Michelle Obama’s Speech At Bowie State University Fails To Obliterate Black-White Wealth Gap

michelle-obama-speechAh, here’s a subject that people, especially white people, just love to get all pissy about (disclaimer: I am white, and I am not exempt from this). Michelle Obama recently gave a commencement speech at Bowie State University in which she laments the fact that so many young black people aspire to be sports stars and rappers instead of pursuing mentally challenging careers. She blames it primarily on a lack of personal motivation. Given the setting, I think her speech, though maybe a little cliched, was appropriate. This wasn’t an inauguration speech, guys, it was a commencement speech. And what’s a commencement speech without a little cheese?

But then Alyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress criticizes Mrs. Obama for failing to see the real problems behind African Americans having skewed career ambitions — namely, the cultural problem of how we overvalue sports stars and coaches. Then, Rosenberg presents this gem:

And if we’re going to talk personal motivations, wanting to be “a baller or a rapper” is not a dream that’s solely the property of African-Americans. America has three major televised singing competitions right now, American Idol, The Voice, and X-Factor, all of which promise that it’s possible to rise from anonymity to remarkable fame and a career in music…Participation is hardly limited to African-American singers by design or choice. There are plenty of white folks who hope to make it big in the manner of Taylor Swift in the same way African-American boys might be dreaming of growing up to become Jay-Z.

At first, my instinct was to agree wholeheartedly. Everybody, regardless of color, seems to want fortune and fame. Growing up, I did, and I sincerely believed I wouldn’t be happy unless I was famous. And now I’m worried about my daughter watching all of these unrealistic shows on Disney and thinking that the only career worth a damn is singer or dancer or actress.

But at the same time, I’m not oblivious to the fact that my daughter has significant advantages over black children living in poverty. Because it’s “normal” for white people to aspire to all sorts of careers (not just balling and rapping), she won’t have to worry about getting bullied by her peers for having educational ambitions. Where a young black girl in Chicago might get ostracized for dreaming of being an engineer, my daughter would probably get a pat on the back for having the same aspiration.

That’s kind of why I have a problem with this aspect of the Think Progress article. It’s easy for the author, as a white woman who isn’t living in poverty, to sit pretty and diagnose all of these poor black people, and to one-up Mrs. Obama by saying she’s not really addressing the cultural problems here. It’s easy for me, as well, to think I’m making some kind of difference by writing about it here. But this isn’t something that well-off white people can fix by discussing with well-off white people.

I just think we need more success stories, but no more of the sappy, American Idol-style ones about rising from poverty into entertainment stardom. We need TV shows and movies about minorities overcoming poverty and becoming politicians, teachers, writers and inventors. This wouldn’t just help minority children, it would help the other half of the problem: the fact that a good chunk of (white) society still has a hard time imagining dark-skinned people doing anything successfully but balling and rapping.

American Idol: Teacher Edition, anyone? I can’t even fathom what that would look like, but I would watch the shit out of it.

(photo: meltechfoto / Shutterstock)

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  • Blueathena623

    White lady talking here, could totally be talking out of my ass. I’ve been trying for 15 minutes now to figure out how to word this comment, but I can’t think of a good way, so I’m just going to go for it. I’ve worked in some inner city schools, and saw A LOT of the rapper/basketball/maybe football aspirations. I think Rosenberg is silly to compare this to American idol, etc., because Taylor swift is different from Kelly clarkson who is different from Pink who is different from Adele, and I’ve exhausted my mental knowledge of current female singers. The point is, white kids can do country, pop, rock, emo, indie, whatever genre I’m missing, while black kids get to be rappers. In terms of sports, black kids get basketball and some football, and white kids get every other sport. Yes, these are sweeping generalizations, because there are white rappers and black lacrosse players, but whatever. So maybe Rosenberg should focus more on this instead of saying “white people have this problem too!”

