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The curious case of Michael Steele

By Christopher Metzler

metzlerLet’s face it, if Barack Obama were not president of the United States, Michael Steele would not be the “chairman” of the Republican Party. Yet Steele continues to act as if race was not the sole reason that he was selected to lead The Grim Old Party. The reality is that both race and tokenism played a significant part in his election whether he and the GOP want to admit it or not. Moreover, while he continues to chastise others for “playing the race card,” he has given himself a Black pass to do so. It is, the curious case of the pot calling the kettle black.

According to Steele, “Playing the race card shows that Democrats are willing to deal from the bottom of the deck. Our political system has no place for this type of rhetoric.”

However, “Mr. Chairman,” since you have been elected, your most significant accomplishments have included: having to apologize to Rush Limbaugh (the real head of the party), for calling him an entertainer. As you said in your apology, “My intent was not to go after Rush – I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh.” And, ” I was maybe a little bit inarticulate. … There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership.”  Yet when New Gingrich dismissed Rush, he did not apologize. Does the phrase ‘yessa massa’ ring a historical bell?

In an interview with Cameron Cowan of milehive.com you promised to lure more Blacks to the Republican Party by offering fried chicken and potato salad. Perhaps you would have been more successful had you also offered Kool Aid, greens, watermelon and chitterlings. Does the phrase “jump Jim Crow” ring a bell?

Implying that President Obama is a racist for asking New York Gov. Paterson to end his bid for re-election. According to your racial logic, “Mr. Chairman,” implying the race card and playing the race card are two different things. As you said recently in an op-ed in Politico, “As an African-American, I know what racism is and that is not racism. Addressing the comments by President [Jimmy] Carter who said racism is to blame in the protests against President Obama, you said, “Just like the millions of African-Americans in this country who have fought and overcome on their way to the American dream, I have experienced racism firsthand. It is something you never forget.”

So, is the race card only the race card when you deem it to be “Mr. Chairman?”

Speaking at a historically Black college near downtown Little Rock, Ark., you said, “The Republican Party walked away from the black community in the late 1960s. It was stupid. It was dumb to pursue a southern strategy and it came back to bite them in 1992.” You went on to say, the Republican Party must court Blacks if they are to regain power. Have you vetted this with your party?  The hallmark of your tenure has been making statements ostensibly on the part of your party and then having to backtrack. We thus anxiously await your forthcoming apology.

In fact, it seems that your base has rejected your fried-chicken-and-potato-salad strategy.

In response to your “outreach” several members of the Free Republic (online message boards for independent, grass-roots conservatism on the web) have written:

“Yeah, if the GOP would just offer MORE social welfare, we could get the black vote?”, “Single moms, drugs, easy credit, alcohol, disregard of the law, no education, no incentive, dependency upon the State”;

 “This guy is just begging to be pelted with Oreos again. …I just wish he would focus on the REAL causes.1. What does the black community need: tough marriage laws, reduced welfare, educational vouchers, and good understanding of Booker T. Washington’s ‘Up from slavery.’ 2. Homelessness is caused by alcohol and drug addiction, and mental health disorders. Giving money to an alcoholic is the same as yelling jump to someone standing on the side of the Golden Gate Bridge. More welfare is NOT the answer.”

Of course, these statements, which are just a small sampling of what’s been written, are not at all about race because, as you have said, “Blind charges of racism, where none exist, not only are an affront to those who have suffered the effects of racism, but it weakens our efforts to address true acts of racism and makes them more difficult to overcome.”

So, are the statements by the Freepers as they call themselves true acts of racism or simply policy disagreements infected with the stench of stereotypes? Perhaps viewing these statements as acts of racism would be to raise charges of racism where none exist.

Your stance on racism, “Mr. Chairman,” can be described as contradictory, condescending racial polemics steeped in racial perturbation. You have said, “What you will face is very subtle. It’s very quiet. It’s deceiving, but it’s there and you can’t be fooled otherwise, but I’m still a black man; when I walk in a room, you have attitudes about black folks. I can’t change that. And I’ve gotta deal with that reality regardless of my title.”

