University commencement addresses are often painfully banal. Greg Brown, the CEO of Motorola, spoke at my graduation; the only thing missing from his speech was a PowerPoint slideshow.
Commencement addresses from politicians tend to be even worse. President Obama’s May 5 commencement address at Ohio State University, for example, was filled with partisanship aimed more at moving polls than inspiring students. Obama told the Buckeye crowd, “You’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems. . . . You should reject these voices.” The president’s timing was not great, as news of the IRS scandal broke soon afterwards, followed by the Associated Press and James Rosen scandals.
Still, we should give credit where it’s due. President Obama’s commencement address to Morehouse College, the all-male, historically black college, this past Sunday was the best speech of his presidency. And it was quite possibly his most conservative speech. (These two facts are, I believe, related.) The president’s speech focused on the Morehouse graduates’ relationship to the black community. In his speech, he channeled the views of black conservatives like Thomas Sowell and Clarence Thomas.
When discussing black politics, there’s a tendency to bifurcate all political discourse into the Booker T. Washington school and the W. E. B. Du Bois school. To greatly oversimplify, Washington wanted blacks to focus first and foremost on achieving economic security, whereas Du Bois wanted to educate an elite group of blacks to bring about political equality between the races. Washington is considered the forefather to the conservative school of black thought, and Du Bois to liberal thought.
This is a useful paradigm in many ways, but it fails to account for more recent debates within the black community. Consider, for example, the Cosby school vs. the Dyson school.
In 2004, Bill Cosby gave a speech to the NAACP to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. In it, he excoriated his fellow blacks, especially black parents, for their harmful lifestyles, and the black elites for making excuses for them. The speech is now known as the “Pound Cake Speech” due to this passage:
Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! And then we all run out and are outraged, “The cops shouldn’t have shot him.” What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand? I wanted a piece of pound cake just as bad as anybody else, and I looked at it and I had no money. And something called parenting said, “If you get caught with it you’re going to embarrass your mother.” Not “You’re going to get your butt kicked.” No. “You’re going to embarrass your family.”
Cosby went on to co-author a book with Dr. Alvin Poussaint called Come On People: On the Path From Victims to Victors. The essence of the Cosby school is that making excuses for people’s social ills is counterproductive. What the black community truly needs, the Cosby school teaches, is hard truths and tough love. Despite some unsubstantiated rumors, Cosby is not politically conservative, but his school does express a basic conservative vision of personal responsibility.
Georgetown professor and professional outrage-monger Michael Eric Dyson responded to Cosby’s speech and book with his own book, Is Bill Cosby Right?: Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? In his book, Dyson recounts an interview he gave to the New York Times, in which he accused Cosby of “betray[ing] classist, elitist viewpoints rooted in generational warfare,” of being “ill-informed on the critical and complex issues that shape people’s lives,” and of “reinforc[ing] suspicions about black humanity.” In another interview with the Times, Dyson called Cosby “a supreme pitchman for American corporate capitalism for nearly 40 years.” Dyson, on the other hand, doesn’t “believe in that kind of American John Wayne individualism where people pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” After all, “Someone changed your diapers. And if that’s the case, you ain’t self-made.” Obama mentioned neither Dyson nor Cosby in his Morehouse speech, but the speech in its entirety serves as a rebuttal to the Dyson school.
The problems for blacks, Obama told the Morehouse graduates, begin locally: “In troubled neighborhoods all across this country — many of them heavily African–American — too few of our citizens have role models to guide them.” In these neighborhoods, “too many of our men spend their youth not behind a desk in a classroom, but hanging out on the streets or brooding behind a jail cell.”
The solution to these problems does not lie in government, according the president. “We have individual responsibilities. There are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves.” The Morehouse graduates “now wield something even more powerful than the diploma you’re about to collect — and that’s the power of your example.” In other words, these industrious and intelligent college graduates should serve as inspirations for other blacks to, contra Dyson, “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” They themselves, not the government, can do this most effectively, according to the president.
President Obama then argued that blacks need better role models: “Just as Morehouse has taught you to expect more of yourselves, inspire those who look up to you to expect more of themselves.” This is necessary, because “many young men in our community continue to make bad choices.” Obama now admits that he “made quite a few” mistakes when he was young, and he explains that he “wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down.” He also “had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing.” But over the past four years, he’s learned that “there’s no longer any room for excuses.” Now, there are many examples of President Obama blaming the nation’s current problems on his predecessor, but the sentiment is still the correct one. And President Obama is not the first prominent black American to come to reject the premise that The Man will always keep black men down. It’s also a theme found throughout Clarence Thomas’s memoir, My Grandfather’s Son.
The president then advised the Morehouse audience, and by extension all of black America, to keep their problems in perspective. “You have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and they overcame them.” In an episode of Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose,” Thomas Sowell made a similar point when he observed, “There is not a predestined amount of teenage pregnancy. I grew up in an era where people, and particularly blacks, were a lot poorer than today, faced a lot more discrimination than today, and in which the teenage-pregnancy rate was a lot lower than today.” Out-of-wedlock births and teenage pregnancies among black women have increased over time, even as institutional racism has declined. It therefore makes little sense to blame the former on the latter.
In one passage, the president counseled the students to “keep setting an example for what it means to be a man,” instead of making excuses. “Be the best husband to your wife, or your boyfriend, or your partner. Be the best father you can be to your children. Because nothing is more important.” The president has suggested in past speeches that true collective action occurs only through government action, so it’s especially good to hear him emphasize the importance of families (even untraditional ones), which are the true building blocks of civil society.
Sure, Obama’s speech also included some references to Obamacare and other big government programs. But that’s not what it was about. Obama’s speech was about families and communities, about seizing opportunities, and, perhaps most important, refusing to make excuses. Conservatives have long heaped praise onto Bill Cosby for his honesty and his refusal to kowtow to political correctness. Obama did the same on Sunday, and he deserves conservatives’ praise.
— Noah Glyn is an editorial intern at National Review.