“No Excuses”—a simple phrase scrawled across the front pages of the Huffington Post and the New York Times politics section this morning—has proven to be the salient takeaway from President Obama’s speech to the NAACP last night. Unfortunately, the most salient takeaway is not always the intended takeaway, nor is it always the most important takeaway.
Yes, Obama urged black parents to take responsibility for their children. He told them to “[put] away the Xbox and [put] our kids to bed at a reasonable hour.” He noted that every black kid can’t become the next Lebron James, or the next Lil Wayne—“even if they might think they’ve got a pretty jump shot or a pretty good flow.” And yes, he did deride excessive excuses for black underachievement.
But Obama’s message--grounded in sound analysis of racial inequality--was much more profound than these simple sound bites suggest.
Obama correctly noted that there is less discrimination in America today than ever before. Sure, black and brown folks are still getting kicked out of swimming pools—but they aren’t being told to sit in the back of the bus anymore. A new racism built on euphemisms and proxies persists, but overt discrimination is becoming less and less socially acceptable.
Obama went on to detail the extent of structural inequalities that have emerged from past discrimination, specifically citing their pernicious effects on the racial achievement gap. While discrimination remains omnipresent, it is structural inequalities that matter most in determining the life chances and opportunities for folks of color. It almost seems lost in the headlines that Obama’s discussion of personal responsibility occurred only after laying out the root of inequality: unequal access to healthcare, unequal schools, unequal access to quality housing, and unequal rates of incarceration.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates and G.D. at Postbourgie point out, the rhetoric of “no excuses” is common banter heard in black churches, dinner tables and barbershops across the country. The idea is not to absolve racism, discrimination, or structural inequities from blame; rather, it’s a battle cry to work that much harder in the face of profound disadvantage. It's a declaration, a statement of perseverance—a “We Shall Overcome” for the 21st Century. Structural forces are responsible for inequality, but we are culpable for our reactions as we confront this disadvantage. As Adam Serwer notes, Obama's speech was “far more nuanced…than media narratives about race ever seem to acknowledge.”
Above my desk I have a small computer printout of the phrase “Just Shut Up and Do It.” These were the wise words of encouragement my high school football coaches gave me anytime I felt the need to complain about, well, anything: when I broke my finger during a pre-season scrimmage, when I got illegally chop-blocked in pursuit of a tailback, when I threw up after a particularly intense conditioning session, or when I was convinced there was no possible way I could squat 250 pounds. Each excuse I gave was met with a simple rebuttal: “Shut up, and do it.” It didn’t matter if our rival’s tight end kept holding me each time the ball came to my side of the field, nor did it matter that I was the most undersized outside linebacker to ever grace New York State Class AA football. I had to rise up against my disadvantage. I had to shut my mouth, and do it.
After a tough practice or a long game, when my eyes were bloodshot from yelling and my head pounded from throwing my body into players three times my size, the coaches often pulled me aside to praise my determination and willpower. Their tone would be noticeably different; less expletives, more words of encouragement. They knew I was undersized. They knew how much punishment my body could take. But they also knew the formidable foes I would have to face. Excuses mattered little on Friday nights, under the stadium lights and in the eyes of the community.
The rhetoric of “no excuses” has dominated the coverage of Obama’s speech to the NAACP. But there was more to the speech—and more to the rhetoric itself—that shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle. Obama exhibited a tremendous grasp of the causes of inequality, a refreshing departure from our past President’s woeful ignorance. Our task now is to listen to the whole message, and resist getting caught up in the sound bites.