The highlight of Black History Month took place when former President Barack Obama, along with basketball star Steph Curry, took center stage in Oakland, California to address issues facing young men of color. Obama and Curry were not there to talk about how to change federal policy. Instead, they discussed tangible ways in which young black men can facilitate stronger and safer communities.
The town hall event, sponsored by Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper Initiative,” stressed the values of community mentorship and personal responsibility. The topics raised were wide-ranging. Among them were ways to support young men without fathers, how to reject toxic masculinity, and the importance of embracing monogamy.
Obama spoke candidly about how communities need to raise the level of expectation for how young black men should act. Emphasizing that “real” men do not show their manhood by disrespecting others, or by putting women down, he tried to counteract some of the pernicious elements of culture that are found in some black communities. It was a timely reminder that a strong moral compass makes a difference in life.
He also talked about the value of education. Sitting next to one of the NBA’s greatest players, he told young men they had a better chance of being a lawyer or a doctor than a professional basketball player. In my mind, these nuggets of wisdom Obama imparted were not controversial. But unsurprisingly, some people were upset with him for raising these issues.
Obama’s advice to black youngsters was a deviation from the “victimhood” narrative that is widely accepted among many left-leaning circles as the only constructive way to talk about race.
Some columnists openly criticized the former President and almost all Democratic Presidential candidates offered no praise. (Only Kamala Harris offered a tweet in support.) The lack of praise for Obama’s actions is disheartening.
It’s troubling that more than 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement, there is no space in our political discourse for equal attention to the value of personal responsibility that we give to deconstructing institutional barriers.
One columnist in particular, Derecka Purnell, published a piece entitled “Why Does Obama Scold Black Boys?” The fiery piece characterizes Obama’s message as patronizing and on par with how “conservatives depict black people.”
In her defense of her argument, she cites Cornell West’s book “Race Matters,” which says:
“Conservatives accuse them of being lazy and demand self-improvement. Liberals pity blacks for not being able to help themselves. Neither conservatives nor liberals sufficiently challenge racist people or institutions that have long exploited poor people and people of color.
Purnell does have a point. (Some, not all) conservatives have a history of using the rhetoric of personal responsibility as a weapon against blacks in order to advocate against particular policy changes.
But just because some have used it to inhibit legislative action does not mean the underlying message has no substance. Telling young black men to respect women, be role models in their community, and prioritize educational achievements over athletics are not partisan statements. In fact, the encouragement of a strong moral compass and personal accountability is within the African American tradition.
Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for the very same principles that Obama talked about.
In a 1953 sermon, King preached that:
“One of the most common tendencies of human nature is that of placing responsibility on some external agency for sins we have committed or mistakes we have made. We are forever attempting to find some scapegoat on which we cast responsibility for our actions."
But he also gives equal weight to how institutional barriers shape our lives. To capture his message, I quote him at length:
“I must hasten to say that the above assertions do not mean to imply that heredity and environment are not important. I happen to be a firm believer in what is called the “social gospel.” Indeed, no one can intelligently care for personal life without caring about genetics and social reform. Moreover, the above assertions do not mean to imply that our actions are not somewhat conditioned by external influences.
It goes without saying that when King gave this speech in 1953, racial equality was abysmal at best.
But in spite of that, King understood the need to give equal weight to personal responsibility. He understood that African Americans were not helpless victims unable to take control over certain aspects of their lives. As he moved further into his career, he would not abandon this belief. King and other black leaders at the time spoke-openly about the importance for more responsible behavior in black communities.
It’s unlikely that anyone at the time believed that King didn’t understand the impact of structural inequities. So why do some not give Obama the benefit of the doubt?
I think it’s because talking about personal responsibility changes the conversation that one side has built a narrative around. Purnell further writes in her piece:
“Programs like My Brother’s Keeper insist on making better versions of Trayvon Martin, the black victim, instead of asking how to stop creating people like George Zimmerman, the racist vigilant. Rather than encouraging them to dismantle systems that deepen wealth inequality, Mr. Obama tells black boys to tuck in their chains."
I disagree. Programs like MBK give black men a sense of moral agency that can make them into the best versions of themselves, in a world that doesn’t always hand out a second chance.
And if we were serious about solving racial issues, we would be willing to engage seriously with both sides of this issue.
From a policy standpoint, the myopic focus on dismantling “systems” is incomplete. It’s a mental shortcut that posits the idea that the only way for the improvement of black life is through some governmental intervention and policy change.
The critics will argue, as Purnell does, that social and legislative change are what is required to bring about the justice we deserve.
For the record, I agree — sort of.
I want greater access to healthcare, more funding for education, and an equitable criminal justice system. We need a reorientation of our public policy with greater magnitude and depth than we’ve ever seen before.
But that’s not all I, nor we, should want.
Is it really possible that by authorizing this social program, appropriating more money to some agency, or increasing federal oversight will suddenly deliver the kind of justice we want to see?
I don’t think so. It’s a seductive argument but a weak one that gives no weight to answering moral questions. Instead, a more comprehensive approach in which we equally address internal behaviors and external systems that perpetuate inequality, is a better path forward.
Obama is a little late to the party. But since leaving office, his devotion to ensuring black men take personal steps to bettering themselves is worthy of all our praise. And through his actions, he is re-claiming the personal responsibility narrative from those who historically employed it for partisan gain. Unlike some conservatives in the past who pejoratively talked about “personal responsibility” without any real follow up, Obama is dedicating considerable energy to showing how black men can actually better themselves and their community.
Across generations, black leaders like Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and Martin Luther King Jr., all believed that living a moral life and taking responsibility for your own actions are essential to the black identity. Obama’s revival of the topic, in a responsible and focused manner, reminds us of this tradition. And that is why it was the highlight of Black History Month.
If you still disagree with me, I ask you to ponder the following questions: Is there anything that Obama said in that town hall that you would not tell your own son?
And if you would tell your own children to do so, why do we not unanimously praise Obama when he does it?
If the folks on both sides of this divide would equally embrace the nuances in these issues, perhaps we would see a healthier discourse, more effective public policy and a better America. But doing so requires that we leave our ideological and political motivations at the door.
Let us not forget: black history is American history, black progress is American progress, and black struggles are American struggles. Therefore, the impetus is on all of us — regardless of party, race, or ideology — to engage with these issues in holistic and constructive ways. The stakes are too high, the promises of equality are long overdue, and the Americans whose lives we are trying to improve deserve better.
Brandon is a fourth-year undergraduate student at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. He is primarily interested in criminal justice reform and healthcare policy. Last summer, he interned at a Democratic speechwriting and strategy firm in Washington, D.C., where he helped influential political and business leaders tell their stories. You can contact the author at email@example.com.
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