A Hill Talk Editorial: Obama on the state of race relations

Speaking to the 2,300 graduates at Washington, D.C.’s Howard University where he delivered a commencement address, President Obama reported on the state of race relations and concluded the condition of which the nation finds itself has improved, but is in need of further attention and improvement.

Dedicating a notable portion of his speech to a myriad of race-related matters, the president offered words of encouragement to impending graduates, exhorted members of Howard’s class of 2016 to assist in political solutions to solving race problems, and underlined a brief three-decade history of global achievement in ending protracted incongruity divided by race religion and politics.

Features of his speech include:

America is better. The world is better. And stay with me now, race relations are better since I graduated. That’s the truth. No, my election did not create a post-racial society. The election itself was just one indicator of how attitudes had changed.

I am not saying gaps do not persist. Obviously, they do. Racism persists. Inequality persists.

We’ve got a justice gap when too many black boys and girls pass through a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails. This is one area where things have gotten worse. When I was in college, about half a million people in America were behind bars. Today, there are about 2.2 million. Black men are about six times likelier to be in prison right now than white men.

First of all, and this should not be a problem for this group, be confident in your heritage. Be confident in your blackness. One of the great changes that’s occurred in our country since I was your age is the realization there’s no one way to be black.

And because of those who’ve come before you, you have models to follow. You can work for a company, or start your own. You can go into politics, or run an organization that holds politicians accountable. You can write a book that wins the National Book Award, or you can write the new run of “Black Panther.” Or, like one of your alumni, Ta-Nehisi Coates, you can go ahead and just do both. You can create your own style, set your own standard of beauty, embrace your own sexuality.

You see, change requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program, and it requires organizing. And I’m so proud of the new guard of black civil rights leaders who understand this. It’s thanks in large part to the activism of young people like many of you, from Black Twitter to Black Lives Matter, that America’s eyes have been opened, white, black, Democrat, Republican, to the real problems, for example, in our criminal justice system.

And finally, change requires more than just speaking out; it requires listening, as well. In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise.

And we knew there were some bad apples, and that even the good cops with the best of intentions, including, by the way, African American police officers, might have unconscious biases, as we all do.


An allotment of Mr. Obama’s words were praiseworthy, particularly when he instructed Howard’s graduates to discover the political framework, exploit it as a catalyst for ongoing change and as an extension of further conversation on critical matters which divide Americans.

Similarly, and of vital importance, the president paid critical attention to the vast improvement of state of race relations over the past 30 years and since his graduation from college.

In like manner, the president’s remarks to graduates of one of the country’s most venerable historically black colleges regarding pride in their race was of pivotal importance.

Naturally and regrettably, as with much of what Mr. Obama says and does, his address was not without acute flaws.

While the president did recognize his ascent to the White House signaled a watershed moment in race matters, he did not emphasize the paramount consequence of his two terms to the extent his presidency deserves relative to the overcoming of the most deleterious elements of the racial divide.

In the absence of a clear recognition his election and reelection indicates white America has accepted and now greets blacks as equals in a majority of sectors of American society, Mr. Obama returned to the boring cliché, “much work needs to be accomplished.”

Consistent with his underlying message, the president was similarly deficient when invigorating students with entrepreneurial spirit.  Stirring graduates to build businesses and work independently as creators, Mr. Obama encouraged students to “re-write Black Panther,” and invoked its author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is known for a deeply pessimistic worldview on race in America in his written word.  In calling attention to the work of Coates, the president actually subverted his own message on race.

It is, however, the mentioning of law enforcement, radical groups such as Black Lives Matter, and the incarceration rate among black males, where the president committed his most abominable mistake.

Instead of offering uplifting guidance to the next generation of college-educated blacks, Mr. Obama, as he often does, engaged in the same stale and unoriginal statistics regarding black men in prison instead of confessing 99.9 percent of those in prison, of any race, actually belong in the custody of the state.  In doing so, Mr. Obama was involving himself with an odd form of propaganda.

The reference to the high number of black males in prison was a cheap and subtle backhand at the justice system, which Mr. Obama hints is awash in racism.

Worse, the president actually thanked Black Lives Matter.  For the president to lend prestige to this group was doubly appalling:  By failing to distinguish between legitimate political movements and Black Lives Matter, the president’s message faltered, and badly, particularly in front of a crowd set to embark on the next stage in their lives and after Mr. Obama had urged these students to consider political organization as a career option.  One could have mistaken the president’s role not as a world leader at Howard University, but as a recruiter for the community organization for which he labored so much prior to his election to the Illinois Senate.

A movement assailed for neither vision nor focus, no leadership structure and renown for a refusal to translate endless rage from street protests into worthwhile political goals, comparing Black Lives Matter to the political machinery the president called on graduates to affiliate themselves with was preposterous.

A firm rejection of Black Lives Matter, its tactics and encouragement to students to align themselves with legitimate political groups would have been more suitable guidance to offer college graduates, but Mr. Obama does frequent with racial huckster Al Sharpton.

Intended or not, over the last seven years, Mr. Obama took a racially polarized nation in the midst of rapid healing and both deepened and widened its divisions.  It will require a special person to undo the damage done as a result of his policies, which often contribute to rather than assuaging African-American suffering.

Although the president’s speech did have its high moments, preaching to young blacks about having pride is wonderful, encouraging blacks to exercise their right to vote and participate in politics is noble, most of his address should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

While every public appearance the president makes for his final six months in office is designed to shape his legacy, he failed miserably at Howard.  A high percentage of black Americans continue to face dreadful problems, many of which cannot be solved by Mr. Obama’s prescriptions.  Offering the same solutions compounded by an injurious fixation on race will never lead to a healthy solution.

From a man who has often invested in the hypothesis criticism of him and his administration is rooted in race, he was the wrong messenger at Howard University.  Howard’s students deserved to hear more from our first black president, for he was preaching to an audience with the intellectual skills and fortitude to make the kind of changes required.

Fortunately, not all Americans share the president’s dim view.


[Reuters] [The Guardian] [Politico] [Photo courtesy AP]


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