Hocus Pocus From Potus and Flotus
By David J. Leonard
It’s commencement season. Yet amid conservative complaints about liberal dominance of the commencement industry, some speeches have reverberated with conservative ideas. That was no more evident than when Michelle Obama took the opportunity to reiterate more of her husband’s politics of black respectability at Bowie State University.
She told the audience at the historically black college’s graduation last week that the focus on education had been lost by a community with a history in which slaves had risked their lives to learn to read. She spoke of the struggles to integrate America’s schools. But those words were a mere setup to yet again demonizing and pathologizing today’s black youth. “Instead of walking miles every day to school,” she said, “they’re sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.”
Reducing educational success to choices and blaming dropout rates on false dreams, such claims are a disservice to struggles for justice. Worse, the presumption is that one choice is good and rational, and the other pathological and irrational. The idea that dreaming of a career in hip-hop or athletics doesn’t prepare one to succeed in law or politics is problematic.
The first lady’s shaming message, praising the power of educational bootstraps, echoed her husband’s. At a 2009 speech before the NAACP, President Obama urged the African-American community to take better advantage of education’s equalizing potential. Irrespective of racism, inequality, or segregation, education was the ticket to freedom and prosperity. Urging students to stay in school and keep up their grades, he said, “No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands, and don’t you forget that.” He wanted students “aspiring to be scientists and engineers, doctors and teachers, not just ballers and rappers.”
If only it were that easy.
While the path to colleges is littered with school closures, the hegemony of the testing culture, and divestment from public education—pushing youth of color into the school-to-prison pipeline—the percentage of African-Americans attending colleges and universities is on the rise. That’s no thanks to President Obama, whose administration’s educational policy has done little to rectify persistent inequalities. The rising costs of higher education and the administration’s position on student loans have made it more difficult for African-American families, disproportionately hurt by the recession, to send their kids to college. Still, African-Americans are attending colleges and universities at record levels. Why not celebrate this reality?