The former president still can’t see the beautiful and complex range of black culture.
By Derecka Purnell
Ms. Purnell is a lawyer.
Feb. 23, 2019
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.
Teenagers can be tough audiences and Mr. Obama could have just tried to be relatable. He’s a masterful, charismatic storyteller. He sings, jokes and provokes. But throughout his candidacy and presidency, Mr. Obama repeatedly lectured black people.
In 2008, he scolded black parents for allegedly feeding their children “cold Popeyes” chicken, even though food deserts are becoming more prevalent in black neighborhoods. He shamed Ferguson and Baltimore protesters for resisting police violence with rocks, not the police officers whom the protesters were rightly defending themselves against. And in his Oakland comments, he criticized absent fathers, even though a 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that black fathers were the most involved with their children daily than any other group of fathers.
What kind of men do these boys risk becoming, Mr. Obama asked? “If you are very confident about your sexuality, you don’t have to have eight women around you twerking,” Mr. Obama said. “Why are you all like, I mean, you seem stressed acting that way. Because I got one woman who I’m very happy with. And she is a strong woman.”
I admit. The former leader of the free world using “twerk” correctly made me giggle. But I felt uneasy.
I cannot imagine being a “boy” in that room, who feels like a girl or who is a girl, or dreams of eight men twerking around him, or wants to twerk, or is curious about both boys and girls.
Boys are probably stressed by the idea that they should already be confident about their sexuality as teenagers, or that a healthy sexuality exists between only a man and a “strong woman.” Not eight nameless, faceless women who twerk around a man.
My Brother’s Keeper reinforces toxic masculinity and it doesn’t give us an alternative one. In the town hall, there was no black feminism, nothing that recognized the ordinary humanity of black girls and women; they are either on a pedestal or on the floor.
I am sure some boys of color will benefit from My Brother’s Keeper. I am much more excited about programs, like Assata’s Daughters in Chicago, which teaches back girls about oppression, abolition and how to organize social justice campaigns.
But it’s clear Mr. Obama’s chains still bind him, even after leaving the Oval Office, from seeing the beautiful and complex range of black culture and the ways we choose to survive.