Skip to main content

What Obama must say to African-American grads

By Paul Butler, Special to CNN
updated 4:22 PM EDT, Sat May 18, 2013
Paul Butler says when President Obama delivers the commencement address to Morehouse grads, he has explaining to do.
Paul Butler says when President Obama delivers the commencement address to Morehouse grads, he has explaining to do.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Butler: At Morehouse commencement speech, Obama must show grads he's a brother
  • He says blacks have supported him even as they've felt neglect as he's balanced his role
  • He says Obama should thank grads for support, provide role model of 21st century masculinity
  • Butler: Obama must show he's engaged on issue of disproportionate incarceration

Editor's note: Paul Butler is a law professor at Georgetown University. He is the author of "Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice."

(CNN) -- "My brothers."

That is how President Obama should begin one of the most significant speeches of his presidency: the commencement address at Morehouse College this Sunday. Addressing the historically black all male institution gives Obama an opportunity to rectify his strategic neglect of African-Americans. In this high-profile talk to his own demographic, the president has some explaining to do.

Obama's identity as a black man is usually communicated subliminally, with the swag in his walk, the basketball court on the East Lawn, the sexy glances at the first lady, his overall cool. Now, however, comes the time to be explicit: to speak out loud his affiliation, his fraternal pride and concern. That's the good work that calling us "brothers" would do.

Paul Butler
Paul Butler

In appearances before African-American audiences, the president sometimes sounds like he's saying the wrong thing. He told the Congressional Black Caucus to "stop grumbling, stop complaining, stop crying." In a Father's Day talk at a black church in Chicago, he criticized "too many fathers" for "acting like boys not men."

African-American men certainly could use an intervention from the most successful African-American man in history. They are on the bottom of many indicators of achievement. They suffer the highest level of incarceration, and the largest homicide rates, of any Americans. In urban areas, fewer than half graduate from high school. Their unemployment is among the highest in the country.

"I'm sorry I haven't done more."

The president has not spoken out forcefully against racial profiling and mass incarceration. He has not memorialized the mainly African-American victims of gun violence in Chicago the way he has memorialized the mainly white victims of gun violence in Newtown and Columbine. Asked why he hadn't done more to remedy the catastrophic rate of African-American unemployment, Obama said, "I can't pass laws that say I'm just helping black folks. I'm president of the entire United States."

"Thank you for your support."

Nobody understands, like this audience will, the contortions a successful African-American man has to make to fit in but stand out, to be strong but not intimidate or frighten, to be black enough but not too black.

But in some ways the African-American community has been too understanding. Emanuel Cleaver, while chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said "the president knows we are going to act in deference to him in a way we wouldn't to someone white." Politically it was not the smartest thing to say (the LGBT community didn't turn Obama into the most gay friendly president in U.S. history by going easy on him) but any black man could understand the sentiment. That's why the African-American turnout for the president's re-election was higher than the white turnout.

Now blacks who supported the president are doing exactly what other groups responsible for his victory are doing: waiting for him to return the favor.

"We've all got to do better."

The president isn't the only black man who needs to step up support of his brothers. My friend runs a mentoring organization for black boys in Prince George's County, Maryland, the nation's most affluent black community. There is a long waiting list of boys, mostly without dads in the home, and only about 10 active African-American male mentors.

President Obama provides, for Morehouse men and everyone else, a 21st century model of African-American masculinity. His oft stated support for women's rights is a crucial component. The casual misogyny of some black popular culture, especially hip-hop music and videos, is a disgrace. It's OK for the president to note that not every aspect of black male culture is praiseworthy.

"That includes me."

The government's primary intervention for black men is to lock them up. President Obama cannot, on his own, reverse this course, but he can do much more than he has to disrupt the flow of the one in three young black men who are headed to prison. One example would be to speak in favor of decriminalizing marijuana, as have other politicians like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Black men are selectively arrested for marijuana crimes, and these arrests have a stigmatizing effect on future employment and earnings that redounds to the detriment of African-American families. Barack Obama was once a young black man who smoked pot, and it would be surprising if he actually believes that it's fair for other young black men to be selectively prosecuted for that.

"I am the most powerful man in the world, and I've got your back."

Those are words profound enough to make a black man cry. I believe them to be true, but hearing them proclaimed out loud would be incredibly meaningful. African-American men feel a special kinship with this president. How inspiring it would be for the president to acknowledge this connection, in his words and in his actions. What a difference it might make for the millions of black boys who now are headed to destinies very different from graduating from Morehouse College or becoming president of the United States.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Butler.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:22 AM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT