WASHINGTON, May 23, 2013 ― President Obama’s Sunday commencement address at Morehouse College is bringing him the latest blues for the triangulation that everyone knew the first black president would have to perform: being black without being too black.
“Condescension”; “pitiable”; “[no] moral authority to give”; and a “slanderous narrative,” is how his speech is being pilloried.
First, we should remember the “Only Nixon Could Go to China Rule” of politics. When one critic argues that Obama calling out a black audience means he should also condemn sexual assault in his upcoming Naval Academy commencement address, he’s right. But we err if we ignore the multiplier effect a speaker can have on a speech.
It would be good if Obama challenged Navy cadets to think critically about masculinity, but even better if John McCain or David Petraus did it. It would be better still if a member of Seal Team 6 did, or one of the cadets themselves — the alpha cadet, recognized as a leader among his peers. Salience is what messages have when when wedded to a speaker uniquely suited to deliver them.
By a like principle, there are some things only Obama can say to black audiences.
Second, the impetus for much of this criticism of Obama is best thought of as The Betty Baye Rule of in-group vs. out-group speech. “I, as an African-American woman and columnist, necessarily find myself having second thoughts about how to ‘tell it like it is’ about some member of [my] race when most of my readers are white,” for concern about how her words might be used, wrote Baye, a longtime Louisville Courier-Journal columnist.
Thus, much from Obama’s African-American critics can be translated as, “True, Mr. President, but it shouldn’t be said in earshot of white people!”
In particular, the objection is that Obama is engaging in an act of Sista Souljah-momenting the black poor to ingratiate himself with white voters. But now that he no longer has any electoral need for white votes, Obama’s critics on the left would do well to conclude that Obama is actually saying what he believes, not genuflecting for white approval.
Finally, for saying “We’ve got no time for excuses,” Obama stands accused of singing bootstrap homilies whilst giving only muted voice to the travails of being black in America. Yet both Obama and his critics err in not realizing the most vexing disadvantage today is not racism, but disadvantage that isn’t traceable to any individual act of racism.
2013 graduates’ challenge is not being denied a job for being black, but the thousands of questions Glassdoor.com publishes, questions asked in job interviews, such as, “do you like to rock climb or ski?”
The biggest obstacle facing recent graduates isn’t a racial glass ceiling on promotions or income, but the problem described in a recent Business Week headline: “Job Applicant’s Cultural Fit Can Trump Qualifications.”
Graduates enter workplaces where “being the best” isn’t enough; the savvy grad must become fluent in a world of shibboleths, code words, secret knock-three-times-say-it-this-way idiosyncrasies and unwritten rules.
Further, our world is one where polls consistently find people perceive toughness as good in a boss, business, or political leader ― but less so when that leader is a woman or black.
“Racism” is the wrong word for this. And so criticism of Obama’s speech that reduces race to racism or conflates race with poverty not only misses the mark, it’s aimed at the wrong target.
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