Prepared text of President Barack Obama's commencement speech at Morehouse College on May 19, 2013:
Hello, Morehouse! Thank you Dr. Wilson, the Board of Trustees; Congressman Cedric Richmond and Sanford Bishop – both proud alumni of this school; Congressman Hank Johnson and the great John Lewis; Mayor Reed, and all the members of the Morehouse family. Most of all, congratulations to this distinguished group of Morehouse Men, the Class of 2013! Some of you are graduating summa cum laude, some of you are graduating magna cum laude, and I know some of you are just graduating, “thank you Lordy.”
I see some good looking hats on the moms and grandmas here today. Which is appropriate, since we’re here on Sunday, and folks are in their Sunday best. Congratulations to all of you – the parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, family and friends who supported these young men in so many ways. This is your day, too. Just think about it – your sons and brothers have spent the last four years far from home and close to Spelman. And they still made it here today. So you must be doing something right. Graduates, give them a round of applause.
I know some of you had to wait in long lines to get into today’s ceremony. I would apologize, but it didn’t actually have anything to do with security. These graduates just wanted you to know what it’s like to register for classes. And this time of year brings a different kind of stress, with every senior stopping by Gloster Hall over the past week making sure your name was on the list of students who’ve met all the graduation requirements. If it wasn’t, you had to figure out why. Was it the library book you let your roommate borrow freshman year? Was it Dr. Johnson’s policy class? Did you get enough Crown Forum credits?
I can help with that last one. Today, I am exercising my power as President to declare this speech sufficient Crown Forum credits for any otherwise-eligible student to graduate. Consider it my graduation gift to you.
Graduates, I am humbled to stand here with all of you as an honorary Morehouse Man. And as I do, I’m mindful of an old saying: “You can always tell a Morehouse Man, but you can’t tell him much.” That makes my task today a little more difficult, I suppose. But I think it also reflects the sense of pride that has always been a part of the Morehouse tradition.
Benjamin Mays, who served as the president of Morehouse for almost 30 years, understood that tradition perhaps better than anyone. He said, “It will not be sufficient for Morehouse College, for any college, for that matter, to produce clever graduates… but rather honest men, men who can be trusted in public and private life – men who are sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings, and the injustices of society and who are willing to accept responsibility for correcting [those] ills.”
It was that mission – not just to educate men, but to cultivate good men – that brought community leaders together just two years after the end of the Civil War. They assembled a list of 37 men, free blacks and freed slaves, who would make up the first prospective class of what later became Morehouse College. Most of those first students had a desire to become teachers and preachers – to better themselves so they could help others do the same.
A century and a half later, times have changed. But the “Morehouse Mystique” endures. Some of you probably came here from communities where everyone looked like you. Others may have come here in search of that kind of community. And I suspect that some of you probably felt a little bit of culture shock the first time you came together as a class in King’s Chapel. All of a sudden, you weren’t the only high school sports captain or student council president. All of a sudden, among a group of high achievers, you were expected to be something more.
That’s the unique sense of purpose that has always infused this place – the conviction that this is a training ground not only for individual success, but for leadership that can change the world.
Dr. King was just 15 years old when he enrolled here at Morehouse. He was an unknown, undersized, unassuming young freshman who lived at home with his parents. I think it’s fair to say he wasn’t the coolest kid on campus; for the suits he wore, his classmates called him “Tweed.” But his education at Morehouse helped to forge the intellect, the soul force, the disciple and compassion that would transform America. It was here that he was introduced to the writings of Gandhi, and Thoreau, and the theory of civil disobedience. It was here that professors encouraged him to look past the world as it was and fight for the world as it should be.
And it was here, at Morehouse, as Dr. King later wrote, where “I realized that nobody…was afraid.”