    • GreatWriter

      That is just stupid, Blueathena623. Where in the world do you get that black kids get to be rappers? Haven’t you heard of Slash in Guns N Roses? He’s a brother. Half white-half black nevertheless. So is Lenny Kravitz and he’s a rocker to the core. Why can’t the black guys be rock stars too? My son’s an avid screamer. Hello. The problem isn’t race. This is about class. I disagree with the original writer about the poor A-A kids. Please, there are as much poor white kids who are in the same boat. No one’s telling John Smith who lives in a trailer with his mom’s meth-head boyfriend that he’ll see the inside of a college; far less do more with himself.

    • Tusconian

      But people are telling John Smith, upper middle class black teenager with good grades and two doctors for parents, that he can’t before they learn those details. White John Smith from the trailer is assumed to be capable until he provides evidence that he “isn’t,” but Black John Smith from Hyde Park is assumed to be incapable until he provides prove that he “is.” And realistically, yes, Black John Smith is more likely to actually go to college of his own merits…..and will continue to be assumed to be incapable, accused of being chosen for a quota, and NEVER being able to present any evidence that will convince people. This is not exclusively a class issue, no matter how much low SES white people desperately want to think of themselves as the least privileged, or at least sharing in the least amount of privilege.

      And the dream of being rappers isn’t just something Blueathena23 made up because black=rap. Today’s society heavily discourages the involvement on black people in rock, if covertly. I will not, and I know many who share my opinions, ever go to a straight-up alternative music festival, nor concerts for certain rock and alternative bands, no matter how much I love them, because no matter how great the band is, their fans tend to be openly hostile. To the point that one alt-music fest was selling a lot of openly racist merchandise. Most bands don’t participate in this type of behavior, but most bands are also not comprised of teenagers sitting around, not making music, and saying that they’re going to get famous from their no music. Rap is seen as more of a safe space for black teens, at least black boys. I’m sure a lot of black boys want to play rock music, but they’re not encouraged, by members of either race. Also, keep in mind that the examples you’ve pulled up are old examples. Most teenagers nowadays don’t aspire to be Slash no matter what race they are, and while the hair metal scene had a pretty exclusive fan base, I think that today’s alternative scene is even more so. Even though there are probably more black rock musicians, it’s often not well known or publicized much, especially in stuff aimed at younger teenagers, where the fan bases tend to solidify.

  • Tusconian

    While it’s true that these aspirations of being rich and famous and glamorous for a profession that (in the minds of kids at least) basically equates to playing around a few days a week are pretty universal regardless of race or class, the implications of that changes when adults aren’t encouraging anything else. I don’t think it’s an issue of personal responsibility, at least not in the case of young people, because at a certain point, some kids never really get any encouragement to do anything else. They just see that rappers, football players, and singers make millions of dollars, and “normal people” are just scraping by on minimum wage. No one wants to just scrape by on minimum wage, and if the only other option presented is “be famous” because no one says “hey, you’re good at math, maybe you’d like to be a business person or a scientist,” then “famous” seems like the better option.

    Also, it should be noted that for a very long time, being an entertainer was just about the only way a black person could make a privileged living for themselves. There have been black doctors and inventors forever, but up until recently, it WAS more reasonable for a black person to expect to make money singing than it was for them to expect to get into medical school.

    • Blueathena623

      How do you define recently?

    • Tusconian

      To be honest, even today the only real way for black people to make money and be taken seriously in their career while also not being perceived as a threat is to be an entertainer or a sports figure. However, the legal barriers to these things only came down when my parents were children. People like to pretend that is “lyke omg 4eva ago,” but the fact that there are people, and not terribly old people, for whom segregation of education was a reality that they grew up with means that this is certainly not ancient history.

  • insight

    How about we focus on the fact that there is an automatic assumption from all parties that the topic at hand is about poverty stricken African Americans. Does that mean the well off African American has no place in this discussion? Like it or not, Mrs. Obama spoke correctly to reach our youth because college is no longer glorified. We are no talking about poverty. We are not talking about the lack of opportunities in a sport which doesn’t guarantee any success. We are talking about the lost importance of education at a Historical Black College…White people, this wasn’t about you! It was about celebrating success and encouraging the graduates to pass on the torch.