Speaking of President Obama, you said, “He was not vetted, because the press fell in love with the black man running for the office. ‘Oh gee, wouldn’t it be neat to do that? Gee, wouldn’t it make all of our liberal guilt just go away? We can continue to ride around in our limousines and feel so lucky to live in an America with a black president.’”

So, “Mr. Chairman,” are you palling around with racists? Are you calling the kettle black? Or are you using the race card when it suits you. In the age of multitasking, critical thinkers will decide for themselves.

Dr. Christopher J. Metzler is the author of The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a ‘post-racial’ America and an associate dean at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies.

Obama and Paterson: Painful Politics

metzlerDr. Christopher J. Metzler

The New York Times has reported that President Obama has asked New York Governor David Paterson to drop out of the 2010 Governor’s race. While not exactly denying the report, a White House official said, “There are officials in the White House that share the concerns that are widely held in New York about the very challenging political environment confronting Governor Paterson.”

Yet New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine is running into similar political headwinds with a Quinnipiac University’s poll putting Republican challenger Christopher Christie ahead by 10 points and a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll favoring Christie by five points. The White House remains unconcerned about Corzine but concerned about Paterson. Perhaps, this is a disagreement on policy.

At the risk of stating the obvious; Paterson is one of only two Black governors in the nation; Deval Patrick is the other. Thus, some will no doubt point out the supposed irony in the first Black President asking Paterson to drop out of the race. Asked on “Face the Nation” whether Obama’s decision was a racial one, and reveling in the racial optics both inside and outside of the Democratic Party, RNC Chair Michael Steele smiled goofily and said “I found that to be stunning that the White House would send word to one of only two Black governors in the country not to run for re-election.”

“That will be very interesting to see what the response from Black leadership around the country will be about the president calling the governor to step down or not run for election,” Steele quipped.

Steele, of course, was not playing the race card as Republicans never do that; they only disagree on policy. So, what is the policy disagreement here that Steele raised with his pallid attempt at sarcasm?

Of course, Governor Paterson has not helped himself with a series of maladroit decisions including: appointing a Lieutenant Governor without having the legal authority to do so, leaking information about Caroline Kennedy to the press over her failed bid to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate and replacing Clinton with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand after promising the White House that he would not do so. It is not an understatement to say that Patterson’s administration is incompetent at best and bungling at worst.          

Who could forget the rather salacious details that Paterson shared with the world about the sexual assignations that both he and his wife had outside their marriage while they were both married to each other? Paterson seemed more adept at managing peccadillo than managing the budget. Of course, Paterson is himself a beneficiary of political peccadillo as his ascension to the Governorship is because of the improper proclivities of his predecessor.

Under Governor Paterson, New York’s economic conditions have crumbled as evidenced by soaring unemployment and seemingly multitudinous job losses. So, there is reason for the citizens of New York to reject him.

However, the last time I checked (the birther issues aside) President Obama is neither a citizen nor resident of the state of New York. So, why does he have a say in who the citizens choose to lead their state? Paterson made the ultimate political transgression in Obama’s “post-racial” America; he blamed race for his declining popularity and then tried to drag Obama into the racial swamp with him.

In an interview with blogger Gerson Borrero, Paterson said, “Part of what I feel is that one very successful minority is permissible, but when you see too many success stories, then some people get nervous.” He went on to say, “I submit that the same kind of treatment that Deval Patrick is receiving right now in Massachusetts, and I’m receiving, the way in which the New York State Senate was written about, calling them a bunch of people with thick necks,” He concluded “that we’re not in the post-racial period. And the reality is that the next victim on the list — and you see it coming — is President Barack Obama.”