Think about that. For black men in the forties and fifties, the threat of violence, the constant humiliations, large and small, the gnawing doubts born of a Jim Crow culture that told you every day you were somehow inferior, the temptation to shrink from the world, to accept your place, to avoid risks, to be afraid, was necessarily strong. And yet, here, under the tutelage of men like Dr. Mays, young Martin learned to be unafraid. He, in turn, taught others to be unafraid. And over the last 50 years, thanks to the moral force of Dr. King and a Moses generation that overcame their fear, and cynicism, and despair, barriers have come tumbling down, new doors of opportunity have swung open; laws, hearts, and minds have been changed to the point where someone who looks like you can serve as President of the United States.
So the history we share should give you hope. And the future we share should give you hope. You’re graduating into a job market that’s improving. You live in a time when advances in technology and communications puts the world at your fingertips. Your generation is uniquely poised for success unlike any before it.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have more work to do together. Because if we’re being honest with ourselves, too few of our brothers and sisters have the opportunities you’ve had here at Morehouse. In troubled neighborhoods all across the country – many of them heavily African-American – too few of our citizens have role models to guide them. Communities just a couple miles from my house in Chicago. Communities just a couple miles from here. They’re places where jobs are still too scarce and wages are still too low; where schools are underfunded and violence is pervasive; where too many of our men spend their youth not behind a desk in a classroom, but hanging out on the streets or brooding behind bars.
My job, as President, is to advocate for policies that generate more opportunity for everybody – policies that strengthen the middle class and give more people the chance to climb their way into the middle class. Policies that create more good jobs and alleviate poverty, that educate more children, that give more families the security of health care, and protect more of our children from the horrors of gun violence. These are matters of public policy, and it is important for all of us, black, white and brown, to advocate for an America where everybody has a fair shot in life.
But along with collective responsibilities, we have individual responsibilities. There are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves. There are some things, as Morehouse Men, that you are obliged to do for those still left behind. As graduates – as Morehouse Men – you now wield something even more powerful than the diploma you are about to collect. And that’s the power of your example.
So what I ask of you today is the same thing I ask of every graduating class I address: use that power for something larger than yourself.
Live up to President Mays’ challenge. Be “sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings, and the injustices of society.” And be “willing to accept responsibility for correcting [those] ills.”
I know some of you came to Morehouse from communities where life was about keeping your head down and looking out for yourself. Maybe you feel like you escaped, and you can take your degree, get a fancy job and never look back. And don’t get me wrong – with the heavy weight of student loans, with doors open to you that your parents and grandparents could scarcely imagine, no one expects you to take a vow of poverty. But I will say it betrays a poverty of ambition if all you think about is what goods you can buy instead of what good you can do. So yes, go get that law degree. But ask yourself if the only option is to defend the rich and powerful, or if you can also find time to defend the powerless. Yes, go get your MBA, or start that business. But ask yourself what broader purpose your business might serve, in putting people to work, or transforming a neighborhood. The most successful CEOs I know didn’t start out intent on making money – rather, they had a vision of how their product or service would change things, and the money followed.
Some of you may be headed to medical school to become doctors. But make sure you heal folks in underserved communities who really need it, too. For generations, certain groups in our country – especially African-Americans – have been in desperate need of access to quality, affordable health care. And as a society, we are finally beginning to change that. Those of you who are under the age of 26 already have the option to stay on your parents’ health care plan. But all of you are heading out into an economy where many young people expect to not only have multiple jobs, but multiple careers. So starting October 1st, you’ll be able to shop for a quality, affordable plan that’s yours and that travels with you – a plan that will insure not only your health, but your dreams if you have an accident or get sick. That’s good for you, it’s good for this country, and you should spread the word to your fellow young people.
And that brings me to my second request of you: Just as Morehouse has taught you to expect more of yourself, inspire those who look up to you to expect more of themselves.
We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. Growing up, I made a few myself. And I have to confess, sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. But one of the things you’ve learned over the last four years is that there’s no longer any room for excuses. I understand that there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: “excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.” We’ve got no time for excuses – not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven’t. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that’s still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured – and overcame.
You now hail from a lineage and legacy of immeasurably strong men – men who bore tremendous burdens and still laid the stones for the path on which we now walk. You wear the mantle of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, Ralph Bunche and Langston Hughes, George Washington Carver and Ralph Abernathy, Thurgood Marshall and yes, Dr. King. These men were many things to many people. They knew full well the role that racism played in their lives. But when it came to their own accomplishments and sense of purpose, they had no time for excuses.
I’m sure every one of you has a grandma, an uncle, or a parent who’s told you at some point in life that, as an African-American, you have to work twice as hard as anyone else if you want to get by. I think President Mays put it even better: “Whatever you do, strive to do it so well that no man living and no man dead, and no man yet to be born can do it any better.” I promise you, what was needed in Dr. Mays’ time, that spirit of excellence, and hard work, and dedication, is needed now more than ever. If you think you can get over in this economy, just because you have a Morehouse degree, you are in for a rude awakening. But if you stay hungry, keep hustling, keep on your grind and get other folks to do the same – nobody can stop you.
And when I talk about pursuing excellence, and setting an example, I’m not just talking about in your career. One of today’s graduates, Frederick Anderson, started his college career in Ohio, only to find out that his high school sweetheart back in Georgia was pregnant. So he enrolled in Morehouse to be closer to her. Pretty soon, helping raise a newborn and working night shifts became too much, so he started taking business classes at a technical college instead – doing everything from delivering newspapers to buffing hospital floors to support his family. Then he enrolled at Morehouse a second time – but even with a job, he couldn’t keep up with the cost of tuition. So after getting his degree from that technical school, the father of three decided to come back to Morehouse for a third time. As Frederick says, “God has a plan for my life, and he’s not done with me yet.”
Today, Frederick is a family man, a working man, and a Morehouse Man. And that’s what I’m asking all of you to do: keep setting an example for what it means to be a man. Be the best husband to your wife, or boyfriend to your partner, or father to your children that you can be. Because nothing is more important.
I was raised by a heroic single mother and wonderful grandparents who made incredible sacrifices for me. And I know there are moms and grandparents here today who did the same thing for all of you. But I still wish I had a father who was not only present, but involved. And so my whole life, I’ve tried to be for Michelle and my girls what my father wasn’t for my mother and me. I’ve tried to be a better husband, a better father, and a better man.
It’s hard work that demands your constant attention, and frequent sacrifice. And Michelle will be the first to tell you that I’m not perfect. Even now, I’m still learning how to be the best husband and father I can be. Because success in everything else is unfulfilling if we fail at family. I know that when I’m on my deathbed someday, I won’t be thinking about any particular legislation I passed, or policy I promoted; I won’t be thinking about the speech I gave, or the Nobel Prize I received. I’ll be thinking about a walk I took with my daughters. A lazy afternoon with my wife. Whether I did right by all of them.
Be a good role model and set a good example for that young brother coming up. If you know someone who isn’t on point, go back and bring that brother along. The brothers who have been left behind – who haven’t had the same opportunities we have – they need to hear from us. We’ve got to be in the barbershops with them, at church with them, spending time and energy and presence helping pull them up, exposing them to new opportunities, and supporting their dreams. We have to teach them what it means to be a man – to serve your city like Maynard Jackson; to shape the culture like Spike Lee. Chester Davenport was one of the first people to integrate the University of Georgia law school. When he got there, no one would sit next to him in class. But Chester didn’t mind. Later on, he said, “It was the thing for me to do. Someone needed to be the first.” Today, Chester is here celebrating his 50th reunion. If you’ve had role models, fathers, brothers like that – thank them today. If you haven’t, commit yourself to being that man for someone else.
Finally, as you do these things, do them not just for yourself or for the African-American community. I want you to set your sights higher. At the turn of the last century, W.E.B. DuBois spoke about the “talented tenth” – a class of highly-educated, socially-conscious leaders in the black community.
