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Opinion | Michael P. Jeffries

Obama’s evolution on race relations still leaves room for improvement

President Barack Obama attended Howard University's commencement ceremony in Washington onSaturday. Zach Gibson/NYT

“Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person.”

Howard University alum Zora Neale Hurston observed and spoke this truth, and President Barack Obama invoked it as part of his commencement address at Howard last Saturday. Obama used Hurston’s quotation to explain why we need democracy and compromise, even in our darkest and most desperate political moments. But he could just as easily have been talking about himself.

Speaking to graduates, President Obama highlighted black excellence. He challenged notions of black authenticity, pointing out that Howard graduates know better that there is “more than one way to be black.” He urged everyone to “embrace our own beautiful, unique, and valid versions of our blackness.”


His critics may discuss such sentiments as empty flattery, but I, for one, never thought I’d hear an American president telling college students to “be confident in your blackness,” and affirming every single version of blackness as “beautiful.” Obama offered graduates his touchstones — hope, change, progress — but also lessons for future black leaders. Ever since he was a candidate for the White House, the president’s views on race have been parsed, and this latest address offered keen insight into how Obama has evolved as he heads into his final days in office. It also showed how much further he has to go.

The president argued America is more open and fair than it was when he graduated college, and this is the best time in American and global history to be “young, gifted, and black.” As evidence, he cited declining poverty, crime, and teen pregnancy rates across all groups, and improvements in black college graduation and employment. Obama also added that race relations are better, not because he magically cleansed our country of its racial sins, but because he was elected twice, which is a reflection of racial attitudes.


In 2013, the president delivered the commencement address at Morehouse College, another historically black institution. That advice and inspiration of the speech came with a heavy dose of admonishment. The president seemed to validate many of the most damaging stereotypes of black manhood, emphasizing black personal responsibility at the expense of national responsibility to uproot racism. “Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was,” he warned those about to enter the global job market. “Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and they overcame them.”

The Morehouse speech was panned as yet another example of the president’s penchant for publicly speaking down to blacks. No doubt, the critics expected more of the same when Obama took the podium at Howard. But his more recent remarks, while a departure from the past, raised a different set of questions, starting with just what the president means by the “race relations” he insists have improved.

If “race relations” means animus towards people of color, several studies since 2008 suggest Obama’s election spurred an uptick in white supremacist attitudes and activism. Donald Trump’s candidacy illustrates the popularity and power of these phenomena. If “race relations” refers to living conditions rather than beliefs, more holes can be poked in the argument, as shameful racial inequities in employment, incarceration, and wealth have remained stagnant at best over the past eight years.


If Obama irresponsibly downplayed these inconvenient truths at Morehouse, he addressed them more earnestly at Howard, noting that a black woman is only paid 66 cents for every $1 earned by an equally qualified white man, and that mass incarceration has exploded since his college days. In one striking passage, he reminded the audience: “We have cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were, but somehow got ground down by structures that are unfair and unjust.” Rather than individual failings, Obama shifted responsibility away from black families and toward the institutions that produce black suffering.

Obama also used the Howard speech to repair his own relations with the Black Lives Matter movement, which had not crystallized when he spoke to Morehouse graduates. Last month the president made waves when he said of the activists, “You’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention . . . and elected officials are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep yelling at them. And you can’t refuse to meet because that would compromise the purity of your position.” The sound bite that became a national news story was, “you can’t just keep yelling,” which came across as dismissive and disrespectful.

At Howard, Obama explicitly thanked Black Lives Matter for focusing the nation’s attention on the real problems with America’s criminal justice system. But he also offered specific advice on how to navigate the brave new world that movement itself has shaped: organize and compromise. Because justice and democracy require allies, he emphasized, you must use of the weapons you have, especially the vote — it is election season, after all — and be prepared to sit at the table and listen.


To demonstrate the power of these rules for change, Obama cited two examples. First, he recalled passing Illinois’s first racial profiling law as a state senator. Had he unrelentingly criticized police, instead of inviting them to the table as allies, the legislation would have died.

The second example is that of Brittany Packnett, one of the activists at the forefront of Black Lives Matter, who recently joined the White House task force on 21st century policing. If “Brittany had refused to participate out of some sense of ideological purity,” Obama said, “then those great ideas would have just remained ideas. But she did participate. And that’s how change happens.”

What Obama left out is that Packnett is not an anomaly among Black Lives Matter leadership. Protestors have interrupted campaign events for Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump, but activist DeRay McKesson certainly believes in voting: He ran for mayor of Baltimore. The Chicago-based Black Youth Project has protested mayor Rahm Emanuel and held rallies in the name of Rekia Boyd and other victims of police violence. The organization has also published research reports, and its directors have worked with several well established and likeminded groups, including the NAACP.


So, in many respects, Black Lives Matter is already living out the charge put forth by the president. Compromise must be a two-way street. Activists’ political immaturity is not the primary barrier to progress. Change is slow to arrive because racism has deep roots, neutrality sustains injustice, and the opposition uses abhorrent bigotry as fuel for reactionary politics.

Graduation season is almost over, and Obama doesn’t have many more speeches to give as president. Those jaded by Obama’s rhetoric may have tuned him out by now, but in Hurston’s words, he was not “the same thing” at Howard as he was at Morehouse. Perhaps we will see him differently once or twice more.

Michael P. Jeffries is an associate professor of American studies at Wellesley College and author of “Paint the White House Black: Barack Obama and the Meaning of Race in America.”