There is no question former first lady Michelle Obama was talking directly to white people last week at the Obama Foundation Summit when she addressed the history of white flight.
“You were running from us,” she said. “And you’re still running.”
Her personal story of growing up in a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side and watching white families move out one by one is America’s story. Across the country, the legacy of white flight is cemented in the shells of communities left behind — segregated pockets of poverty and disinvestment, devoid of economic promise.
Since the release of her book, “Becoming,” last year, the former first lady has increasingly challenged America to reexamine its racist past. She has summoned up images of discrimination and bigotry that not only impacted her as a child but followed her into the White House.
Her fearlessness in addressing tough issues concerning race and class is admirable, particularly at a time when people are overly sensitive about such things and bordering on exhaustion from having it constantly thrown in their faces. There are lessons for all of us in what she has to say, regardless of skin color, if we allow ourselves to hear them.
White flight occurred, Obama pointed out during an interview alongside her brother, Craig Robinson, by no fault of African Americans. Blacks did absolutely nothing to drive out white people. Whites left simply because they did not want to live around black people.
“Families like ours, upstanding families like ours … were doing everything they were supposed to do or better,” she said. “As we moved in, white folks moved out because they were afraid of what our families represented.”
What did honest, working-class black families like hers represent? They represented the American dream — where people of all races had a piece of the pie and where children grew up to be successful enough to demand good-paying jobs and live in homes as nice as they could afford.
That’s what a lot of white people were afraid of back then. And for many, equality remains their No. 1 fear.
Obama’s message is as relevant today as it was 55 years ago when she was growing up. Regardless of how hard black people try, they can never make some white people accepting of them.
That kind of straight talk makes a lot of people uneasy. When you’re used to race being swept under the rug or confined to groups of like-minded people, it’s tough to listen to a former first lady, no less, talk about bigotry.
It is easier for many white people to try and find a common bond with the first lady. They enjoy hearing the parts of her story that praise her hardworking parents, the lively conversations at the family dinner table and the personal drive that lifted her from a poor working-class family to the White House.
They try to turn her story into their story. But it isn’t the white experience. Obama’s story is uniquely African American.
When she starts taking about the nitty-gritty of growing up black in America, that’s when some people would rather she just shut up. As far as they are concerned, there’s been too much talk about race lately. They need a break.
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What many white people don’t understand, though, is that for African Americans — even a former first lady — there is no such thing as taking a break from race. We don’t get to put race and the experiences we have accumulated over a lifetime because of our skin color aside.
Following her talk last Tuesday, lots of people weighed in on what she said. In conservative circles, it didn’t go over well.
“Was this message brought to us live from Martha’s Vinyard? I hear it’s lovely there,” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted following her address. (The president’s son, who grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth, misspelled Vineyard, by the way.)
Attempting to make successful African Americans feel guilty about their accomplishments is one of the oldest bigoted tactics in the book. It’s right up there with white people calling black people racist in an effort to diminish the impact of the word.
Former conservative talk show host Glenn Beck accused Obama of playing the race card, implying she was attacking all white people. (She was not. But those who she was attacking know who they are.)
It is clear during eight years as first lady, Obama tried to embrace people of all races. She needed to make Americans feel as comfortable as possible having a black family at the nation’s helm. She tried as best she could to present her family as a model for all African Americans.
“Being the first black first family gave America and the world (the chance) to see the truth of who we are as black people,” she said Tuesday. “ … That we are just as, and often times better than, many of the people who doubt us. But our stories don’t get told.”
It was an insurmountable task. And in the end, she inevitably failed, as we all do when we try to convince others that we are worthy to be in their presence. Now that she is no longer living in a bubble, she has become a voice for many black people who feel the same way but have no voice to express it.
“I can’t make people not afraid of black people. I don’t know what’s going on. I can’t explain what’s happening in your head,” she said, again speaking directly to white people.
“But maybe if I show up every day as a human, a good human, doing wonderful things, loving my family, loving your kids, taking care of things that I care about — maybe, just maybe that work will pick away at the scabs of your discrimination. Maybe that slowly will unravel it.
“That’s all we have, because we can’t do it for them, because they’re broken. Their brokenness in how they see us is a reflection of this brokenness. And you can’t fix that. All you can do is the work.”
In other words, the first lady seemed to be telling white people that it’s not the job of African Americans to fix racism. And to people of color, her message appeared to be: Stop trying to fix racism and focus on being the best that you can be in spite of it.
What Obama said last week was not a condemnation of white people but rather an affirmation of being African American. The issue is that too many white Americans don’t see the difference. But that’s another problem black people can’t solve.