But it is not just the African-American community that needs you. The country needs you. The world needs you. See, as Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; to be marginalized; to feel the sting of discrimination. That’s an experience that so many other Americans share. Hispanic Americans know that feeling when someone asks where they come from or tells them to go back. Gay and lesbian Americans feel it when a stranger passes judgment on their parenting skills or the love they share. Muslim Americans feel it when they’re stared at with suspicion because of their faith. Any woman who knows the injustice of earning less pay for doing the same work – she sure feels it.
So your experiences give you special insight that today’s leaders need. If you tap into that experience, it should endow you with empathy – the understanding of what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes. It should give you an ability to connect. It should give you a sense of what it means to overcome barriers.
Whatever success I achieved, whatever positions of leadership I’ve held, have depended less on Ivy League degrees or SAT scores or GPAs, and have instead been due to that sense of empathy and connection – the special obligation I felt, as a black man like you, to help those who needed it most; people who didn’t have the opportunities that I had, because but for the grace of God, I might be in their shoes. So it’s up to you to widen your circle of your concern – to create greater justice both in your own community, but also across our country. To make sure everyone has a voice; everyone gets a seat at the table; to make sure that everyone – no matter what they look like or where they come from, or who they love – gets a chance to walk through those doors of opportunity if they want it bad enough.
When Leland Shelton was four years old, social services took him away from his mother and put him in the care of his grandparents. By age 14, he was in the foster care system. Three years after that, Leland enrolled in Morehouse. Today he is graduating Phi Beta Kappa on his way to Harvard Law School. And as a member of the National Foster Care Youth and Alumni Policy Council, he plans to use his law degree to make sure kids like him don’t fall through the cracks. It won’t matter what they look like or where they come from, because they’ll have someone like Leland – someone who knows what they’ve been through – in their corner.
That’s what we’ve come to expect from you, Morehouse. A legacy of leaders – not just in our black community, but in our broader American community. To recognize the burdens you carry with you, but resist the temptation to use them as excuses. To transform the way we think about manhood, and set higher standards for yourselves and others. To be successful, but also to understand that each of us has responsibilities not only to ourselves, but to one another, and to future generations.
Men who refuse to be afraid. Members of the class of 2013, you are the heirs to a great legacy. You have within you the same courage; the same strength; the same resolve as the men who came before you.
That’s what being a Morehouse Man is all about. That’s what being an American is about. Success may not come quickly or easily. But if you strive to do what’s right; if you work harder and dream bigger; if you set an example in your own lives and do your part to help meet the challenges of our time, then I am confident that, together, we will continue the never-ending task of perfecting our union.
Congratulations, class of 2013. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.
I'm not a huge fan of barbershop reporting--the idea that the essence of the black male experience can be divined from the places where we get our hair cut by other black men. That said, my barber told me something the other day that really moved me.
We were talking about President Obama getting reelected. My barber is about my age, so his story would have taken place in the mid-1970s. This is what he said, more or less:
I was about in the first grade. Someone important came to our class, and he was trying to make some connection with us by going around the room and asking what we wanted to be when we grew up. I can still remember the classroom, what it looked like. I can remember the names of the kids who were there that day. They went around the room saying fireman or astronaut or whatever. When it got to me, I said, "I want to be president!" And the whole room laughed at me. They all laughed. Even the guy who was visiting laughed a little bit.
I'd like to talk to the people int hat class today.
Even before Matt Drudge linked to it, I knew that my latest story would anger some liberals and black people. My job is to report what people of all backgrounds are thinking and feeling about race. Many people who find a particular belief offensive—in this case, that some black people vote for Obama mostly because he is black—assume that I share the belief that is being written about, or at least want to promote it.
Here’s one such response I got last night:
You should be very proud that your shallow story is being used by partisan Republicans to claim to white voters that black voters are being racist. You could have written a much longer and serious story that might have explored various "dog whistle" (if you do not know the phrase refers to you might do a little reasearch) that Republicans are using against the man they call the "food stamp president". And that pehaps black voters have noticed. Or compare Obama policies versus Romney policies on dozens of issues of concern to black voters and consider whether black voters might believe Obama's policies are better for them in the same way that, perhaps,companies that pollute believe Romney's policies are better for them. Or you might consider whether Supreme Court decisions are important to black voters and they would rather Obama name justices than Romney (you may not realize this, but black voters do know about the Supreme Court.) Or dozens of similar major issues.
