May 21, 2013 1:58 pm

Comparing Bill Clinton’s Howard University Address to Obama’s Morehouse Commencement

bill clinton and obama

by Yvette Carnell

Given the controversy over President Obama’s Morehouse commencement speech, it seems only fair to air out this issue with relevant comparisons. The case that I and others have made is that President Obama inappropriately pathologized black male behavior during his commencement speech. Further, I asserted that one would not have seen such a display had the commencement speaker been a white president. In that regard, the most relevant comparison , and probably the most congruent given his stature in the black community, is that of former President Bill Clinton. Below I compare Clinton’s May 11th 2013 Howard University commencement to Obama’s Sunday Morehouse address.

When comparing both speeches, two themes stand out:


Bill Clinton, “Choose What You Love”

Even with the employment situation and economic challenges, virtually all of you have the power to choose what you will do to earn a living. It may sound self evident but most people who have ever lived including hundreds of millions of people on the face of the Earth today never had that choice. They simply did whatever was at hand in whatever form it presented itself to put food on the table and to support their families. You have a choice. Try to do something that will make you happy. Most people are happy doing what they’re best at.

Barack Obama, “Twice as Hard”

You are the mantle of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington and Ralph Bunche and Langston Hughes and George Washington Carver and Ralph Abernathy and Thurgood Marshall and, yes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. These men were many things to many people and they knew full well the role that racism played in their life. But when it came to their own accomplishments and sense of purpose, they had no time for excuses. Every one of you has a grandma or an uncle or a parent whose told you at some point in life as an African American you have to work twice as hard as anyone else if you want to get by.


Bill Clinton, “The World Has Too Much Inequality”

The world has many challenges. You know them. There’s too much inequality. It’s manifested for most college students in the fact that they haul out of college with too much debt and wonder if they’ll be able to repay it…

Barack Obama, “No Time For Excuses”

Well, we’ve got no time for excuses. Not because the bitter legacy of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they have not. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; we know those are still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil — many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did — all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned.

The takeaway here is that the speech given by former President Bill Clinton could’ve been given to any other student body in the world. Although Clinton did mention some of the achievements of Howard University graduates, he did not make a racialized speech evoking tough love or the imaginary penchant black men have for excuse making. There was nothing in his  speech about black men making bad choices.  For Clinton there were only banal generalities about the real challenges ahead and a “shared future” with “shared values.”

Watch them both:


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  • MadeintheSipp says:

    I graduated Sunday from Morehouse College. The speech that Obama gave was tailored to black males and was intended to prepare for what we are about to face once we enter the “real world”. It also charged us to be men who do not believe in excuses. I would not have wanted Obama to present a speech that he would at any other institution because Morehouse in not just any other institution. As black men we do not need to be “pacified” or “blanketed” from the harsh realities that we will face once we enter work spaces where in some cases there will be no one that looks like us.
    Morehouse Man ’13

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