On Sunday, President Obama delivered a commencement address at Morehouse College, the historically black all-male school, espousing personal responsibility and exhorting graduates to not use their race as an excuse for failure.
"We've got no time for excuses — not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven't," Obama said. "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."
For the most part, Obama's speech was well-received, both by his audience and the national press. "He spoke movingly of his struggles to discuss the responsibility of men as fathers and husbands, and the need for the young graduates to be role models," wrote Zeke J. Miller at TIME.
Yet while the president sought to strike an inspirational tone with his message, some viewed his race-based remarks as part of a disturbing pattern in which he has held blacks to a different standard than other demographics.
The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that while the president urged African Americans to accept personal responsibility, he has not made that the focus of his remarks to other groups.
Taking the full measure of the Obama presidency thus far, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people — and particularly black youth — and another way of addressing everyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the president telling the women of Barnard that "there's no longer room for any excuses" — as though they were in the business of making them. Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of "all America," but he also is singularly the scold of "black America." [The Atlantic]
Further, Coates says that Obama's focus on his personal background omitted the important role social policy plays in preparing people for success. He argues that the president, as the most powerful policy-maker n the nation, is in a prime position to affect those policies.
"As the president of 'all America,' Barack Obama inherited that policy," he says. "I would not suggest that it is in his power to singlehandedly repair history. But I would say that, in his role as American president, it is wrong for him to handwave at history, to speak as though the government he represents is somehow only partly to blame."
A similar criticism of the president caused an uproar at Morehouse, and led the college to reduce the role of pastor Kevin Johnson in its graduation ceremonies. Johnson had criticized what he said was a lack of diversity in the president's cabinet, in an op-ed titled, "A President for Everyone, Except Black People." Obama "is more of a historical leader than he is a transformational leader for the African-American community," Johnson wrote.
Rich Benjamin, writing in Salon, said the speech had an "ironic whiff" because the president shied away from discussing, in stark terms, the economic disparity between races in America. Rather than focusing on how the recession is "throwing non–college educated black men under the bus," the president, employing "creaking racial symbolism," instead told graduates to not throw themselves under the bus.
Similarly, Jarrett L. Carter asked why the president talked about what graduates could do for themselves, but not about what he could do for them. Writing in the Huffington Post, Carter, the founding editor of a website that covers historically black universities, said the president could have done more to promote existing institutions that develop young men into future leaders.
"His belief in the individual potential of black people is instantly recognizable, but his disconnection from creating attention and support for systems which specifically cultivate and inspire black people to realize that potential has been startling," he says.