I know there’s been a fair amount of commentary concerning Michelle Obama’s commencement address at Tuskegee University over the weekend, but I did want to make three observations of my own as to why her speech did more harm than good. But before I do let me provide this excerpt from her remarks:
Because here’s the thing — the road ahead is not going to be easy. It never is, especially for folks like you and me. Because while we’ve come so far, the truth is that those age-old problems are stubborn and they haven’t fully gone away. So there will be times, just like for those Airmen, when you feel like folks look right past you, or they see just a fraction of who you really are.
The world won’t always see you in those caps and gowns. They won’t know how hard you worked and how much you sacrificed to make it to this day — the countless hours you spent studying to get this diploma, the multiple jobs you worked to pay for school, the times you had to drive home and take care of your grandma, the evenings you gave up to volunteer at a food bank or organize a campus fundraiser. They don’t know that part of you.
Instead they will make assumptions about who they think you are based on their limited notion of the world. And my husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be. We’ve both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives — the folks who crossed the street in fear of their safety; the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores; the people at formal events who assumed we were the “help” — and those who have questioned our intelligence, our honesty, even our love of this country.
And I know that these little indignities are obviously nothing compared to what folks across the country are dealing with every single day — those nagging worries that you’re going to get stopped or pulled over for absolutely no reason; the fear that your job application will be overlooked because of the way your name sounds; the agony of sending your kids to schools that may no longer be separate, but are far from equal; the realization that no matter how far you rise in life, how hard you work to be a good person, a good parent, a good citizen — for some folks, it will never be enough. (Applause.)
And all of that is going to be a heavy burden to carry. It can feel isolating. It can make you feel like your life somehow doesn’t matter — that you’re like the invisible man that Tuskegee grad Ralph Ellison wrote about all those years ago. And as we’ve seen over the past few years, those feelings are real. They’re rooted in decades of structural challenges that have made too many folks feel frustrated and invisible. And those feelings are playing out in communities like Baltimore and Ferguson and so many others across this country. (Applause.)
But, graduates, today, I want to be very clear that those feelings are not an excuse to just throw up our hands and give up. (Applause.) Not an excuse. They are not an excuse to lose hope. To succumb to feelings of despair and anger only means that in the end, we lose.
With that here are my three reasons for why I think her remarks did more harm than good.
First, the notion that today’s graduates of Tuskegee University face anything like the Tuskegee Airmen did during and after WWII is an insult to the Tuskegee Airmen. Segregation and discrimination were a matter of law and the Tuskegee Airmen faced the full measure of it. Of course, racism will always be among us. The difference now is that it is unacceptable behavior which is severely punished when it rears its ugly head. Would any of today’s graduates from Tuskegee trade places with the Tuskegee Airmen? I doubt it. Michelle Obama thus does a disservice when she compares the treatment today’s Tuskegee graduates receive to the brave men who bore the Tuskegee name.
Second, the First Lady makes a point of saying “they” a lot:
“They see just a fraction of who you really are”;
“They won’t know how hard you worked and how much you sacrificed to make it to this day”;
“They don’t know that part of you”;
“Instead they will make assumptions about who they think you are based on their limited notion of the world.”
And who are “they” exactly? Could the First Lady be referring to white people? If she is then this says a great deal about Michelle Obama.
Which brings me to my third point. Mrs. Obama further complains that “they” have “questioned our love of this country.” Well, this is the same woman who stated back in February 2008, in the wake of her husband’s success in the Democratic primaries, that “for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country.” The following month the future First Lady claimed America is “just downright mean”.
So when in May 2015 Mrs. Obama claims that police wantonly pull over African-Americans for fun and games, that African-Americans face wanton discrimination because of funny sounding names and that African-Americans are forced to send their children to “unequal” schools, this tells me that she still isn’t particularly proud of America and still views it as a downright mean place.
But who exactly has been in charge of this country for nearly 6 ½ years? Who is running many of our largest cities? Who is responsible for “unequal” schools? Perhaps if the Obamas had championed school choice perhaps African-American parents wouldn’t feel the same level of despair where it concerns the education of their children. The First Lady speaks as if African-Americans are absolutely powerless in this country. If absolute power corrupts absolutely then the same can be said of claims of absolute powerlessness.
Of course, the First Lady qualifies her remarks by telling the Tuskegee graduates that it isn’t an excuse to give up, lose hope and “succumb to feelings of anger and despair”. Yet in so doing Mrs. Obama did her best to stir the anger of the graduates of Tuskegee University and portray America and a good segment of its people in the most negative light possible. In the end, Michelle Obama’s remarks to the Tuskegee graduates force me to arrive at the conclusion that she did more harm than good.