In defense of Michelle Obama

I like Michelle Obama. Unlike her husband, I believe the first lady has grown in office, rarely (though occasionally) putting a foot wrong in the past six years. For example, unlike the president, she couldn’t have been more gracious during a picture-unveiling ceremony with the George W. and Laura Bush.

This spring, in her seventh year as first lady, Michelle Obama has delivered several commencement speeches, two of them to African-American graduates. She has spoken about race, and her comments have drawn criticism from conservatives.

I don’t agree with all of Michelle Obama’s commencement comments about race, and I think she omits some important facts. But I find much more merit in her remarks than some of her critics do.

Take her recent address to the graduating class at Martin Luther King Preparatory High School on the South Side of Chicago. She told the graduates:

With every word you speak, with every choice you make and with the way you carry yourself each day, you can write a new story about our communities. That’s a burden that President Obama and I proudly carry every single day in the White House, because we know that everything we do and say can either confirm the myths about folks like us — or it can change those myths.

This, I think, is a great message. In more politically correct language, the first lady is telling young African-Americans to be a credit to their race.

The message will be familiar to many Jews of a certain age. When I was young, if a Jew in our community, or on the national stage, did something wrong, the reaction in the Jewish community was always harsher than towards a non-Jewish miscreant. There was no inclination to blame society. And had their been statistical evidence that Jews disproportionately got into trouble with the law, it would have been hushed up rather than trotted out as a badge of oppression.

In the real world, many people make judgments about groups based on the conduct of individuals who belong to groups. Young African-Americans, like young Jews before them, are better advised to take advantage of this reality by behaving admirably than to rail against it. This was Michelle Obama’s message in Chicago.

Last month, the first lady drew criticism over a speech to the graduating class at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. But as I read the speech, its thrust is similar to the positive message she delivered to the high school graduates in Chicago.

Michelle Obama: (1) pointed out how far African-Americans have come since the days of the Tuskagee airmen, (2) praised the airmen for not allowing the discrimination they faced to “clip their wings,” but instead recognizing their duty (to their race) to show that black and white men could fly and fight together, (3) urged the graduates to follow this example, (4) told them it won’t be easy because of “decades of structural challenges that have made too many [Black] folks feel frustrated and invisible, and (4) concluded that these “challenges” are not an excuse “to just throw up our hands and give up” because history teaches that when “we channel our frustrations into studying and organizing and banding together — then we can build ourselves and our communities up [and] overcome anything that stands in our way.”

No Jewish mother could have said it better.

The first lady’s Tuskegee speech also contains an abundance of self-reference and some self-praise, with a little self pity mixed in:

Back when my husband first started campaigning for President, folks had all sorts of questions of me: What kind of First Lady would I be? What kinds of issues would I take on? Would I be more like Laura Bush, or Hillary Clinton, or Nancy Reagan? And the truth is, those same questions would have been posed to any candidate’s spouse. That’s just the way the process works.

But, as potentially the first African American First Lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations; conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others. Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?

Then there was the first time I was on a magazine cover — it was a cartoon drawing of me with a huge afro and machine gun. Now, yeah, it was satire, but if I’m really being honest, it knocked me back a bit. It made me wonder, just how are people seeing me.

Or you might remember the on-stage celebratory fist bump between me and my husband after a primary win that was referred to as a “terrorist fist jab.” And over the years, folks have used plenty of interesting words to describe me. One said I exhibited “a little bit of uppity-ism.“ Another noted that I was one of my husband’s “cronies of color.” Cable news once charmingly referred to me as “Obama’s Baby Mama.”

And of course, Barack has endured his fair share of insults and slights. Even today, there are still folks questioning his citizenship.

I doubt that, on balance, Michelle Obama ever received as much criticism as Hillary Clinton (fellow lawyer and career woman) experienced even in her early, pre-scandal days as first lady. Hillary, of course, never was the target of racial remarks. But the ones Michelle cites are so few in number, and so dwarfed by all of the adulation both Obamas received, that you would hope she could brush them off.

That’s not how human psychology normally works, however. We tend to remember one insult more than hundreds of bits of praise. And if the insult is race-based, I can imagine that its sting is even more lasting.

Let’s also remember that Michelle Obama’s invocation of slights against her was in service of the uplifting theme of her address. The ugly remarks, she says, caused her to lose sleep worrying about what people thought of her. But eventually she realized that “there was only one thing I could do, and that was to have faith in God’s plan for me. I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself — and the rest would work itself out.”

From her experiences, she draws this lesson for the Class of 2015:

So, graduates, that’s what I want for all of you. I want you all to stay true to the most real, most sincere, most authentic parts of yourselves. I want you to ask those basic questions: Who do you want to be? What inspires you? How do you want to give back? And then I want you to take a deep breath and trust yourselves to chart your own course and make your mark on the world. . . .

And if you rise above the noise and the pressures that surround you, if you stay true to who you are and where you come from, if you have faith in God’s plan for you, then you will keep fulfilling your duty to people all across this country. And as the years pass, you’ll feel the same freedom that Charles DeBow [a Tuskegee airman] did when he was taking off in that airplane. You will feel the bumps smooth off. You’ll take part in that “never-failing miracle” of progress. And you’ll be flying through the air, out of this world — free.

Good advice. Good speech.