Did Paterson not get the message that President Obama will not engage in any discussion about the racial optics surrounding his Presidency. He believes that while race may be in the backdrop of America; his Presidency does not stand in front of that backdrop. Let’s be clear, the critique of Paterson has nothing to do with race; it has to do with his unmitigated incompetence. In fact, prior to his decline in the polls, Paterson in an interview with The Wall Street Journal said, “I don’t think this country tolerates open racial codes as it has in the past, which is a real demonstration of improvement not just in race relations but just in the decorum of political campaigns.”

So,  in addition to his political blunders, Paterson has angered a White House for whom race, not Social Security is the third rail. The President is betting that Blacks will understand that he cannot engage in any substantive discussion of race lest his presidency be defined by the reality of his race. He is also betting that Whites will reward him for not discussing race by reelecting him.

Of course, this is a political decision but do we expect a politician to make non-political decisions? That would be like expecting a doctor to make a medical decision to treat illness and then complain that his decision was medical.

 So Governor Paterson, have you asked Rev. Wright, Van Jones and Kanye West what the view is like from under the bus?

Christopher J. Metzler is the author of The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a ‘post-racial’ America and an associate dean at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies.

We Should Be Realistic About Racial Representation in Television

elwoodwatson by Elwood Watson

Over the next few weeks, the American public will be introduced to many new comedies, dramas, “reality” programs and other forms of media. And of course, viewers will witness the return of many of their favorite programs. To be blunt, I do not watch an abundance of television. One reason for doing so is that I do not have much time to be an indulgent couch potato. To be honest, I do not find that much on mainstream television to be all that appealing.

In fact, the overwhelming majority of television programs I watch are on cable. During my boob tube viewing history, I have had a few programs that I had religiously tuned into on a weekly basis – “The Cosby Show,” “Ally McBeal,” “Swingtown,” “True Blood,” “Mad Men” “Six Feet Under,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Frank’s Place.” Of all the current cable programs, the one that I have been most deeply engaged in is the AMC drama “Mad Men.”

The show, produced by Matthew Weiner, creator of the HBO mega hit “The Sopranos” explores the inner workings and complexities of several men and women who work at an advertising firm in New York City in the 1960s. Now, in its third season, the show has addressed a number of social norms that were relevant to the era. Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homosexuality, abortion, infidelity, alcoholism, depression and other topics are discussed at various degrees. The main character of the show is a conflicted, tormented upper middle-class WASP advertising executive named Don Draper.

“Mad Men” has been a consistent favorite of television critics. The show has spawned a number of columns, commentary and debates by journalists, psychologists, academics, Internet chat rooms, blogs and other media. Even the fashion industry has begun to take notice as the mod look of the 1960s has suddenly become vogue in some Madison Avenue circles. The show has definitely struck a nerve among many people from varied walks of life.

What is notable is that a number of African-Americans have weighed in on the “Mad Men” phenomenon. Earlier this summer, there was a piece of the popular website “Double X” entitled “Why Mad Men Is Afraid of Race?” written by cultural critic Latoya Peterson that took the 60s styled drama to task for being hesitant to address the history of American racial conflict. Several days later, another journalist, David Swerdlick, a frequent contributor to The Root web site responded to Peterson’s column arguing that the show was very realistic in how it addresses the marginalization of people of color.

As a historian, I have my take on both perspectives. The fact is that non-Whites were largely obscured in the professional WASP world of the 1960s. It is probably safe to say that the few Black characters that are showcased — Paul’s ex-girlfriend Sheila, the Draper’s maid Carla and the Black elevator operator Hollis — are accurately seen as individuals who are occasional yet brief interlopers in the lives of upscale Whites. They were there to serve at the pleasure and discretion of the White families and businesses that employed them and they are expected to listen, answer when spoken to, do their jobs and stay out of the way. While such a situation was certainly unflattering and even annoying on a number of levels, the fact was that this was reality for more than a few Black people in America during the days of the modern Civil Rights Movement.

