President Obama speaks at Morehouse College commencement in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
First lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama were the respective featured commencement speakers this year at Bowie State University and Morehouse College—two historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) founded nearly 150 years ago. While the Obamas could have taken the opportunity to inspire black graduates entering an uncertain future, both chose, instead, to pepper their remarks with problematic and unobliging stereotypes about black youth. While doing so, both also conveniently neglected to call attention to the policy changes that President Obama could have enacted to help alleviate the insurmountable odds that young people of color—and blacks in particular—face in the United States.
When the first lady addressed Bowie graduates last Friday, she summoned the likes of Dr. King, Thurgood Marshall and Fredrick Douglass to help weave a brief history of the school—founded in Maryland just as the Civil War was coming to an end. And yet, as she talked about a long tradition of black students’ hunger for education, she added that about 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and more than fifty years after Brown v. Board, “too many of young people just can’t be bothered” to pursue an education. Michelle Obama said that rather than walk miles to school everyday, black students sit “on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV.” And the stereotypes didn’t stop there. “Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader,” proclaimed the first lady, “they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.”
Michelle Obama’s banal descriptions come at a time when many of us are waiting with bated breath for the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action, which could reverse the positive—and still developing—results of Brown v. Board. Although the first lady pointed out that one in three black students drops out of high school, and that only one in five between the ages of 25 and 29 have a college degree, her remarks appear to put the onus not on a system designed to ensure black failure but on lazy individuals.
Forget that Chicago Mayor and former White House Chief of Staff under Obama, Rahm Emanuel, is backing the closing more than fifty schools, which will disproportionately affect black students—as violence rages on and is literally killing black and Latino youth. Forget the ways in which Obama has made “painful cuts” to Pell Grants—benefits available to students whose families cannot otherwise afford to pay for college (read: black, brown and Native families who have fared worse under Obama, and can never seem to catch up to the wealth that white families have secured after centuries of inequities). Michelle Obama’s remarks reserve blame not for an entire structure that betrays black students at multiple levels, but on black students themselves whom she condemns for wasting time in front of television sets. The first lady’s remarks about black youth fantasizing about “being a baller or a rapper” might cut extraordinarily deep for those youth who essentially learn literary criticism by close readings of rap lyrics. Those youth are grasping rhyme, metaphor and syntax before the concepts are even introduced in their public school. And there is innately nothing wrong with—and, in fact, much to be celebrated about—the art of hip-hop, or learning to survive as a so-called baller when other avenues have systemically been closed to you.