“There … but for the Grace of God…”

by Hugh Hamilton
July 18, 2009

It was the moment of empathy we’ve all been waiting for: addressing delegates to the centennial anniversary convention of the NAACP this week, President Barack Obama came clean with a confession that was instantly recognizable to almost every conscious Black male of a certain age in America.

“When I drive through Harlem and I drive through the South Side of Chicago and I see young men on the corners,” Obama remarked, “I say, ‘there – but for the Grace of God – go I.’”

It was a noteworthy admission from a president who in the past has attracted considerable criticism for his willingness (some even say propensity), to chastise Black men in public, without a commensurate acknowledgment of the historical legacies that circumscribe their prospects in contemporary America.

 Even as a candidate in last year’s election, Obama ignited widespread controversy over a Father’s Day speech in which he took  absentee Black fathers to task while ignoring the totality of circumstances that often render many of those fathers unable to fulfill their paternal obligations. As author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson observed at the time:

            “[T]his kind of over the top, sweeping talk about alleged black father irresponsibility from Obama isn't new…Whether Obama is trying to shore up his family-values credentials with conservatives, or feels the need to vent personal anger from the pain and longing from being raised without a father is anybody’s guess. Or maybe he criticizes black men out of a genuine concern about the much media-touted black family breakup. But Obama clearly is fixated on the ever media-popular notion of the absentee black father. And that fixation for whatever reason is fed by a mix of truth, half truths and outright distortion.”

Indeed, with the notable exception of his famous Philadelphia speech last year, and his often exasperating tendency to pontificate on the ostensible failures of Black fatherhood, Obama hitherto has displayed a marked reluctance to engage publicly on the complexities of race. So much so that when offered the chance by ABC news reporter Ann Compton last March to comment on the role that race has played so far in his presidency, he fumbled the opportunity and squandered what should have been a “teachable moment.” (In my earlier post on this issue, I outlined in some detail an alternative response that the president might have offered to Compton’s question, beginning with the incontestable proposition that “…this recession — painful as it is for all of us — has exacted a heavier toll on some than on others. And for those who historically have been marginalized and discriminated against on the basis of race, that toll has been heaviest of all.”

This time, though, Obama got it right. Maybe it was the historic significance of the occasion: America’s first Black president addressing the 100th anniversary convention of  the nation’s oldest civil rights organization. Whatever the reason, he delivered an oration that not only challenged Black Americans to seize control of their destiny; he also took appropriate notice of the context in which that struggle would be waged and the barriers that remain. Consider the following under-reported excerpts from the president’s NAACP speech:

  • “We know that even as our economic crisis batters Americans of all races, African Americans are out of work more than just about anyone else;
  • “We know that even as spiraling health-care costs crush families of all races, African Americans are more likely to suffer from a host of diseases but less likely to own health insurance than just about anyone else;
  • “We know that even as we imprison more people of all races than any nation in the world, an African-American child is roughly five times as likely as a white child to see the inside of a jail;
  • “We also know that prejudice and discrimination are not even the steepest barriers to opportunity today. The most difficult barriers include structural inequalities that our nation’s legacy of discrimination has left behind; inequalities still plaguing too many communities and too often the object of national neglect.”

The corporate media have been largely silent on this aspect of Obama’s remarks, choosing instead to highlight the bit about your destiny being in your hands. That may be true enough – at least for some -- and most African Americans already know that. What they need from a leader who purports to understand their concerns and represent their interests is a little bit of empathy. And at long last, that’s what Obama finally delivered last Thursday.