While it would be interesting to see Carla, Hollis and Sheila deeply engaged in the most intimate workings of the lives of the main characters, the fact is that such a depiction would largely ring untrue. The same holds true for the advertising agency. No Black person, including secretaries, outside of the janitorial staff, would have been working at Sterling Cooper. Racist clientele, stockholders, the status quo and the conservative climate of the environment would have prohibited such a thing. The fact is that race has an ugly history in our nation.

What is even more important (at least to me) is that while it is commendable for television writers and producers to be racially, religiously and gender inclusive in their shows, the fact is that sometimes this may not always be the most accurate approach. Let me make it clear that I have no problem with television shows experimenting with new ideas or even thinking “outside the box” for that matter. Much of television is imaginative in its nature. Moreover, more diversity on the networks of any type is a good thing. The NAACP’s 1998 report criticizing the three major broadcast networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, for their deplorable lack of diversity was justified.

What becomes problematic (at least to me) is when shows, for whatever reason, in an effort to make their shows more diverse, engage in plots and develop situations that seemed contrived or forced. Would it have made sense for a Black family to be the major focus of “The Soprano’s” when that show focused on Italian Americans who lived in northern New Jersey? Would it have been logical for Blacks to be 50 percent of the characters on “Newhart”, the CBS program in the mid-1990s about White middle-aged people and some senior citizens that took place in central Vermont?  Should senior citizens have been the major characters on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a program where teenagers slayed all sorts of evil beings? Should Whites have been prominently showcased in every single episode of “The Cosby Show? or “Soul Food? ” Get my point? It probably would have smacked of patronizing tokenism at best.

To be honest, I watch “Mad Men” and most television shows strictly for the entertainment value. If I wanted accuracy and precision I will read a history book or interview someone who has lived such an experience. Such a person could provide you with more accuracy than any situation comedy, drama or “reality program” can ever do. This is simply a fact.

There is nothing wrong viewing television with a critical eye. However, sometimes, we need to be realistic about the fact that oftentimes writers, producers, and directors are often attempting to deliver entertainment value to their audience — nothing more and nothing less. Fiction, by its nature, has no responsibility to be accurate. Sometimes it is best to remind ourselves of the saying “it’s just a television show.” All of us should keep this thought in mind as we tune in to watch the new fall season.

Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of History and African American Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board  (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008.

The Obama Presidency in Peril?

metzler

 

By Christopher Metzler

President Obama’s presidency is in peril for two primary reasons. The first, his inability to be a transformational leader to an American public hungry for it is of his own making. The second, the thinly veiled demonstration of racism unskillfully disguised as “concern for country” is both to be expected and not of his own making.  

First, President Obama came into to office promising “change that we can believe in.” However, on the signature issue of change, health care reform, he has not led; choosing instead to send a litany of mixed messages as to whether  he would turn the Byzantine labyrinth that is the American health care system on its head. A transformational leader takes bold, decisive, innovative action if he or she believes that it is right for the country. Thus far, on health care, the President has not demonstrated transformational leadership; he has pledged fidelity to the status quo.

Time after time, the President and his team have delivered anemic polemics that were amateurish at best and incompetent at worst. These included a dreadful and inept message on the “public option” which seems to suggest that we can expect neither reasoned deliberation nor resolve from this President. Fearing that he was losing the rhetorical war, the President did what he has come to be known for; he delivered a speech. 

The problem of course is that a good speechmaker does not a transformational leader make.  While he scored some rhetorical  points, he also raised grave questions about whether he is a transformational leader. Among them, did he fail to anticipate the pitfalls of changing the American health care system? Is he aware that transformational leadership requires the ability to orate and deliver? How does he define change? Is he counting on a critical mass of the non-critical thinkers among us to follow him because he is not George W. Bush?

Leadership, in a digital and global world, requires first having a message and then taking control of the message before the message gets lost in the real or manufactured political scandals of the day. What we have seen from this White House so far is that a) they don’t understand this b) they are incapable of rapid and deliberate responses and c)  they intend to run from crisis throughout the Obama Presidency. This, of course, is counter to transformational leadership.

