By Tim Wise
Sometimes, white privilege isn’t about stuff. It’s not always about better opportunities, or more money, or even greater access to those things than people of color.
Sometimes, white privilege is as simple as knowing that, generally speaking, if you’re white, you’ll be perceived as competent and hard-working until proven otherwise, while people of color — even those who have proven themselves competent and hard-working — will still be subjected to presumptions that they just might not be, and that somehow, they (but not you) need to be reminded of the importance of hard-work and personal responsibility, lest they (but never you) revert to some less impressive group mean.
To wit, President Obama’s commencement address today at Morehouse College — one of the nation’s preeminent institutions of higher learning, and perhaps its most famous historically black college or university — during which, among plenty of rather standard commencement speech boilerplate, the president lectured this year’s graduates about the importance of taking personal responsibility for their lives, and not blaming racism for whatever obstacles they may face in the future.
It’s hard to know what’s more disturbing.
Either that President Obama thinks black grads at one of the nation’s best colleges really need to be lectured about such matters; or, alternately, that White America is so desirous of exculpation for the history of racial discrimination that we need him to say such things, and he knows it, thereby leading him to feed us the moral scolding of black men we so desperately desire, and which he must know will be transmitted to us by way of media coverage of his talk.
Either way, the result is tragic.
If the former, then Barack Obama has for once and all revealed himself to be not nearly the deep and analytical thinker so many have long believed. After all, Morehouse men like the ones to whom the president delivered his commencement address today, are not the type to slack off, or make excuses for their shortcomings, or wait for others to do things for them. They earned admission to an amazing school, and have now graduated from said school, on the basis of their own merit and hard work. To hector them like they were potential supplicants looking for a handout is crass and beneath the dignity of a President of the United States, and especially one who shares the coloring of most, if not all of those graduates.
Barack Obama knows how demanding a school Morehouse is. So to preach hard work to these men, as if they had never heard of it — as if they now intended to kick back and wait for things to be handed to them — is to not only insult their intelligence, but also to feed every vicious stereotype already held by too many white Americans about black males, no matter how educated. It is to give us fuel for our already too-well-stoked racist fires, made ever hotter now by the ability to say, “See, even Obama knows the truth about black men! Even he knows they’re always making excuses for their failures.”
(And yes, I realize that admonitions to hard work, personal responsibility and “no excuses” have always been common in the black community — in large measure because of the history and contemporary reality of racism, both of which the president rightly acknowledged in the address — but those typically are offered behind closed doors, not in public and by the most prominent person in the country, within listening range of white ears, more than a little prepared to hear only the parts that reinforce pre-existing biases).
Meanwhile, if the President thought it necessary to upbraid this year’s Morehouse graduates about not being lazy or using racism as an excuse for their shortcomings, precisely because he thinks (or perhaps knows) that white folks love that shit — the second possibility — then that too is pitiable.
First, that Barack Obama sometimes seems to think he still needs to go out of his way to please white people is maddening. The white folks open to liking him don’t need him to serve as black folks’ moral scold, and the ones who need that will never be satisfied until he does the full Herman Cain: which is to say, until he is prepared to basically lay all the problems of the nation at the feet of folks of color and sing Negro spirituals in white churches while little old white ladies, either literally or figuratively, rub his head.
To the extent the president no longer needs white folks to like him for the sake of re-election, that he regularly panders to our biases about the black community — as with his repeated lectures to black men, but only black men, on multiple father’s days to be better dads (cuz God knows white men need no similar instruction!) — suggests that perhaps it is he whose views of the black community are to blame here. Perhaps it is he who has internalized the idea that black people, even highly educated ones, are would-be malingerers, just waiting for a reason to go soft and “blame the world for trying to keep a black man down” (yes, he actually used that phrase in his speech).
Needless to say, Barack Obama will never tell white people at a traditionally white college or university to stop blaming affirmative action for every job we didn’t get, or every law school we didn’t get into, though we’ve been known to use both of these excuses on more than a few occasions.
He won’t tell white graduates at a traditionally white college or university to stop blaming Latino/a immigrants, for “taking our jobs,” which excuse we’ve also been known to float from time to time.
He would never tell graduates at a mostly white college to stop blaming immigrants, or so-called welfare for our supposedly high tax burdens, even though these remain popular, albeit incorrect, scapegoats for whatever taxes we pay.
He won’t tell white grads at white colleges to reject the entreaties of their right-wing radio hosts and talking heads, who keep blaming the Community Reinvestment Act and other fair housing laws for the mortgage and larger economic meltdown, even though such things were not to blame.
In short, to Barack Obama, it is only black people who need lectures about personal responsibility. Only they who make excuses when things don’t go their way. Only they who need to be reminded to do their best, because white graduates — like the majority of the grads at Ohio State to whom he also spoke recently — have got all that on lock. Their work ethics are unassailable. They would never make excuses for their failings. They would never blame a 35 percent tax rate, or capital gains taxes, for instance, for causing them to not invest their money, or create jobs. They would never blame gay marriage for threatening their own heterosexual marriage.
Because white people never make excuses for anything.
And so we get to remain un-lectured, un-stigmatized, un-bothered, and un-burdened with a reminder of our own need to be responsible. We get to remain, in short, privileged and presumed competent, presumed hard-working, presumed responsible, until proven otherwise, while even some of the best and brightest black men in America will start their careers having been weighted down with the realization that even the president, at some level, doesn’t really trust them to do the right thing, unless reminded to do so first, and by him.
Quite a mixed blessing, such a graduation gift as that.
Tim Wise, whom philosopher Cornel West calls, “A vanilla brother in the tradition of (antiracism and antislavery fighter) John Brown,” is among the most prominent anti-racist writers and educators in the United States. He has been called “One of the most brilliant, articulate and courageous critics of white privilege in the nation,” by best-selling author and professor Michael Eric Dyson, of Georgetown University. Wise, who was named one of “25 Visionaries Who are Changing Your World,” by Utne Reader in 2010, has spoken in all 50 states of the U.S., on over 800 college and high school campuses, and to community groups across the nation. He has also lectured internationally in Canada and Bermuda on issues of comparative racism, race and education, racism and religion, and racism in the labor market.