tone evidence that the president is disconnected from his community?
He argues the exact opposite.
“It’s true that if I’m giving a commencement speech at Morehouse I will have a conversation with young black men about taking responsibility as fathers that I probably will not have with the women of Barnard,” Obama said Tuesday while at a Catholic-Evangelical leadership summit on poverty in Washington, the TIME writes. “And I make no apologies for that. And this reason is because I am a black man who grew up without a father and I knew the cost that I paid for that. And I also know that I have the capacity to break that cycle, and as a consequence, I think my daughters are better off.”
The president’s comments didn’t go over well with everyone, but he refused to back down from the statement.
He did, however, further note the challenges that the Black community faces and admit that it’s much more difficult for Black people trapped in poverty today than it was in previous years.
“In some ways, part of what’s changed is that those biases or those restrictions on who had access to resources that allowed them to climb out of poverty….all those things were foreclosed to a big chunk of the minority population over decades,” he said during a panel discussion at Georgetown University. “Over time families frayed, men who could not get jobs left, mothers who are single are not able to read as much to their kids.”
He added that these troubling trends are only accelerating in the community as racial issues in America are exacerbating such problems.
“All that was happening 40 years ago to African-Americans and now what we’re seeing is those same trends have accelerated and they’re spreading to the broader community,” he added.
Despite these challenges, both he and the first lady have been adamantly pushing a philosophy that some believe underscores the “pull up your boot straps” ideal that anybody, even Black citizens facing systematic racism, can overcome their circumstances and become a financial success story.
It’s a message that was reiterated during Michelle Obama’s latest commencement speech at Tuskegee University.
Much like the president, she gave a laundry list of ways racial discrimination has a negative impact on the Black community before ending the speech with a message that students should press forward and do their best to overcome such obstacles.
It seemed innocent enough on the surface, but not everybody appreciated the message.
“Our nation continues to lean on the myth of the American dream, but climbing the rungs of the socio-economic ladder remains difficult, particularly for those at the bottom,” writes the Guardian’s Britni Danielle. “For every story of someone who overcame crushing poverty to achieve massive success are thousands of others of those who continue to languish in low-wage jobs and in substandard conditions. In fact, while nearly two out of three white people make it into the middle class by middle age, according to economic expert Isabel Sawhill, that number drops to just three out of 10 for black people.”
Those numbers suggest that the “twice as good” narrative may be flawed because some Black citizens will indeed work twice as hard and be twice as good only to find themselves still stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty.
While it isn’t clear what alternative some critics would have preferred over the first lady’s speech — her husband is in hot water for trying to sidestep racial issues and a speech telling a crowd of graduates that racial discrimination will strip them of any meaningful success likely wouldn’t have gone over any better than the “twice as good” philosophy — one can only hope that the first Black family in the White House is fully aware that America is full of communities where it is nearly impossible for Black families in poverty to ascend the socio-economic ladder.