For example, former green jobs czar Van Jones was embroiled in controversy over comments he made prior to joining the White House. Was the White House aware of these statements? If so, did they think that in the information age the statements would not come to light? Once they came to light, why did it take them so long to act? Or does this White House think that if they ignore their opponents they will go away? The Van Jones controversy had been brewing for a long time (albeit not in the mainstream press; much like the ACORN controversy is now brewing) and the White House failed to address it at their peril while basking in reckless abandon.

The President did with Jones what he did with Rev. Wright; he took action long after the damage had been done. Are we to believe that this is transformational leadership?

On the controversy surrounding Henry Louis ‘Skip’ Gates, the President also demonstrated enervated leadership first calling out Crowley, the officer involved in the Gates arrest (although the President admitted that he did not know all the facts), then backing down and then inviting Gates and Crowley to the White House for an awkwardly staged and superfluous photo opportunity. 

President Obama was elected by an American public famished for leadership, not pandering. We want to know that he will take the tough decisions utilizing solid and reasoned justifications. What we have gotten so far is leadership by speechifying, thus raising the question ‘does the emperor have clothes?’

America remains deeply divided among racial lines. Despite protestations to the contrary, there are Whites in this country that simply cannot and will not accept the legitimacy of a Black Presidency. Many of the Whites of whom I write, are the ones who still challenge the fact that the President was born in the United States. Their racial logic is riotous and birthed from White supremacy. In fact, at the so called 9-12 rally, a protestor held a sign which read, “the zoo has an African lion and the White House has a lying African.”

During this relatively young Presidency, we have heard the constant refrain “we want our country back.” If this sounds eerily familiar, it is because this was the same refrain we heard during the civil rights movement when there was a move afoot to ensure equal rights for Blacks.  Of course, the Whites of whom I write deny any racial bias. I suppose that if one were to assume that racial bias means that one does not publicly use racial pejoratives when referring to the President, then one would be correct. However, during Jim Crow, it was not necessary to bar Blacks from voting because they were Black; the preferred methods included: poll taxes, voting tests and intimidation. Did this mean that racism had gone away; of course not. It meant then what it means today: racism continues to be the pig that we put lipstick on while calling it a beauty queen. It was a pig then and it is a pig now.

Moreover, so many Whites have conveniently and purposely bought into the dim-witted notion that the election of Barack Obama means the end of racism; that they have morphed into “post-racial,” “post-racists” and “post-prejudice” Americans. Race in America is built on a complex belief system that contains an array of beliefs that continue to define our existence in 2009 whether we choose to accept this or not. 

Do critical thinkers really believe that on Election Day 2008 Americans magically eliminated all of their racial attitudes and beliefs? Do critical thinkers really believe that the lack of civility surrounding political discourse in this country, from which south Carolina congressman Joe Wilson is rewarded with campaign largess for calling the President of the United States a liar during a joint address to Congress, is devoid of racial animus? 

The election of a Black President has upset the political and racial calculus in a country that could not have foreseen such an election.  Thus many Whites, including the ones of which I write, are choosing to play it both ways.  On the one hand, they are appealing to a base of unabashedly racist ideologues that wallow in a shallow pit of racial filth. On the other hand, they want to stay true to what they view as “hardy American values” from an era gone by. (Read the time before the Black President). Thus, they employ the “we want our country back” rhetoric and deeply deny any racial virulence. Not all Whites who criticize the President do so out of racial animus. The problem is that too many do and in so doing, sink deeper into racial acrimony that continues to destroy American democracy.

While we have been on the “post-racial” path for some time, the election of President Obama has lit the movement on fire. The reality is that we are infected with “post-racial” palaver. This is not a complaint but a critique. This critique allows us to question the quixotic theorem advanced by the Whites of whom I write that their “country first” rhetoric is not contaminated with racist dogma.

Dr. Christopher J. Metzler is the author of The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a ‘post-racial’ America and an associate dean at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies.

