What Is Your Reaction to Obama’s Speech Giving Advice to Young Men of Color?

What Is Your Reaction to Obama’s Speech Giving Advice to Young Men of Color?

Do you ever get advice from people of different generations? If so, do you find the advice insightful or helpful? Do you ever find that it misses the mark?

Last week former President Barack Obama spoke in Oakland, Calif., at a town hall for My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative to mentor young black men that he started in 2012. You can watch his speech here.

One critic believes that Mr. Obama fails to see “the beautiful and complex range of black culture.” In “Why Does Obama Scold Black Boys?” Derecka Purnell writes:

On Tuesday, former President Barack Obama spoke in Oakland, Calif., at a town hall for My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative to mentor young black men that he started after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in 2012.

He and the basketball player Stephen Curry discussed mentorship, masculinity and mass incarceration. But his scolding of black boys drew the most attention.

“If you are really confident about your financial situation,” Mr. Obama told the crowd, “you are probably not going to be wearing a eight-pound chain around your neck.”

“Because you know,” he continued, “‘Oh, I got a bank account.’ I don’t have to show you how much I got. I feel good.”

His comments disappointed me because they’re part of problematic practices, like calling out black children for having ghetto names like mine or wearing Air Jordans. Such remarks by Mr. Obama reflect his administration’s failure, and to an extent that of My Brother’s Keeper, to tackle the systemic inequality that shapes black people’s lives in America.

I went to Harvard Law School decades after Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, graduated. When I was there in 2014, nobody wore thick gold chains to show off their wealth. They wore thin ones to match their David Yurman bracelets. Canada Goose down jackets may as well have been part of a uniform during Boston winters. Students “summered,” took “gap years” and graduated from “Sidwell.” Harvard was the first place I saw a Rolex in real life. I wonder if it was the same model as the $15,000 Rolex that Mr. Obama wears in the Kehinde Wiley painting of him in the National Portrait Gallery.

My Brother’s Keeper’s participants are less like my wealthy law school classmates and more like my brothers, cousins and childhood friends. Like my family, many of them have no reason to be “really confident” about their financial situation. And Mr. Obama is partly to blame for that.

Black families were hit the hardest during the financial crisis. Because of falling homeownership rates and layoffs, blacks lost over half their wealth between 2005 and 2009, according to a report from the National Association of Real Estate Brokers. Instead of bailing out families, Mr. Obama bailed out banks, failing to pursue specific policies that would have addressed the decline in black homeownership rates and equity.

The economist William Darity painted a stark picture in a 2016 article in The Atlantic: “Blacks working full time have lower levels of wealth than whites who are unemployed. Blacks in the third quintile of the income distribution have less wealth (or a lower net worth) than whites in the lowest quintile. Even more damning for any presumption that America is free of racism is our finding that black households whose heads have college degrees have $10,000 less in net worth than white households whose heads never finished high school.”

Yet Michelle’s husband (as he introduced himself at the town hall) uses My Brother’s Keeper to change life outcomes for boys of colors. But its solution to financial insecurity and the racist violence that led to Trayvon’s murder are the same: community mentorship. This pales in comparison to reparations or any major social or legislative intervention that justice requires.

At the Oakland event, Mr. Obama doubled-down on his finger-wagging. “Oftentimes racism, historically in this society, sends you a message that you are less than and weak,” Mr. Obama said. “We feel like we got to compensate by exaggerating certain stereotypical ways that men are supposed to act, and that’s a trap that we fall into that we have to pull out of.”

This is also how conservatives depict black people, as the philosopher Cornel West explained in “Race Matters.” Conservatives accuse them of being lazy and demand self-improvement. Liberals pity blacks for not being able to help themselves. But, to both groups, the burden is on black people to fix themselves. Neither conservatives nor liberals sufficiently challenge racist people or institutions that have long exploited poor people and people of color.

To put it another way: Programs like My Brother’s Keeper insist on making better versions of Trayvon Martin, the black victim, instead of asking how to stop creating people like George Zimmerman, the racist vigilante. Rather than encouraging them to dismantle the systems that deepen wealth inequality, Mr. Obama tells black boys to tuck their chains.

Students, read the entire essay, then tell us:

— Have you ever noticed older generations giving advice to — and wanting to improve — young people? Have you found the advice insightful or helpful? Do you ever think that it misses the mark?

— Should older generations, as the author writes, help young people of color learn how to “tackle the systemic inequality that shapes black people’s lives in America?” Is that the most effective and empowering approach to education and meaningful social change?

— Or, should older generations instead help young people “fix themselves” — by changing what they wear, how they speak, or how they act, so they are more likely to be successful in America? And, is that approach, in the end, a better way to reduce systemic inequality?

— Are these two types of advice and mentorship mutually exclusive? Is only one approach the fair and just approach? Or can they both be effective?

— Do you think Mr. Obama is “scolding” black boys and “finger-wagging?” Is he calling out black children for making legitimate cultural choices instead of placing responsibility squarely on an unjust society? Or is he just being real about what it takes to be successful in America, based on his own experiences?

— A comment selected as a Times Pick states: “Paradoxically, international fashion trends right now are heavily derived from black hip-hop and black athletic culture. Karl Lagerfeld made heavy hip-hop derived chains a signature of his daily look. Apparently it’s ok to ‘dress black’ so long as you’re white with status.” Do you think there is a double standard for how black people and white people are supposed to dress to be successful?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.