If I say you are a lazy reporter, am I suggesting you are black, with the same dog whistle John Sununu employed when he said Obama was lazy? No, I am just saying you are a lazy reporter, which I just did, not knowing or caring about your race, though I suspect some black voters (correctly) were offended by Sununu's dog whistle comment.
Did you send your story to Matt Drudge? Or your editor? Or the Romney campaign?
(a white man who does not appeciate dog whistle politics or stories such as yours).
I understand where he’s coming from—the same place that conservatives were coming from when they were angered by my piece a month ago exploring whether white people oppose Obama because he is black. I expect this kind of thing. Maybe I encourage it with my writing style for these pieces, which is factual reporting combined with a heavy dose of analysis (which is prettyclose to opinion). So I’m not mad at the man who sent the above message. We had an email conversation, although he probably ended up madder than when we started.
However, I was mildly surprised that a good number of conservatives, and one or two blatant racists, responded negatively to this article. Like so:
Blacks vote for obama because they are inherently dumb. Look in the mirror and then read your own piece believing someone else wrote. Dumb, right? It is the best interest for you and others who still enslave the Black race for your own benefit that you keep them thinking of themselves as a lesser people. Whitey is the evil boogie man.You tell them, your dumb, uneducated because you were slaves, had to ride the back of the bus. Of course 95% of those you convince where never there. Today it is the Black race and Black so called leaders who are the RACIST of the 21st century. Educated Blacks go one of two ways . They get out of the ghetto and Ghetto thinking, become productive and asimilate into the general productive population, or like yourself, they prey on their own race as slave masters.
I hate the N word, but you and your kind are that.
Or like so:
I appreciate the overall subject of your article. I reject its conclusion; that it's right, or at least understandable that black voters will vote for black candidates simply because they are black, but it is wrong for white voters to vote for white candidates because they are white. … I don't know your race or background, but I can easily see your politics by the piece you wrote. Whoever you are, you have done a disservice to your profession with ignorant misstatements of historical fact, one-sided quotes and uncrticial thinking. You have perpetuated the false and illogical principle that it's okay for today's American blacks to view politics through race-colored glasses, but it's wrong for any other race to do the same.
It’s believed that people read and remember news/information that reinforces the beliefs they already have. But what about a balanced story like mine, which presents both sides of an emotional issue? It seems to me that some people can selectively read a single article and extract what they like or dislike, while simultaneously ignoring/debating the information that counters their preconceived notions.
I try not to be that person. I find it healthy to assume that I'm wrong a good portion of the time. That way I can keep searching for truth.
Some conservative folks gave this video a ride recently, which upset some liberal folks. Yawn. To me, it was reminiscent of Bill Maher's "Mississippi" takedown:
You know how they do: Let's interview some people who will say things on camera to embarrass the other side.
That said: Few may notice that Obamaphone Lady's style of speak and swagger are straight hip-hop. Substitute the name of any rapper or neighborhood for "Obama" and it still fits perfectly. She got remixes online already. Tell me she wouldn't fit into this video right here:
Come to think of it, haven't rap videos been used as political ammunition before, too? Is the Obamaphone Lady all that different?
I first read about the Obamaphone Lady in James Taranto's column. He notes that she is voicing a half-true urban legend Taranto "had previously heard from conservative friends": Obama started the free-phone program. The federal program to subsidize phones for low-income people dates to the 1980s; Obama expanded it to cell phones in 2008.
I've had lots of conversations with conservative people about poor people who have cell phones (also tattoos, nice sneakers, cigarettes, Haagen Daz, etc). It feels wrong to many of them when people receiving government benefits have such things. This is one reason the Obamaphone Lady got so much play from folks like Drudge and Limbaugh.