Of a Black President, White Children, and Maintaining the Status Quo

pamela-reed08 By Pamela Reed

Last week proved quite revealing. It began with the conservative hysteria surrounding President Obama’s education speech to the children of America, and it culminated with the extreme right wing 9/12 Tea Party March on Washington this weekend, billed as a gathering of “freedom loving patriots.”

And just when you thought things couldn’t get any more outrageous, U.S. Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina called the President of the United States a liar during his highly anticipated health care address to a Joint Session of Congress. Wilson has since called his outburst “spontaneous” and regrettable.

President Obama has graciously accepted Wilson’s apology, saying that “everyone makes mistakes” and we should not assume the “the worst in other peoples’ motives.” That’s the expected presidential position, but in view of all that has transpired since the election of President Obama, I think we are in need of what John McCain would call straight talk.

Let me start with news of a just-released book that goes a long way toward explaining the force I see at work here: racism, plain and simple–notwithstanding all the talk of Obama’s “post-racial,” “colorblind” America. I have never bought into either notion, but NutureShock: New Thinking About Children, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman goes a long way toward dispelling both notions–and I think–explaining the persistence of White supremacy.

The book presents research findings indicating that children recognize differences in skin color by the time they are six months old. More importantly, the researchers found that, were White parents to even slightly adjust the way they introduce the concept of race to their children–by the age of three– real long-term change is possible, “one future citizen at a time.”

No sooner than had Newsweek excerpted the book, a blog thread on Stormfront.org, the website that celebrates “White pride, worldwide,” declared that the magazine has launched a “war on White children.”

Specifically, the book highlights the 2007 dissertation findings of Danish researcher Birgitte Vittrup, who recruited, from the database of volunteers for scholarly research at the Children’s Research Lab at the University of Texas, Austin, 100 Caucasian families with children 5-7 years old. Vittrup found that even the most liberal White parents–unlike 75 per cent of “nonwhite” parents–were unwilling to openly discuss race with their children, some even going so far as to withdraw from the study when it reached this critical phase. Among the six families who completed the one week-phase of talking to their young children openly about race, there was “dramatic” improvement in their racial attitudes.

Another UT researcher, Rebecca Bigler, conducted a two-week study in which children read short biographies of famous African-Americans, like Jackie Robinson. She divided them into two groups, one a test group and the other a control group. In addition to the bio information, one group was given a 5-sentence description of the racial discrimination that Robinson endured at the hands of Major League Baseball–and from White people in general. When the children were surveyed to test their racial attitudes, those who had read about prejudice toward Blacks, exhibited a more favorable attitude. “It knocked down their glorified view of White people,” said Bigler.

Perhaps the most fascinating study cited was one in which a mixed group of 33 children in a rural Ohio school, two-thirds White, were exposed to a Black version of ‘Twas the Night B’fore Christmas by Melodye Rosales. When the children saw the Black Santa depicted in the book, their reactions varied. “A couple of the White children rejected this idea out of hand: a Black Santa couldn’t be real.” Most of the Black children were exultant, while some of the White children were stunned and “puzzled.” “‘He’s Black’ gasped a White little girl. A White boy exclaimed, ‘I thought he was White!'”

A little Black boy was perhaps the most difficult to convince of Santa’s Blackness, until he determined that the Black Santa’s boots were “like the White Santa’s boots.” He had to actually have the man raise his pants leg so that he could see his black boots–and his black skin–after which he was thrilled.

Of all the profundities revealed in the book excerpt, I find this one most telling because of what it tells us about how children, very early on, learn to associate power, virtue, and control with Whiteness. That is, left unchecked by parents, society teaches White children a sense of superiority and, conversely, it instills a feeling of inferiority in the minds of young Black children.