  • Kristin

    Kudos to Mrs. Obama (and honestly I do not care for her husband). We need to encourage children of every background and gender to do what they want to do and provide role models plus hands-on opportunities and training. It must be very difficult in inner-city to do so no matter what the population. I can’t imagine what it’s like to teach or work in the schools. Something has to change.

  • LET

    I’m sorry, but why is this a race issue? I’m not ignorant enough to say there aren’t race issues in the US, but it seems to me that the argument made here should simply be about ALL those in a lower socioeconomic class, and not simply a certain race of people. I would say many young students of lower SES aspire to these things, not simply AA students, so I’m wondering why this is made to be a race issue, here. It isn’t, IMHO.
    I’ll be honest, I might just be nit picking because I don’t love Michelle Obama (crucify me!), but I really think it was inappropriate to make this about race. There are a lot of children that need support in the US, and they aren’t all minority students (of course, there are plenty of minority students who need & deserve aide, but it is short sighted to make this an issue of skin color).

    • Cal

      Well, I am pretty sure the speech was about race because she was giving it at a historically Black college. A commencement speech at a women’s college would heavily focus on women. And this IS actually a race issue because so little is expected of Black students, regardless of SES. There’s another speech to be made about issues of class, but this speech was appropriate at a HBCU.

  • ilkaisha

    You can argue that education isn’t “important” on the political level (the right-wing doesn’t want to fund it and the left can’t seem to make a sufficiently compelling case as to why they should), but if you want to do more than flip burgers, you’d better have that degree in your hand. You can’t even be a secretary in this country without a bachelor’s degree. It’s NOT special now, it’s pretty much a right of passage if you want to enter the work force. Real Talk: How can college possibly be glorified and encouraged when it’s been reduced to a necessity for which you’ll pay out of your rear? Thousands of diploma mill schools are created to RIP students off and leave them in ridiculous amounts of debt while offering little educational value, furthering the demise of the blue-collar job force and pushing people EVEN FURTHER into poverty and debt. It’s a cycle DESIGNED to perpetuate inequity: Demand more from prospective employees in the way of education, pay less and offer fewer incentives in the form of benefits, lord yourselves over them by telling them they’re lucky to have a job at all “in this economy”, and cash in on the difference. Brilliant!

    It’s literally INSANE how much tuition costs have risen when compared to inflation: When my boyfriend went to college in 1993, minimum wage was $4.75, and you could go to college for around $35 a credit hour. Now, minimum wage has gone up about $3 or 63%, but credit hours cost an average of $300, or an increase of about 857%. How in the hell . . . with whose money . . . can ANY lower-class individual pull it off without assistance? Yeah, they can take out loans, but education HAS to become a priority in our country. When our young people extend themselves and succeed, we all succeed. When did we become the nation full of “I got mine, screw you?”

    Being famous seems like an awesome solution to forced poverty in my opinion. I don’t blame them for trying. At all.

    • kwame_zulu_shabazz

      @ikaisha Thank you for getting to the crux of the matter. As you note, tuition costs have ballooned, making a college education huge burden for the average American. As is typically the case, America’s many shortcomings are tenfold for African Americans who, as a group, still remain at the bottom of virtually all quality of life indicators. White supremacy didn’t melt away in the 1960s, it became more insidious and structural. Barack Obama centrist leanings haven’t helped matters. His economic policies have been especially damaging for students at Historically Black institutions (Bing it). And the Obamas tendency to blame the victims is insulting–the First Lady employs the very same stereotype she claims we should reject. Crappy public schools, trillions for war, a government at perpetual war with its black citizens. The outcome is predictable. kzs

    • Blooming_Babies

      Not to mention that once you get out of college that crushing debt will ruin your life. If you can’t pay it they will garnish your wages, take your tax return, and ruin your credit. There is no escape, no bankruptcy, no refinancing, no help.