6 Times Barack Obama Betrayed Black America With His Words

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Written by Ann Brown
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Here are six times that Barack Obama, the first Black president of the United States, betrayed Black America with his words. Photo: Former US President Barack Obama attends a town hall meeting at the ‘European School For Management And Technology’ (ESMT) in Berlin, Germany, April 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

America’s first Black president, Barack Obama, hasn’t always seemed to be a champion for Black America. There have been times when his words seemed partializing and, according to some Black voters, appeared to be a betrayal of their trust and hope in him.

Here are six times Obama betrayed Black America with his words.

Thug Life?

In 2015, a number of leading Black Democrats expressed outrage at Obama’s conclusion that “thugs” were protesting in Baltimore over the death of a Black man while in the custody of city police.

Obama called the protesters “criminals and thugs who tore up” Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death. Maryland officials later concluded Gray’s death was a homicide committed by six police officers who went on to face murder charges.

“After Gray’s death, thousands of protestors took to the streets of Baltimore to protest the police’s initial handling of the case. Those protests turned violent on…following Gray’s funeral, with cars set ablaze, businesses looted and burned,” The Hill reported. The National Guard was called to maintain order. More than a dozen police officers were hospitalized, according to the department.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) denounced the president’s language.

“These are children, high-school students, you know, and I would not want to classify them as thugs,” said CBC Chairman G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.). “Certainly they are lawbreakers, but they’re still children. … These are youth, these are teenagers who are misguided, who don’t have the same maturity that adults have, and I would not venture to call them thugs.” 

Obama’s use of the term “thugs” was derogatory, noted by many in the Black community.

Johns Hopkins University history professor N.D.B. Connolly wrote in the New York Times that those using the term, including the president, “are fighting myths about degenerate Black culture.” 

“Condemning ‘criminals’ and ‘thugs’ seems to get them away from beliefs about broad Black inferiority,” Connolly wrote.

The blame game

In several speeches, Obama — as a senator, president, and citizen — used a scolding tone when in front of Black audiences. For many, this approach was wearing thin, even back in 2013. 

During a 2013 speech at a Morehouse College commencement, Obama used the opportunity to admonish Black men to take care of their families and their communities. He told the graduates that “despite the lingering legacies of slavery and discrimination, ‘we’ve got no time for excuses,’” The Washington Post reported.

The 30-minute speech in Atlanta drew a spirited response from the audience and some were offended.

A speechwriter for former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Trevor Coleman told the newspaper he was disappointed that Obama almost always defaults to the “clean-up-your-act” message when talking to predominantly Black audiences.

“The first couple of times, it was OK, but I and a lot of other people are beginning to grow weary of it,” Coleman said. “What made it so gratuitous was this was Morehouse College! In the African-American community, the very definition of a Morehouse man is someone who is a leader, who is taught to go out and make a difference in his community.” 

For some, it was time for Obama to stop blaming the Black community and instead offer solutions to the “problems that afflict many Black communities, including chronic unemployment and failing schools,” the Washington Post reported.

“It’s interesting that President Obama is always asking Black people to take responsibility for themselves,” said A. Scott Bolden, a Washington lawyer and Morehouse grad. “It would be really nice if he’d take responsibility for Black people in his second term.”

‘Take off your bedroom slippers’

During a speech at the 2011 Congressional Black Caucus annual dinner, Obama spoke in a cadence that was described as “reminiscent of a Black Southern preacher.” But it was his words, rather than his tone, that rubbed people the wrong way, Time reported. 

In short, Obama told Black leaders to “stop complaining,” even though during the speech he noted that the Black unemployment rate at the time had climbed to 16.7 percent — its highest level in nearly 30 years. He also said that nearly 40 percent of Black children live in poverty

To solve these problems, he said he wanted the CBC to “Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying.” 

Despite receiving a standing ovation, Obama offended some in the audience. 

In a subsequent TV interview, CBC member Rep. Maxine Waters called the president’s language “a bit curious,” and noted his policies targeting Latinos — a crucial voting bloc in 2012. “He certainly didn’t tell them to stop complaining. And he would never say that to the gay and lesbian community, who really pushed him on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’…. He would never say to the Jewish community, ‘stop complaining about Israel.’”

‘Ticked off’

During a speech in 2013 marking the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, Obama’s words “ticked off” more than a few, Mother Jones reported.

During the speech, Obama said: “And then, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us, claiming to push for change, lost our way…Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination…”

People went to Twitter to complain about Obama’s choice of words. 

One person tweeted: “Obama consistently speaks the language of personal responsibility to Black America but not about his own responsibility *to* Black America.”

Another posted, “Barack Obama speech today reinforces the fact that the country’s ‘first Black president’ will sacrifice black people for white approval.”

Flint water disappointment

In 2016, filmmaker Michael Moore called Barack Obama out for Obama’s reaction to the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. When Obama visited the area and drank a glass of filtered Flint water, Moore and others were unimpressed, The Detroit Free Press reported.

“He is just trying to reassure people that everything’s OK,” Moore said. “To drink from a glass of Flint water when a number of experts are still saying this water’s not safe? It’s still going through the same corroded lead pipes? It was such a disappointing thing to see.

Flint’s water crisis began in 2014 when drinking water was contaminated throughout the city, exposing residents to a number of dangerous health risks. 

The video of Obama drinking Flint water just shows that he “hopes that Flint can get back to where it was. Where was that?” Moore asked. “You mean before the water crisis two years ago, after we’d lost 75,000 General Motors jobs? Back to then? Or are we talking about back to 20-30 years ago? I mean, Flint is a city that’s really been destroyed.”

Skirting the race factor in Flint

When Obama reacted to the Flint water crisis, many felt he failed to address the main reason the government was slow to react — race.

According to the city’s mayor at the time, race was a factor in the authorities’ slow and misleading response to the situation.

Mayor Karen Weaver, who served from 2015 to 2019, said race and class were factors in the authorities’ slow and allegedly dishonest response to Flint’s water crisis, The Independent reported.

Had the city not been predominantly African American and poor, the crisis may not have happened, or else the response would have been different, said Weaver, who is African American.

“I sure do. And I was not the only person who thought this,” Weaver told The Independent. “One of the things we can’t forget is, the facts are the facts. This is a majority-minority city. Not only did race play a factor, but class played a role because of our high unemployment rate.”

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The Michigan Civil Rights Commission, which published the results of a year-long investigation on the crisis from a human rights perspective, agreed with the mayor.

“We strongly believe that the actions that led to the poisoning of Flint’s water and the slow response resulted in the abridgement of civil rights for the people of Flint,” said Arthur Horwitz, co-chair of the commission during the time of the investigation.

“We are not suggesting that those making decisions related to this crisis were racists, or meant to treat Flint any differently because it is a community of color. Rather, the response is the result of implicit bias and the history of systemic racism that was built into the foundation of Flint,” Horwitz said.

Obama remained silent on the race factor in the Flint water crisis. For many, his lack of words spoke loud.

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