Could this be what all the fuss was about from the many White conservatives who screamed bloody murder at the mere thought of the first Black President of the United States (POTUS) delivering a speech, any speech, in their children’s schools? Could it be that many Whites are fully aware of the socializing effect of exposure to power and control–and race? That they know the power of imagery? Thus they make certain that there is no shortage of symbols of White power–and beauty: White Jesus, Snow White, White Santa, White House, White Barbie, and White President of the United States.

And therein, I submit, lies the root of America’s centuries-old “problem of the color-line,” which Du Bois (1903) lamented in his now classic treatise The Souls of Black Folk. Vittrup and Bigler’s research suggests–to this writer– that the core problem is this: The vast majority of Whites, perhaps some even subconsciously, do not want racism–and its attendant White privilege–to end, bottom line.

In view of their findings, then, it should not be surprising that some found President Obama’s decision to deliver a speech to America’s school children–encouraging hard work, educational achievement, and critical thinking–so objectionable. Or that Joe Wilson showed such utter disrespect for President Obama during his health care speech? Or that the media continue to doggedly push this ridiculous notion that “both sides” are out of control?

Basically, I think these “freedom loving patriots” find problematic the idea of their children–and really any children–being exposed to a powerful Black man who commands respect. I’m not sure which possibility they find most frightening, White children accepting Black power– that is, shared control –or a generation of Black children empowered by it.

Dr. Pamela D. Reed is a diversity consultant, cultural critic, and assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Virginia State University.

What Educators Can Learn from President Obama’s Back to School Speech

petchauer

By Emery Petchauer

We now know that President Obama’s recent speech to America’s youngest citizens was not, as some feared, a 4-page/18-minute ideological conversion into “socialism.” In the words of comedian Steve Harvey, “Now that we done got that out the way,” we can turn to a bit more productive and realistic dialogue including what educators at all levels can learn from the speech. Here, I think, are three important lessons:

New media and technologies. President Obama (and his speechwriters) demonstrated awareness that new technologies, media, and related gadgets such as iPhones, Twitter, and Google are now everyday facets of students’ lives. These—and their widespread implications on learning—are no longer just optional ways to improve instruction. Rather, teachers must understand the habits of body and mind that new media produce in students and the educational imperative to design learning experiences based up them. In other words, it is important not just to understand what exactly Twitter is but also understand that it reconfigures a) how people think about their social relations and b) those very real social relations.

Vicarious models of success. Instead of giving only vague and general advice to students, the President supplemented his advice with a few vicarious models of success in the forms of students Jasmine Perez, Andoni Schultz, and Shantell Steve. Within these examples were clear appeals to different ethnicities, geographical locations, challenges that students might face, and avenues of professional success. While the inherent limitation of the speech format did not allow for much beyond these quick examples, they illustrate the larger point that students benefit when they see people who they believe are “like them” overcome obstacles on their ways to success. Structuring learning activities and environments so that students have direct contact with vicarious models of success does more to increase students’ classroom engagement and persistence than telling them repeatedly they “can do it.”

Honesty. The President’s statement that “Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute” is not news to students. However, someone in a position of power engaging in this kind of truth telling is. This sentiment is true for different reasons: sometimes shortsightedness on the part of students hinders them from seeing the relevance of assignments; sometimes teachers simply make assignments boring. Regardless, telling the truth and naming this unfortunate feature of learning environments puts both teachers and students in a position to move past it. Beyond the narrow realm of homework, honesty is seldom an unstable educational starting point. 

In closing, let me be clear and state that compared to variables such as teacher quality, educational resources, and curricular (ir)relevance, the President’s speech can do little to significantly change the 2009-2010 school year for students. This does not mean that he should not have given the speech; indeed, it was a kind and appropriate gesture to the country’s youngest citizens, and I hope that students will be deeply inspired by it. Another cohort who should be inspired and educated by the speech is those who stand at the front of the classroom, self included.

Dr. Emery Petchauer is an assistant professor of education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania; his current research includes teacher preparation for ethnic minority students particularly at HBCUs and how involvement in hip-hop implicates students’ educational approaches, experiences, and lives.