During President Obama's recent speech to the black men who graduated from Morehouse College he uttered this amazing statement: "Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you've gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and they overcame them."
Obama is president of the United States at a time when the New York City Police Department is being sued for a "stop and frisk" policy that targeted black and brown people. For him to tell young black men who have struggled already against adversity that "nobody cares if you've suffered some discrimination" demonstrates a mindset that is prevalent, to be sure, but is unmistakably oppressive and unjust.
The ethical responsibility (since Mr. Obama chose to talk about responsibility) of people blessed with power and influence is to use those blessings to relieve suffering, not ignore it by claiming nobody cares. If anyone must care, it must be the people with the power to lift barriers, confront unjust practices and policies, and grant relief to people whose opportunities and lives have been hurt by them. It remains Obama's job as president to remind the nation that racism, sexism and other forms of injustice still matter and must not be ignored.
Imagine the outcry had Obama told a group of Latino graduates that "nobody cares about discrimination." Or imagine the furor had he told female graduates of West Point, the Naval Academy, or the Air Force Academy that "nobody cares about discrimination" in the face of glaring reports about rapes, sexual harassment, and other mistreatment of women in the military.
Morehouse graduates already know that many people don't care about their historical and personal struggles against oppression. They should have been congratulated for persevering to this point in the face of oppression. Beyond that, however, Obama should have used his "bully pulpit" to proclaim that his administration will help them fight injustice, poverty, and other forces that have often sidelined ambitious and able-minded people of color. Then he should have returned to Washington and backed up his rhetoric with executive action.
President Obama could have reminded the nation that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Morehouse Man, murdered while he labored for economic justice for working people, and that working people continue to see their hopes attacked. Instead of using global economics as an excuse for ignoring those among us who have suffered undeserved hardships, he should have reminded these men and the wider society that our nation and the world will never enjoy peace or prosperity so long as the privileged few ignore the pain and hardships suffered daily by the unprivileged masses.
That message would have kept faith with Morehouse Men such as Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Howard Thurman. They never allowed us to use racism and discrimination as excuses. Yet they also never suggested to black people or the wider society that racism and discrimination are excusable.
President Obama delivered a politically popular speech because his remarks pandered to the myth of meritocracy that has long been the mantra of white privilege. Perhaps he doesn't know that a myth isn't reality. Perhaps he doesn't believe that the myth can or should be exposed as flawed and hurtful. Perhaps he knows (he is an educated fellow in many ways) but has decided that he would rather use his power and influence to perpetuate the myth rather than challenge it and denounce its continuing impact on the nation those Morehouse graduates must contend with.
Sadly, Obama is popular because he is crafty enough to use Martin Luther King's name, alma mater and memory to divert our attention from the harsh and ongoing realities of injustice and oppression that King spent his life challenging and which, at last, killed him. Obama is undoubtedly a skillful rhetorician. But it is saddening and infuriating to realize he has aligned his administration with the insensitive and insincere views of the privileged rather than obey the Biblical mandate to define justice and prosperity from the perspective of those who are vulnerable. According to Jesus, King, Mays, Thurman, and the legacy of the Biblical prophets, that is the true definition of a righteous (just) political leader and society, not pandering oratory.
Wendell Griffen is a Pulaski County circuit judge, pastor of the New Millennium Church and a former justice on the Arkansas Appeals Court.