Last thought: The way the Lady used the phrase "low minority" made me pause.
Wanted to share some insightful emails responding to my recent story on the debate over whether Obama's opponents are motivated by race. One of the great things about this job is that I am always learning.
From a very wise, black, older woman who has been in government service and the national spotlight:
As I recall almost everybody called Bill Clinton Bill Clinton when he was President and no one called it racist; for matter when Reagan was President everybody just said Reagan ditto for Jimmy Carter.
Reminds me of when I was on CNN during the 2008 campaign and the question was is it racist to call him Barack Hussein Obama and I pointed out that though the person using it might have , I don’t know, wanted to remind someone of Sadaam Hussein, when Obama took the oath he would say I Barack Hussein Obama just like Bill Clinton said William Jefferson Clinton. I got e-mails and phone calls from black people saying I should have said it was racist--go figure.
Identity politics is sometimes terrible it can make poor white people ally themselves with their exploiters and make black people who are suffering from unemployment love the policies that keep them unemployed.
From a white man in Mississippi:
The example from Susan Glisson, whom I know personally, masterfully illustrated the minefield that we Americans can find each other's sensitivities to be.
I'll add another example: Years ago I was a lay leader in a Christian congregation that was roughly 50-50 black and white. It took me a couple of years to realize that when I used the word "conservative," even though I meant "fiscally responsible, supportive of law and order, morally upright," black church members, because they (or at least their parents) had experienced Mississippi's apartheid, would hear "racist." You can imagine how much love and grace it took for them to listen to me give a Bible study after hearing me assert, according to their experience and culture, that I was a racist. ...
I would take exception to dismissing Bush 41's Willie Horton ad chiefly as an appeal to racial bias. Horton's race undoubtedly mattered to some people - including those who played the race card in demanding that he be off limits as a campaign issue - but a bigger part of the truth even then, I think, was that Horton was a prime example of Michael Dukakis' illogical and frightening policy of furloughing murderers who were under life sentences without possibility of parole. ... As someone whose life was almost ended that very year by a criminal whose skin was as white as mine, I can attest that terror is an equal-opportunity employer.
From a white California liberal:
I think it's actually because he's not white. The underlying racism is, I think, more subtle that that to which we usually point. The issue here is that Obama, who happens to be black in his non-whiteness, is the symbol that power, money, and influence are no longer the provenance of people who are of european heritage. As white folks have long held the (almost) sole ability to be (good or bad) politicians, professionals, rich, etc, etc, and as no group in history has willingly given up their unique access to these things, the racism we are seeing is that of white society not wanting to share the pie, in our increasingly non white society, as there is probably not enough pie for those who have been receiving the slices, however large or small the slices have been, to continue to receive the same size.
"Share the pie." "According to their experience and culture." 'Identity politics is sometimes terrible." Those are the phrases that are sticking with me.
I got a whole bunch of reader email about my latest story, which discussed the debate over whether Obama’s opponents are motivated by racism. More than 95 percent of the email was from conservatives who assumed that I was accusing all conservatives of racism, instead of reporting on the existence of a contentious debate. Such as:
So you drip condescension all over us conservatives like rancid sweat from a sewage worker walking into a fine restaurant without taking a bath first. We’re all racist, WE JUST DON’T KNOW IT, HUH…?
…It’s becoming easy to quickly humiliate anyone defaulting to the racism charge: I just shout them down as cowards, terrified to talk about welfare waivers, terrified to talk about 1992 book promo brochures shrieking Kenya as Obama’s birthplace, terrified to talk about that slimy political machine Obama comes from, CHICAGO. News Flash, smart a**: A welfare queen is a WELFARE QUEEN, regardless of whether the b***h getting checks under a dozen different names is BLACK or WHITE…! Oh, and yeah… More whites are on welfare now than blacks…! ‘Think you ought to pull your intellect out of the nineteen-fricking 70’s…?
Your article was a pathetic attempt to keep the ‘ALL CONSERVATIVES ARE RACIST…’ charge alive, now that we’re adept at slamming you liberal creeps back in spades.
