In a recent graduation speech delivered by First Lady Michelle Obama to the 2013 graduating class of Bowie State University — a historically black university — Michelle Obama chastised and reduced the career aspirations of black youth to wanting to be “ballers.” In her commencement speech to Bowie State University, First Lady Michelle Obama boldly stated:

“Today, more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, more than 50 years after the end of ‘separate but equal,’ when it comes to getting an education, too many of our young people just can’t be bothered,”

“Today, instead of walking miles every day to school, they’re sitting on couches for hours, playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper … ”

The notion that black youth aspire to become star athletes and famed rappers holds some validity in the same respect that non-black youth also fantasize about becoming a celebrity, rock star, or athlete. Alyssa Rossenberg (A writer for Think Progress) put it best, when scrutinizing Michelle Obama’s comments about black youth by saying:

“The same is more true for sports than Mrs. Obama’s remarks would suggest. In Division I men’s basketball, 1,443 or 27% of the 5,265 players who participated in the 2011-2012 season were white, while 3,158 or 59% were African-American. During that same season, in Division I baseball, the figures were most striking, 8,304 or 82% of the 10,093 players, were white that season. Clearly, in the college athletic programs that feed into careers in professional sports, there’s a great deal of white interest and participation, even if it isn’t evenly distributed by sport. Miami Heat star LeBron James may be an argument for skipping college in pursuit of a professional athletic career right out of high school, but so is Washington Nationals left-fielder Bryce Harper, who earned a GED and didn’t even finish high school in a classroom setting,”

Aside from rattling off sports statistics, Rosenberg’s bigger argument is that Michelle Obama took a stereotypical shot at black youth wanting to be “ballers” but neglected to address the real problems hindering black youth from excelling in careers outside of sports and entertainment careers. Rosenberg points out that equal access to standardized test prep, navigating the admissions process, and managing the cost of financial aid are proven barriers for black students.

While I agree that Michelle Obama’s comment was painfully admissible, the truth is many might construe her comment as distasteful and misplaced. Whether it was tough love or just plain apathy, commencement speeches are supposed to inspire, motivate, and congratulate, not give weight to the various stereotypes that haunt black college educated graduates. Taken in or out of context, Michelle Obama’s comments further prove there are certain stigmas and stereotypes that unfairly shape how society, employers, and we ourselves view each other.


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  • My thoughts

    Ok. Both speeches by Mr. Obama and Mrs. Obama are EXACTLY what the black community needed to hear.

    It is tough love, but it needs to be heard. And I personally think these are thoughts and conversations that they often have. Similar to other black people, it is just not widely discussed. During these commencement speeches, it had provided both of them an opportunity to address what are obvious problems within the black community.

    Mr. President was right on target, the Elitist (by having degrees, owning a business) – we are equipped to share our experiences or providing the knowledge of what it takes to obtain the next level of success. Notice: Other ethnicities are quick to assist one another (within their group).

    The black community is too divided nowadays with preconceived notions to cooperate [collectively]. The Elitist oftentimes, assume the disadvantage does not have desires to achieve beyond their current circumstances. The act of service or providing insight is more so a waste of time rather than an investment to the poor. President Obama was just merely reminding the Morehouse graduates not to gravitate to that side. Give back to the community. And at the end of day, their services are needed in other areas as well to create a more cohesive society to live in. However, start at home, someone came before you to open doors for you, so you do the same.

    While at the same time, the disadvantage, [NOTHING IS GOING TO BE GIVING TO YOU]. Excuses do not feed you or create opportunities for you. I won’t even refer to that as tough love; it is just the plain ole truth. It is clear that some people can help themselves and stop depending on others or an agency. If anyone is a tax-payer (elitist or not), you become tired of seeing this. Yes, unemployment is high for the black community. Volunteer while in between jobs; enroll in classes, and just something to improve your own circumstances. While waiting on others, you’re falling behind which reflects on the entire community.

