President Obama is reportedly upset that the national media focused on the part of his speech in New York City before the NAACP last week that focused on “personal responsibility,” and not on a similar examination of government’s behavior. The speech was the centerpiece of the venerable civil rights organization’s centennial anniversary and was the President’s first address to a predominantly Black audience since taking office in January. For the manner in which the speech was perceived and reported by the news media, Mr. Obama shares some of the blame.
Similar to his Father’s Day speech he delivered during the campaign, President Obama chose to give a message to a Black audience that has heard it all before. Though the audience in the hall likely felt no offense since they probably sensed the President was not directing his comments to them, or casting judgment on their behavior. Still, the core message is one that has all too often been directed solely at the Black community. The problem is that absent context, the message is heard as some sort of confirmation of pathology among Blacks, particularly when delivered by the nation’s first Black President. It is as if only Blacks are failing to adhere to high personal standards and, as a result, are offending the prevailing mores of our nation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yet, that is the picture that is being unwittingly painted of Black America by Mr. Obama and others when individual shortcomings are not contextualized.
We know that some Blacks have fallen short of the mark in terms of living up to their responsibilities, as has some whites and others. In those instances, we also know that the impact often reaches beyond the individual and is felt by the larger community. The tragedy is that when Blacks are deemed coming up short, their situation is never weighed against the social conditions, and mountain of evidence regarding the consequences of the larger environment, when judgments are cast by the media about the Black community. The result is a sort of “piling on” when what would be most helpful is a clear, well-developed prescription. We already know the patient is ill; we don’t need multiple examinations that result in the same diagnosis.
The President’s appeal for greater personal responsibility is a message that has been a staple among Black ministers, parents, teachers and civil rights activists for generations. To read the press on the morning after the NAACP speech one would get the impression that Blacks have not been offended when one of their own exhibited anti-social behavior. Given our relative disadvantage, we are acutely aware when those around us exhibit behaviors that are self-defeating. The media coverage made it appear as though the President was delivering some long overdue lecture to our community. The paternalistic treatment of the Black community hearkens back to a time when adult Blacks were generally treated as children, who were unable to control their impulses and could only be normalized under the good counsel of whites. The depiction of our condition in that manner ignores the work that most of us put in every day, some against tremendous odds, to be good parents and obedient children, abide by the dictates of our chosen faiths, and stay civically engaged. We know that there are those among us who simply check-out, and have no excuse, but there is probably a fairly equal number who are unable to scale the mountain of disadvantage and injustice that is at the root of their errant behavior.
The President is absolutely right on one point: government alone cannot rebuild our community. One of the more tragic consequences of our “progress” is that the emotional distance between the Black middle class and the Black poor has grown. This is not to suggest that only the poor fall short of their responsibilities. We have plenty of examples of middle class Blacks who are bad parents or act irresponsibly in some other manner. What I am suggesting is that the loss of “community” may be the largest single contributor to some of the behavior that President Obama rightly finds troubling and unacceptable.
President Obama, an orator of great skill and compassion, must find the words to challenge our condition that goes beyond calling out those who have not practiced personal responsibility. While some people will heed Mr. Obama’s call, the vast majority of people who the President is speaking to will likely exhibit no change in behavior. What do we do then? We do not have enough spatial separation to wall ourselves off from bad parents, unruly children and youth, belligerent neighbors, petty thieves or hard-core criminals. Even if we did, human nature would likely replenish the pipeline of the socially offensive. If that is the case, should we not proceed to triage the community, and at least save those we can while we determine the remedy for the rest?