As a boy, walking with my cousin, a black boy on an oncoming bike dismounted but accidentally bumped into me. I used a slur to object to it, the boy then said hello to my cousin. They knew each other and easily could have been friends. I was humiliated. I did not forget it all my life, and it has influenced my conduct in EVERYTHING…! Now I wonder what my guilt all these years has been about as I navigate the word ‘racist’ in ANY discussion of Obama…!
Of those negative emails, about a third of them say some variation of, “Black folks are racist because 95% of them voted for Obama.” Such as:
PLEASE stop this nonsense. You didn't mention in your article that 96% of blacks voted for Obama in 2008 - is that not racial bias against John McCain?
Now, I’m terrible with numbers, but I’m always amazed that folks make this argument. Black people usually vote Democrat, no matter if the candidate is black or not. Gore got 90% of the black vote in 2000; Kerry got 88% in 2004. So one might look for signs of racial bias in 5-7% of Obama’s black vote—right?
That said, 2 million more black people voted in 2008 than in 2004 (in addition to 2 million more Latinos and 600,000 more Asian-Americans). It’s fair to say that most of those extra millions of people came out because Obama is black. But is that the same thing as someone NOT voting for Obama because he’s black?
And what about those Deep South states where Obama’s share of the white vote was well below any recent Democrat’s? What’s that about, and did it offset the extra votes Obama got in the turnout and that black 5-7 percent?
(For the record, from what I have observed through my job and everyday life, I think the percentage of black people and white people who are racially biased is about the same.)
I’ve met black Republicans who said they voted for Obama simply because he is black. They did so out of pride—that a member of a group that had been oppressed for so long finally had a shot at the highest office in the land. “I’m doing it for my son, so he can see that he can achieve anything he wants to do,” one such Republican told me. This motivation for voting seems much different than the mentality that pushes people to vote for someone because they are white, or to vote against a black person because they are black.
I’m not vouching for the pride thing, or saying that it’s a good way to think. That’s a whole other discussion. I’m just saying the motivation behind a pro-black vote seems different than the motivation of an anti-black vote or a pro-white vote.
And that we need to be careful when making assumptions about why Obama got 95 percent of the black vote.
I did a very interesting interview for my most recent story, but not a word of it made it onto the AP wire. I could have used it, but chose not to. Here’s what happened:
I was in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, looking for people to interview about their perceptions of how race relations had changed since the election of the first black president. I spotted a white gentleman eating alone. He looked to be in his mid-50s. I introduced myself and he was happy to speak with me. He gave me his name, occupation (construction management for a state transportation agency), and home town (in a mountainous state between California and Kansas). He was traveling on business. He had voted for Obama in 2008 “because I thought he could unify the country.”
Unify how, I asked. Politically? Racially?
“Both, really,” he said.
But now this man was completely unhappy with Obama. He thought he had “deepened racial divisions” through policies like “Obamacare” and other things that act as a “tax on working people and are a huge benefit to those who don’t deign to work, who reside on welfare for years.”
And these people who don’t deign to work are disproportionately black?
“Yes. More of an inner-city type of individual,” he said.
At this point, let me say that I do not believe this man is a racist. We spoke for about 30 minutes. I don’t think he believes white people are better than black people, or that black people are lazy, violent, and so forth. And it seems very unlikely that he could be a racist and vote for Obama in 2008. I can’t be certain, of course. But this was my impression from the overall tone and nuance of the statements he made.
Back to the interview: The man said a lot of things that I have heard from many non-racist white Americans: Obama seems to favor black people. He’s “pushing an agenda through the Democratic political system to try and benefit certain classes or groups of people more than others.” That when Obama said, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon,” he was “saying subconsciously that Trayvon couldn’t have done anything wrong, and he shouldn’t have been penalized because he looks that way.”
(“Penalized” is quite a mild euphemism for losing your life.)
Looks what way, I asked the man. Black?