    Now – Mrs. Obama:

    Her speech was just misplaced, not a stereotypical shot. This is the type of speech that needs to be spoken in churches, black youth groups, black student unions or any other black organization. These students at Bowie State have already obtained the level in which the remaining youth/parents should FOCUS upon. So, inspire these current graduates to remain on a great path AFTER graduation – because (different) challenges are in store.

    But for the up and coming youth (the younger they are), anyone can see they are playing in a hazard construction zone. Different careers other than sports and becoming an entertainer are needed. If this generation does not desire to become a rapper, it is a professional athlete. In the South, if football is not KING, basketball is. A career of being a rapper is not as prevalent. With this noticeable shift in our youth’s education, what is appearing as stereotypical is the truth. Not collectively, however, it is becoming too normalized. For the amount of black youth that exist, there are way too many not pursuing other fields or a higher education.

    However, the area in which concerns me the most are the behind the scenes reasons. Yes, some parents encourage their kids to pursue other dreams beside the latter. As one example, Athletic Recruiters are similar to a bloodhound. Once they sense the agility, height, and the appropriate body mass, these black young boys are recruited in middle school (8th grade). A chance for a fully-paid education and one day to make millions – it becomes more of an attractive option especially if you don’t have the resources. Federal cut backs in music programs (this could have been another alternative). Parents having to sign for co-parent loans – denied. Grants are not enough- if no scholarship to pay for school – our youth are unable to attend. If any education is pursued at all, the athletic and entertainment careers seem more accessible, fun (getting paid) and obtainable. Our youth see the majority of this mostly.

    Overall, I think Mrs. Obama meant well. Really, this is a parent’s problem, school district problems (some financially challenged schools don’t offer extra-curriculum programs), state and federal problem, and some of these youths are just non-productive. But it wasn’t these graduates.

    I appreciate both speeches. Again, I just think Mrs. Obama’s speech would have been more beneficial at Black Organizations. That is where we can come together to find out how to motivate the parents to do better with our youths and to encourage our youths to do better or have the desire. Some youths don’t how to excel beyond their environments. They may need to be told thru another method that they don’t have to settle for just becoming an athlete or an entertainer. Sad, but of course the school system won’t tell’em. Some teachers don’t expect anything more out of our youth.

    Final thought: If willing, the best influences for these youths to pursue other career paths (besides the parents) are other professional athletes and/or entertainers. If we had more to speak out to pursue other careers, I think it would make an unimaginable impact.

  • Contrary to what the Obamas think, all of us are not sitting around complaining about being black…some of us are proud and take personal responsibility regardless to perceived restrictions placed on us because of our color.

  • talaktochoba

    what is so wrong here? it is no great secret that the vast majority of HBCUs have their own siddidy culture grads cling to like their respective fraternities, one that has taken on all the negative aspects of their larger white counterparts–bedhopping to get ahead, gang-like fraternities that like the equally imperiously tribal sororities feel themselves impregnable to the rules and customs “ordinary” students they look down their noses upon are condemned to live by, athletes held completely unaccountable for what would be the most brazen of crimes outside of their campus never-never-land (date rape, anyone?), etc.–whilst the administrations do their level best to imitate the under-the-table antics of major universities to produce more revenue for the college, graduation rates be damned, just gain tenure, baby…

    and so because the First Lady hints at this, she is condemned?

  • Travis

    As a black responsible black man I have to give a great big ole’ “BUCK you OFAMA… and you as well Michelle!!!” When it came to the Wall Street banks did he preach accountability. Hell no!!! He gave them a fat $800,000,000,000 check with no strings attached. Also, when a few select members of congress moved to introduce articles of impeachment against George Bush and members of his cabinet for supporting and well as committing war crimes in violation of international laws, did Obama preach personal accountability then. Hell no!!! He actually discouraged it in that example. Why is that the only msg. he has for his black voting constituents?!?!?! Is it because the speech was NOT to appease his black listening audience but was instead to reassure his financiers that he knows who butters his toast. Some of you black folks are dumb ass hell not to mention politically immature to not grasp from where Obama is coming!

    Why does Obama only have “tough love” for us and we drink that shit down like it’s delicious?!??!?! “… what wrong wit dat! he told da trufe didn he?”