Obama and Booker T.

When President Obama delivered the commencement address on Monday to students at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, it was a moment of irony.

The first mixed-race American president was speaking at a high school named after a legendary mixed-race leader. Yet this intersection of history between two prominent black people separated by a century could hardly have drawn a starker contrast in style and substance.

The president is a product of this century’s glossy aloofness, gliding among topics and crowds with the ease and grace of superficiality and sound bites. The Tuskegee Institute professor was a back-to-basics fundamentalist whose thinking was way ahead of his time.

Obama’s remarks were predictable, and predictably devoid of anything meaningful at a time and occasion when straight truths are what today’s youth need most.

BTW beat out 450 other schools in the Commencement Challenge, a program the White House launched last year in which schools apply for the president to deliver their commencement address.

As an inner-city school facing all the expected challenges (98 percent of the all-black student population qualifies for free lunches), BTW’s success in recent years is impressive. While enrollment is down since 2007, the graduation rate has grown from barely half to 81 percent.

Obama noted as much in his commencement address, but only glossed over one of the more innovative aspects of BTW’s new approach: single-sex classrooms for freshmen. He mentioned only “special academies for ninth graders;” the casual reader of his speech might never know that BTW segregated the freshman by gender to improve learning.

The ACLU and other groups have criticized gender-based education, especially in the public sector, for stereotyping the sexes by suggesting that there is “some inherent difference such that they need to be educated separately,” according to one ACLU spokesperson.

It would have been nice for Obama to have stated the obvious-that the risk of gender stereotyping in a low income, high-crime area with students who have high rates of pregnancy and AIDs pales pitifully against the need to give them a quality education.

Instead, he gave the lightest lip service to education’s core component (discipline), and then only in a contrast to our celebrity culture.

Old Booker T. Washington would never have been so mealy-mouthed. Here was one of his declarations regarding the link between literacy and human potential: “If you can’t read, it’s going to be hard to realize dreams.”


Booker T. took pride in being frank, and wasn’t much one for making or taking excuses—or dodging responsibility.

“There are some things that one individual can do for another, and there are some things that one race can do for another,” he wrote in the book My Larger Education, published (ironically) a century ago this year. “But, on the whole, every individual and every race must work out its own salvation.”

While the phrase never appeared in the book, Booker T. nailed the negativism of “race card” political tactics early on.

In Chapter V, “The Intellectuals and the Boston Mob,” Booker T. observed that there was a “class of coloured people who make a business” of keeping the hardships of blacks before the public: “Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs-partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs.”

Obama chose to include an utterly innocuous anecdote about Booker T. in his commencement speech, but a more meaningful one would have been what Washington wrote about the time he was asked to speak to a black audience in one of the largest Negro churches in Boston in 1903.

Members of a group of black activists who opposed Washington’s industrial education positions, in order “to convince the public . . . how profoundly opposed they were to every one who had a different opinion,” organized a mob to disturb his speech.

Booker T. wrote that the most surprising thing about the disturbance was its hypocrisy—it was organized by people who were loudest in condemning Southern whites for suppressing the expression of dissenting opinions and denying blacks free speech.

“In all these years” of speaking frankly to whites and blacks, in the North and South, he wrote, “no effort has been made, as far as I can remember, to interrupt or break up a meeting at which I was present until it was attempted by ‘The Intellectuals’ of my own race in Boston.”

No president has ever been better situated to invoke this insightful wisdom for the cause of improving racial politics. If only Obama had a little more Booker T. in him.


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