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.