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By David J. Leonard | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)


Friday, May 24, 2013.


From Jimmy Iovine to Cory Booker, America’s cultural, educational and political elite is gracing the halls of academy to celebrate the nation’s education successes (along with their movement back to their parent’s couches).  President Obama offered the following at the Morehouse Commencement:


"We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. Growing up, I made a few myself. And I have to confess, sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. But one of the things you've learned over the last four years is that there's no longer any room for excuses. I understand that there's a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: "excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness."


"We've got no time for excuses – not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven't. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that's still out there. It's just that in today's hyper-connected, hyper-competitive 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."


Excuses, really?  He might have as well told black America to stop “playing the race card.” If only he went to Ohio State and told white America to stop playing “the race denial card.”


Didn’t he tell the nation that he wasn’t the president of black America, but the United States of America?  Or does that not count at HBCU graduations and NAACP meetings? Beyond the double standards, President Obama would never remind white America that we don’t have time for our excuses. He would never note that less than 1% of scholarships are reserved for students of color. He would never remind white audiences that affirmative action or minority scholarships have nothing to do with why Greg or Jan did not get into their desired school.


Nor would he go and tell white America that we will need to work harder since the era of unearned advantages of getting call backs for jobs because of one’s name or ones place in the old boy’s network is coming to end. Neither President Obama nor a white president would call out White America demanding that the excuses of video games or movies, hip-hop or anything else would be used to explanation away mass shootings committed by white men (70% of them). Tim Wise makes all this clear when he writes:


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.


Yet beyond the hypocrisy here and in speeches about gun violence (parents matter in Chicago but not in Newtown), the tone of American Exceptionalism wrapped up in bootstraps, culture, choices, and admonishments to “do better”—in the absence of any discussion of policy or institutions—is troubling.


The adulation for the American Dream and the celebration of education as the great equalizer was nothing new for President Obama, who campaigned with this message.  Emphasizing the failures of the black community to take advantage of opportunities, then-Senator Obama perpetuated the myth that there are more black men in prison than in college: “We have more black men in prison than we have in our colleges.”   


Terrible except it isn’t true.  As of 2013, there are 1.4 million black men in college compared to 840,000 in prison.  Over 5.5% of all college students in 2010 were black males, which is proportional to population.  Ivory Toldson, associate professor at Howard University, recently highlighted the fallacy and the danger in the perpetuation of misinformation based in racial stereotypes: “We will not sufficiently support black male college students – nor college-bound students – if we simply keep perpetuating the myth that juxtaposes their needs with those of black males in the criminal-justice system.” In other words, in President Obama’s utterance of this myth, as with Ms. Obama’s commencement speech, facts remain an inconvenient truth.


Look at the numbers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics: “From 1976 to 2010, the percentage of Hispanic students rose from 3 percent to 13 percent, the percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students rose from 2 percent to 6 percent, and the percentage of Black students rose from 9 percent to 14 percent. During the same period, the percentage of White students fell from 83 percent to 61 percent.”  In the era of hip-hop and growing visibility of sports, black educational success has been on the rise; whites educational attainment, on the other hand, has been in steady decline.  “Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re clearly fantasizing about becoming reality TV stars and extreme sports champions.


The inequalities within higher education rests not with separate aspirations and unequal dreams but with the failures of colleges and universities to produce diverse graduates.  According to a new report from the American Council on Education, “the pool of students leaving with a bachelor’s degree is less diverse than the pool entering or remaining in college.”  A recent report from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and several scholars, entitled "Challenging the Status Quo," only 16 percent of African American men complete degrees after enrolling compared to 32 percent of white men (& 20 percent of black women).  Whether because of financial difficulties, rising tuition costs, the lack of mentors, isolation, or campus climate, universities are failing black students.  The dreams and aspirations are clear; the problem is with the mechanism to turn them into reality.


Instead of addressing the obstacles that lead black youth to dropout from colleges and universities, the Obamas have recycled the tried and tested narrative that blames the black community for its own problems. Instead of curtailing school closures and combating the impact of high-stakes testing that fuels dropouts, the Obamas offer a remix that sees poor values and choices as the true problem.  Instead of challenging the daily message sent to black youth that their education isn’t a societal priority, the Obamas have taken aim at black parents. 


Clearly erasing facts and research is clearly a bipartisan affair.


According to Douglas S. Massey, Camille Z. Charles, Garvey Lundy and Mary J. Fischer, black parents are more likely than their white counterparts to check on homework completion; 60-75% of black youth report that their parents regularly read to them.  Black parents are also more likely to assist their children with homework; they are equally as likely to attend parent-teacher conferences.  Yet, the myth of black disinterest in school persists.  Despite the fact that black 12 graders are twice as likely to have perfect attendance records and are less likely to have missed more than 7 days of school in a semester compared to their white peers, the blame game persists.  The commitment to education and the value placed upon learning has been on full display with students walking out in Newark and Chicago demanding better schools.   


It would have been nice if the Obamas had celebrated these students who are standing up and demanding a better education; it would have been great had their speeches highlighted the students in Seattle and NY saying no to testing and yes to learning.  Even better, can you imagine a speech that said “no more excuses America, no more talking points about debts and austerity,” all children deserve a chance, a reasonable chance to go to college without mortgaging their futures. 


Maybe, no more excuses that blame immigrants for rising costs of health care and instead says, “everyone has a fundamental right to Life and that requires health care.”  How about no more excuses for drones and Guantanamo Bay. 


If not a speech pushing the nation to move beyond excuses for unjust wars and destructive foreign policies, how about one that connects history, persistent excuses, white denial, and the policy of the future.  It could start with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Morehouse Man, who wrote,


No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries…Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law.



No more excuses


National health care


No more excuses


End to war on drugs


No more excuses


End the closure of schools


No more excuses


Fair wages


No more excuses


A just tax system


No more excuses


A speech that doesn’t blame individuals but demands we all be better, starting with the very institutions that govern the nation


Or maybe a speech that just challenged the destructive and harmful rhetoric of demanding that people pull themselves up by their bootstraps: “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps” (King)


Cruel indeed.




David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysisLeonard’s latest books include After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness  (SUNY Press) and African Americans on Television: Race-ing for Ratings (Praeger Press) co-edited with Lisa Guerrero.


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