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Michelle Obama Breaks the Rules

Michelle Obama at Tuskegee.jpg
Brynn Anderson/AP Photo
First Lady Michelle Obama before her commencement speech at Tuskegee University, May 9, 2015

In her May 9 commencement address at Tuskegee University, the historically black institution, Michelle Obama actually said (what I bet the students already suspected) that she is black:

My husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be. We’ve both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives — the folks who crossed the street in fear of their safety; the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores; the people at formal events who assumed we were the “help”—and those who have questioned our intelligence, our honesty, even our love of this country.

How dare she? The right wing does not allow such a reference. “We” let “you people” win the White House, which meant that racism is over with and gone. Difference was abolished. Any mention of it now is “playing the race card”—and was denounced as such by all the many mouths of the Right—by Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, and Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh shuddered melodramatically at a speech that could “lead to racial strife unlike any that we who are alive today remember.” How could an inspiring speech to students lead to such a doomsday? In her own quiet way Ms. Obama was breaking all of the four rules of racial discourse the right wing now wants to enforce.

RULE ONE: Thou shalt not doubt that racism is gone. “You people never had it so good.” This reflects the Chief Justice Roberts school of social history, declaring provisions of the Voting Rights Act obsolete. Ms. Obama violated this rule when she told the Tuskegee graduates that they may suffer “small indignities” because they are black. They would never have thought of this if she had not mentioned it. Mr. Limbaugh is right to anticipate the Apocalypse after such an incendiary comment.

RULE TWO: If racism occurs, thou shalt declare that it was brought back by the Obamas. This reflects the Glenn Beck school of social history, which says that, before Mr. Obama was elected, the country had escaped the 1960s (the font of all modern evil in the right wing’s sparsely furnished minds). The Obamas have “dragged us back…They took us back to the 1960s on grudge politics.” Michelle broke this rule by not admitting that strife in Ferguson and Baltimore was caused by her husband. All was peace before he was elected.

RULE THREE: If you truly love your country, thou shalt not say that there were evils in the American past (slavery, secession, Indian “removal”). This reflects the Lynn Cheney school of social history, which purges unpleasant parts of our heritage from school books. Ms. Obama broke this rule when she said in her speech that black soldiers in World War II were kept apart and often given menial tasks. The Tuskegee Airman had to fly in an all-black squadron:

While the Airmen selected for this program were actually highly educated—many already had college degrees and pilots licenses—they were presumed to be inferior. During training, they were often assigned to…housekeeping or landscaping. Many suffered verbal abuse at the hands of their instructors. When they ventured off base, the white sheriff here in town called them “boy” and ticketed them for the most minor offenses. And when they finally deployed overseas, white soldiers often wouldn’t even return their salutes.

RULE FOUR: If you truly love your country, thou shalt find evils everywhere in the American present. They swarm all over real patriots—evils like gays, death taxes, the EPA, the IRS, a Negro president, an Elizabeth Warren. This reflects the Rick Perry school of social history. He finds everything outside Texas so despicable he may have to consider seceding. There are so many parts of government he wants to obliterate that he cannot even remember what they are, and he offers his contempt for the country as a credential for being its leader. Ms. Obama broke this rule by telling students “to rise above the bumps in our path to greater freedom for our brothers and sisters,” just as the Tuskegee airmen did.

Reactions to Ms. Obama’s speech show how conservatives use black success against blacks. Look at all “we” have given them! Why do they keep whining? Sean Hannity said that Ms. Obama’s speech showed “a lack of appreciation.” Limbaugh says that if Ms. Obama mentions “little indignities,” that just means “the people around the world she’s met . . . did not fawn enough.”

The celebrators of rugged individualism will not allow successful blacks to reach back and help others up the ladder of achievement. That is just rewarding the “takers over the makers.” Let them make it on their own, if they are real Americans. Then they can chant “we did make it on our own.” This comes from the Mitt Romney school of social history, which held that 47 percent of Americans “believe the government has a responsibility to care for them.” But when we see or read the speech of Michelle Obama, stingy individualists melt down into their pooled little meannesses, and this tall black woman of achievement calls on us all to mount into the sky, following the Tuskegee Airmen. This is not playing the race card. It is playing the American card.