President Obama’s (Black) Theory of Change

On Saturday, President Obama gave the commencement address at Howard University. He focused his remarks on an issue that was prominent a couple of months ago in the Democratic presidential primary: his own “theory of change.” But what made it even more interesting is that he embedded that theory in Black history and what it means to be an African American. To get an idea of that, here is a list of the Black historical figures and culture icons that he mentioned: Larry Wilmore, Michael Jordan, Shonda Rhimes, Beyonce, Lorraine Hansberry, Harriet Tubman, Kendrick Lamar, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Prince, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dr. King, Brittany Packnett, Zora Neale Hurston, Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston and James Baldwin.

The President began his remarks with this:

Given the current state of our political rhetoric and debate, let me say something that may be controversial, and that is this: America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college.

He’s right. That kind of statement goes against almost everything we’re hearing in this election season. But he went on to document all of the ways that it is true. That’s because his theory of change is built on both the importance of acknowledging those who came before us and the optimism (i.e., hope) that infuses into our efforts.

I tell you all this because it’s important to note progress. Because to deny how far we’ve come would do a disservice to the cause of justice, to the legions of foot soldiers; to not only the incredibly accomplished individuals who have already been mentioned, but your mothers and your dads, and grandparents and great grandparents, who marched and toiled and suffered and overcame to make this day possible. I tell you this not to lull you into complacency, but to spur you into action — because there’s still so much more work to do, so many more miles to travel. And America needs you to gladly, happily take up that work. You all have some work to do. So enjoy the party, because you’re going to be busy.

President Obama then went on to list four things that are necessary in order to meet the challenges ahead.

First of all — and this should not be a problem for this group — be confident in your heritage. Be confident in your blackness. One of the great changes that’s occurred in our country since I was your age is the realization there’s no one way to be black. Take it from somebody who’s seen both sides of debate about whether I’m black enough….There’s no straitjacket, there’s no constraints, there’s no litmus test for authenticity.

In many ways, he was telling these young graduates that they don’t need to conform to a definition of “blackness” or “activist” that came before them. If they have confidence in themselves, they will find the creativity needed to tackle the challenges of today.

Second, even as we each embrace our own beautiful, unique, and valid versions of our blackness, remember the tie that does bind us as African Americans — and that is our particular awareness of injustice and unfairness and struggle. That means we cannot sleepwalk through life. We cannot be ignorant of history. We can’t meet the world with a sense of entitlement.

And that means we have to not only question the world as it is, and stand up for those African Americans who haven’t been so lucky — because, yes, you’ve worked hard, but you’ve also been lucky…But we must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling, not just black folks who are struggling — the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender person, and yes, the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to stop it. You got to get in his head, too.

This one brought to mind a couple of speeches President Obama has given in the past. The message that African Americans – because of their struggle for equality in this country – are uniquely able to empathize with the struggles of others was the theme of his commencement address at Morehouse three years ago.

As Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; know what it’s like to be marginalized; know what it’s like to feel the sting of discrimination. And that’s an experience that a lot of Americans share…

So your experiences give you special insight that today’s leaders need. If you tap into that experience, it should endow you with empathy — the understanding of what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, to know what it’s like when you’re not born on 3rd base, thinking you hit a triple. It should give you the ability to connect. It should give you a sense of compassion and what it means to overcome barriers.

This President’s admonition that such empathy must extend to the middle-aged white guy who feels powerless against the forces of change was an echo of his speech on racism during the 2008 presidential primary.

Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

The President’s third point on how change happens was the most pertinent to our current discussions.

Number three: You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. I’ll repeat that. I want you to have passion, but you have to have a strategy. Not just awareness, but action. Not just hashtags, but votes.

You see, change requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program, and it requires organizing.

The process Obama laid out was: organize, prepare a plan, vote. It was on the last of these three that he spent the most time. While he spoke of the need to address the barriers being erected to voting, he has a bigger concern.

But let me say this: Even if we dismantled every barrier to voting, that alone would not change the fact that America has some of the lowest voting rates in the free world. In 2014, only 36 percent of Americans turned out to vote in the midterms — the secondlowest participation rate on record. Youth turnout — that would be you — was less than 20 percent. Less than 20 percent. Four out of five did not vote. In 2012, nearly two in three African Americans turned out. And then, in 2014, only two in five turned out. You don’t think that made a difference in terms of the Congress I’ve got to deal with? And then people are wondering, well, how come Obama hasn’t gotten this done? How come he didn’t get that done? You don’t think that made a difference? What would have happened if you had turned out at 50, 60, 70 percent, all across this country? People try to make this political thing really complicated. Like, what kind of reforms do we need? And how do we need to do that? You know what, just vote. It’s math. If you have more votes than the other guy, you get to do what you want. It’s not that complicated.

Obama’s final point might be the most difficult (and controversial) of all.

And finally, change requires more than just speaking out — it requires listening, as well. In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise…

The point is, you need allies in a democracy. That’s just the way it is. It can be frustrating and it can be slow. But history teaches us that the alternative to democracy is always worse…

And democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right. This is hard to explain sometimes. You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want. And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged. And that will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair. And that’s never been the source of our progress. That’s how we cheat ourselves of progress.

So there you have it…President Obama’s theory of change: confidence, empathy, strategy, compromise. I’ll simply end by noting that this is all based on what citizens can do to bring about change. Certainly this President has incorporated strategies himself to deal with Congress and foreign leaders. But he also knows that in a democracy – “when the people lead, the leaders will follow.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.