The solution to these problems does not lie in government, according the president. “We have individual responsibilities. There are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves.” The Morehouse graduates “now wield something even more powerful than the diploma you’re about to collect — and that’s the power of your example.” In other words, these industrious and intelligent college graduates should serve as inspirations for other blacks to, contra Dyson, “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” They themselves, not the government, can do this most effectively, according to the president.
President Obama then argued that blacks need better role models: “Just as Morehouse has taught you to expect more of yourselves, inspire those who look up to you to expect more of themselves.” This is necessary, because “many young men in our community continue to make bad choices.” Obama now admits that he “made quite a few” mistakes when he was young, and he explains that he “wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down.” He also “had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing.” But over the past four years, he’s learned that “there’s no longer any room for excuses.” Now, there are many examples of President Obama blaming the nation’s current problems on his predecessor, but the sentiment is still the correct one. And President Obama is not the first prominent black American to come to reject the premise that The Man will always keep black men down. It’s also a theme found throughout Clarence Thomas’s memoir, My Grandfather’s Son.
The president then advised the Morehouse audience, and by extension all of black America, to keep their problems in perspective. “You have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and they overcame them.” In an episode of Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose,” Thomas Sowell made a similar point when he observed, “There is not a predestined amount of teenage pregnancy. I grew up in an era where people, and particularly blacks, were a lot poorer than today, faced a lot more discrimination than today, and in which the teenage-pregnancy rate was a lot lower than today.” Out-of-wedlock births and teenage pregnancies among black women have increased over time, even as institutional racism has declined. It therefore makes little sense to blame the former on the latter.
In one passage, the president counseled the students to “keep setting an example for what it means to be a man,” instead of making excuses. “Be the best husband to your wife, or your boyfriend, or your partner. Be the best father you can be to your children. Because nothing is more important.” The president has suggested in past speeches that true collective action occurs only through government action, so it’s especially good to hear him emphasize the importance of families (even untraditional ones), which are the true building blocks of civil society.
Sure, Obama’s speech also included some references to Obamacare and other big government programs. But that’s not what it was about. Obama’s speech was about families and communities, about seizing opportunities, and, perhaps most important, refusing to make excuses. Conservatives have long heaped praise onto Bill Cosby for his honesty and his refusal to kowtow to political correctness. Obama did the same on Sunday, and he deserves conservatives’ praise.
— Noah Glyn is an editorial intern at National Review.