President Barack Obama visited Morehouse College on a rainy Sunday afternoon to give a refrain on the responsibility of Morehouse Men and black America to find dignity and progress in self-reliance, a refrain that has simultaneously proven exciting and excruciating for African Americans over the last four years.
His commencement speech was highly-anticipated as an opportunity to reconnect the Obama Administration with black legislators and thought leaders who have sharply criticized his approach to executive diversity, and policy directives aimed squarely and publicly at addressing social and financial disparities overwhelmingly affecting African-Americans. So anticipated was the president's visit, Morehouse leadership became mired in controversy for the botched handling of an alumnus baccalaureate speaker who criticized the president in an editorial in early April.
President Obama touched on race, opportunity, tradition and commitment, carefully couched within familiar anecdotes and colloquialisms designed to give signs and signals to black America that he is still our guy.
But key words stood out in the president's address -- bitterness, excuses, standards -- and one particular part of his speech that acknowledged the generational burden of the black American experience, but sternly cautioned against it as a crutch for failure to achieve the American dream.
We've got no time for excuses -- not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven't. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that's still out there. It's just that in today's hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven't earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured -- and overcame.
Some will call the president's speech good medicine for black America to cure the prevalent self-imposition of fear and failure in our culture. Some will call it racial contempt and a lack of nuanced awareness or concern about the painful and lasting affects of slavery. But in any interpretation, the most glaring omission from his address was the need for education, and specifically historically black colleges and universities, to be at the center of any cultural reform for Black America.
The Morehouse address was a chance for the president to tout the culture-based mission and access provided by HBCUs to the working and middle-class, populations he name-checked in his speech as beneficiaries of his advocacy for "an America where everybody has a fair shot in life." It was a moment for him to lift up HBCUs as the world's best and most stable resources committed to preserving racial pride and American patriotism through intellectual and professional innovation, all against the backdrop of America's lingering racial animus and covert segregation tactics.
Instead, he focused more on the product of HBCUs -- capable and brilliant black graduates -- and not the process by which they are molded and made. Throughout the speech, he gave examples of Morehouse alumni and new graduates as the models of hard work who, without complaint or concern for obstacles, have shaped and will shape a better way of life for themselves and their families.
But those examples have not been enough to change philanthropic priorities for wealthy Americans who are not engaged with black colleges, not enough to force federal agencies to make equitable grant-making opportunities for HBCUs in agriculture, science and tech, and the social sciences, and not enough to foster greater partnerships between the private sector and these schools.
Most of all, his speech was not enough to convince the next generation of high-achieving black students that black colleges should be the destination for those who genuinely want to begin a life of service and example for black communities.
And that may be President Obama's biggest challenge in crafting his impact as America's first black president on black people in the 21st century. His belief in the individual potential of black people is instantly recognizable, but his disconnection from creating attention and support for systems which specifically cultivate and inspire black people to realize that potential has been startling.
One thing we can all agree on is President Obama's optimism and insistence on what black men can do to secure our communities.
There are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves. There are some things, as Morehouse Men, that you are obliged to do for those still left behind. As graduates -- as Morehouse Men -- you now wield something even more powerful than the diploma you are about to collect. And that's the power of your example.
It would be nice if we could rely upon the president to embed that same message in his commentary for the institutions best equipped to develop that example -- historically black colleges and universities.