So I will say a couple of things about this, from First Lady Michelle Obama’s commencement speech Saturday at Tuskagee University. First, here are her remarks. Or you can watch the video below.
The road ahead is not going to be easy. It never is, especially for folks like you and me. Because while we’ve come so far, the truth is that those age-old problems are stubborn and they haven’t fully gone away. So there will be times, just like for those Airmen, when you feel like folks look right past you, or they see just a fraction of who you really are.
The world won’t always see you in those caps and gowns. They won’t know how hard you worked and how much you sacrificed to make it to this day — the countless hours you spent studying to get this diploma, the multiple jobs you worked to pay for school, the times you had to drive home and take care of your grandma, the evenings you gave up to volunteer at a food bank or organize a campus fundraiser. They don’t know that part of you.
Instead they will make assumptions about who they think you are based on their limited notion of the world. And my husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be. We’ve both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives — the folks who crossed the street in fear of their safety; the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores; the people at formal events who assumed we were the “help” — and those who have questioned our intelligence, our honesty, even our love of this country.
And I know that these little indignities are obviously nothing compared to what folks across the country are dealing with every single day — those nagging worries that you’re going to get stopped or pulled over for absolutely no reason; the fear that your job application will be overlooked because of the way your name sounds; the agony of sending your kids to schools that may no longer be separate, but are far from equal; the realization that no matter how far you rise in life, how hard you work to be a good person, a good parent, a good citizen — for some folks, it will never be enough. (Applause.)
And all of that is going to be a heavy burden to carry. It can feel isolating. It can make you feel like your life somehow doesn’t matter — that you’re like the invisible man that Tuskegee grad Ralph Ellison wrote about all those years ago. And as we’ve seen over the past few years, those feelings are real. They’re rooted in decades of structural challenges that have made too many folks feel frustrated and invisible. And those feelings are playing out in communities like Baltimore and Ferguson and so many others across this country. (Applause.)
But, graduates, today, I want to be very clear that those feelings are not an excuse to just throw up our hands and give up. (Applause.) Not an excuse. They are not an excuse to lose hope. To succumb to feelings of despair and anger only means that in the end, we lose.
But here’s the thing — our history provides us with a better story, a better blueprint for how we can win. It teaches us that when we pull ourselves out of those lowest emotional depths, and we channel our frustrations into studying and organizing and banding together — then we can build ourselves and our communities up. We can take on those deep-rooted problems, and together — together — we can overcome anything that stands in our way.
I don’t frankly agree with some of the other commenters I’ve seen on the right, who have made snide points to the effect of, “Poor Mrs. Obama, with her wonderful lifestyle, still complaining.”
People can have beautiful lives and still feel the sting of racism, and certainly have experienced it on the way up. It carves out wounds that never heal, even when you become first lady of the United States.
It’s clear here is that Mrs. Obama, who also last week talked about the alienation black children feel in museums, has decided to jettison the nonracial, less-controversial public image created for her just before and after the Obamas entered the White House in 2008.
Fine. My concern here is that both of the Obamas seem to now be making race a very large focus on their agenda. And this can end up being dangerously divisive.
This country has come a long way on race. Though it took long enough, we have dealt with our racial differences in a far more successful and noble fashion than almost any other society with racial divides. I’m still waiting for the first non-white leader of a European nation, for example.
That there continue to be racial problems is without question. But this is not the chief issue holding African Americans back from their place as full economic and social equals with everyone else in their country.
The main problem used to be white oppression. Now the main problem is from within the black community. A problem, that, in my view, is stoked by liberal economic, social, and cultural policies.
Without sacrificing the things that are sublime about black culture, African Americans need to become more integrated into the general culture. Not that there’s so much that’s great about the general culture these days, but still it has to happen. But the change, abetted by better government policies designed to lift all, has to come from within.
To the extent the Obamas are going to be flagging race on a constant basis, we are going to become more divided. I know this is not their intent. But it will be the result. And it will do nothing to solve the deep, entrenched problems of the inner city.
We need, instead, a message of togetherness.
Now if that doesn’t send a chill down your spine, even after hearing it many times, nothing will.