“That’s right,” he said.
I understand where these feelings come from, because I spend a lot of time on my job speaking to white Americans. They are not unusual ideas.
Then came the most interesting part. I was setting up a question and mentioned that Obama doesn’t talk often about race.
The man interrupted me: “His wife does, though.”
“She talks about it, and he can’t divorce himself from what she says.”
What kind of things does she say?
“Things like, I hate America.”
As it happened, I had just finished writing a profile of Michelle Obama. I had read two biographies of her, a half-dozen in-depth profiles, and two months’ worth of “Michelle Obama” Google alerts. Not once had I seen any mention of her saying, “I hate America.” I had not even seen a debate over her saying that. I’m fairly certain that she has never publicly said anything close to that. If she had, they would be making a fortune selling T-shirts with that quote above her picture.
I asked the man if he had actually seen a clip of her saying that, or read a quote to that effect. He acknowledged that he had not, but “she is credited with saying it.”
And you believe that?
“I think she could have said it,” the man said.
Anyway, I wrap up the interview and proceed to quote the guy in my story, because like I said, his statements were indicative of how a significant portion of the population thinks. The next day, I get an email from him:
“After our interview yesterday in Philadelphia I talked to my supervisor. He was not very pleased with our conversation. It is extremely important that you do not reference my name or my company. If that happens I will most likely lose my job. Additionally my wife was not happy because she believes we will be stigmatized if our neighbors find out about my position.”
This put me in a tough spot. I was on deadline. AP does not permit the use of anonymous quotes in this situation. I would have been well within my rights to include his name—people often regret what they said in a moment of candor and try to take it back.
But what kind of guy would I be if this guy lost his job?
I took him out of the story. I did have a question, though. What was his wife afraid of, exactly? That his neighbors like Obama so much they would treat her badly if they know how this guy feels about him?
“I won't pretend to understand where she is coming from,” he emailed me back. “Even after 32 years I can't guess on this one.”
Excerpt from a transcript of President Obama's Press Statement in the Rose Garden, March 23, 2012.
Provided by the White House, Office of the Press Secretary
Question: Mr. President, may I ask you about this current case in Florida, very controversial, allegations of lingering racism within our society -- the so-called do not -- I'm sorry -- Stand Your Ground law and the justice in that? Can you comment on the Trayvon Martin case, sir?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I’m the head of the executive branch, and the Attorney General reports to me so I’ve got to be careful about my statements to make sure that we’re not impairing any investigation that’s taking place right now.
But obviously, this is a tragedy. I can only imagine what these parents are going through. And when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids. And I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together -- federal, state and local -- to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened.
So I'm glad that not only is the Justice Department looking into it, I understand now that the governor of the state of Florida has formed a task force to investigate what's taking place. I think all of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how does something like this happen. And that means that examine the laws and the context for what happened, as well as the specifics of the incident.
But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon. And I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we're going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.
People tend to forget that Barack Obama wasn't instantly embraced by black folks. Some of them even said that Obama wasn't black. Today I was reading Joan Morgan's insightful essay "Black Like Barack," which discusses among other things the meaning of being "black" in America, and was struck by a 2007 New York Times quote from a 58-year-old barber in Washington DC:
"When you think of a president, you think of an American," Mr. Lanier said. "We've been taught that a president should come from right here, born, raised, bred, fed in America. To go outside and bring somebody in from another nationality, now that doesn't feel right to some people."
There's more than a little similarity in this comment to the beliefs underpinning the "birther" movement. (I know people who still aren't convinced that Obama is a citizen.) Now, of course, black folks overwhelmingly support Obama.
Randall Kennedy offers an analysis in his book "The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency." I urge you to read it for yourself. But here's a hint, from Kennedy: "Having decided to be black, Obama had to determine what sort of black to be. He made himself black enough to arouse the communal pride and support of African Americans but not 'too black' to be accepted by whites and others."
What a difference an election makes.
Jesse Washington is a Senior Writer for ESPN's TheUndefeated.com