Americans heard two incongruent views from President Obama last week: Success requires abandoning "a sense of limitation," and success comes from being "very lucky."
One sounded a lot like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in his moving autobiography, "My Grandfather's Son," as he reminisced about being sent with his brother to be raised by their mother's father.
Thomas described the third-grade-educated small business owner Myers Anderson as a harsh taskmaster who "wouldn't listen to any excuses for failure" from his grandsons. " 'Old Man Can't' is dead — I helped bury him,' he said time and again."
Speaking to the NAACP centennial convention last Thursday, the president also got busy burying Old Man Can't. "One of the most durable and destructive legacies of discrimination is the way we've internalized a sense of limitation," he told the audience, "how so many in our community have come to expect so little from the world and from themselves."
According to the president, "We've got to say to our children, yes, if you're African-American the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher. Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that somebody in a wealthy suburb does not have to face. But that's not a reason to get bad grades. That's not a reason to cut class. That's not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school."
He added: "No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands. You cannot forget that. That's what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses. No excuses."
A little later, you could almost see the ghost of Thomas' grandfather, who "didn't whip us regularly, but our encounters with his belt or a switch were far from infrequent."
The president called for going "back to the day when we parents saw somebody, saw some kid fooling around and — it wasn't your child, but they'll whup you anyway. Or at least they'll tell your parents."
Was this Barack Cosby we were listening to? Because the message really wasn't too different from what Bill Cosby got into hot water with black leaders for saying in his "Pound Cake" speech to the very same NAACP five years ago.
"These people are not parenting," Cosby charged. "They're buying things for the kid — $500 sneakers, for what? They won't buy or spend $250 on Hooked on Phonics."
Obama remarked that black youths "might think they've got a pretty good jump shot or a pretty good flow, but our kids can't all aspire to be LeBron or Lil Wayne. I want them aspiring to be scientists and engineers, doctors and teachers, not just ballers and rappers."
The president even intensified the message by telling of his demanding mother. "That mother of mine, she gave me love; she pushed me, she cared about my education; she took no lip; she taught me right from wrong. Because of her, I had a chance to make the most of my abilities."
It may have been the most inspiring speech yet of the Obama presidency.
So how can it be that on the very same day we saw the same President Obama on CBS News referring to successful Americans as "people like myself, who have been very lucky and are in the top — not just 1%, but top half-percent — of the income ladder"?
He was defending the House of Representatives' health plan, in which the rich would be heavily taxed to pay for the massive expenses of a new government-managed medical insurance system.
The thinking could not be more schizophrenic. Does success depend on hard work, parental discipline, adhering to personal morality? Or is it luck?
The president's actions do not match his words — "No excuses. No excuses" — and those he is trying to inspire will see through his words. Those living in unfortunate circumstances will continue to "expect so little from the world and from themselves" if they continue believing that those who succeed are simply lucky — the ultimate excuse for accepting failure.
Obama clearly believes taxing the rich is just taxing the "very lucky." If he heeded his own inspirational rhetoric, he would realize it's really a tax on — and thus a penalty imposed upon — success. And a disincentive to all the industriousness and self-sacrifice that builds success.
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