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Why? Barack Obama Decides to Publicly Scold Black Americans (Again) During His March on Washington Anniversary Speech


Being the country’s first black president, and speaking on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s iconic “I Have a Dream Speech”, is a task of almost unimaginable difficulty.

Dr. King is now a legend more than a man. He is American royalty and a myth. As such, the complexities and radicalism of Dr. King’s vision have been washed away in order to fit him into America’s panoply of heroes.

For a variety of reasons--ranging from practical politics, personality, history, to temperament--Barack Obama cannot compete with Dr. King.

There are glaring contradictions and complexities that come with comparing Dr. King and Barack Obama.

Dr. King was a pacifist and anti-militarist who believed that America was the greatest single cause of violence in the world. Barack Obama, while giving his own March on Washington speech, has already, or soon will, order the United States military to attack Syria.

Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement were subjected to harassment and spying by the United States government under COINTELPRO. Barack Obama presides over a surveillance apparatus that routinely violates the American peoples’ constitutionally guaranteed rights.

Dr. King was a staunch critic of American imperialism. Barack Obama is the “black face of American Empire”.

Barack Obama is an amazingly gifted public speaker and was largely able to sidestep these problems and contradictions in his March on Washington anniversary speech.

To that end, Barack Obama made a series of choices about what type of speech to give, and what topics to discuss therein.

In his soaring rhetoric, Barack Obama chose to return to an old trope, and what is for him, a comfortable narrative. He would speak about his dream of a post-racial America, one that is still a work in progress. And as Obama has done in previous speeches, he would choose  to play the public scold of Black America, a rhetorical choice that serves to free white folks from any personal responsibility for centuries of American racism.

That Barack Obama would decide to lecture and scold Black America on the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s speech and the March on Washington is disturbing. There, Obama references the many thousands of black folks across the generations from slavery to freedom, people who are quintessential examples of black respectability, personal responsibility, and yearning for excellence and success in a society where the color line deemed them less than equal and fully human.

Rather than draw connections from that legacy to our current moment—and to celebrate such ties—Obama instead chose to talk about black folks as racial grievance mongers, possessed of bad culture, criminality, and who are a people that somehow lost their way, and that need to work harder at holding up their end of the civic and cultural bargain in America.

If Dr. King is really American royalty, and the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington is a celebration of how the Black Freedom Struggle helped to transform a nation (and the world) for the better, then Obama sullied that moment--just as he did during  an earlier speech to the graduates of Morehouse College—by summoning the tired bogeyman of black pathology instead of singing the many successes of Black America high to the mountaintops.

In following a “colorblind” post-racial script where African-Americans are hurt more by their “bad culture” than by structural and systemic white racism, Barack Obama dredged up caricatures and cartoon images of African-American history.

To point. President Obama suggested that black folks have strayed away from Dr. King’s vision by rioting.