Barack Obama just gave the most important racial justice speech of his presidency. Here's why

Over the weekend, the president gave an unprecedented speech addressing the plight of black women

Published September 23, 2015 9:58AM (EDT)

  (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
(AP/Carolyn Kaster)

On Saturday, President Obama gave an unprecedented speech focused exclusively on the social plight of Black women and girls at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual weekend of events. This speech represents a moment of triumph for intersectional politics, a term Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw invented to describe the ways that racism, sexism and classism work in interlocking fashion to make Black and other women of color invisible in the broader body politic. But Black feminists have also argued for several decades now that placing Black women at the center of political discourses about race and gender would have a positive effect on every marginalized group. Addressing the disproportionate poverty Black women face necessarily helps other women who struggle with poverty. Combating racism helps all people of color and not just Black women. And dealing with the war on women and its effects on Black women automatically improves the condition of other races of women.

As the president noted, Black women’s work “to expand civil rights opened the doors of opportunity, not just for African-Americans, but for all women, for all of us – black and white, Latino and Asian, LGBT and straight, for our First Americans and our newest Americans.” Using Black women’s narratives to highlight the struggles of other groups of marginalized Americans in the extensive way that Obama did on Saturday simply has never been done before in American public life.

Obama did not arrive at this thinking about the importance of Black women solely out of a sense of altruism. Though he quipped that Black women are a “majority of my household,” a fact about which he “cares deeply,” the president arrived at the expansive view of the problems and possibilities that shape Black women’s lives because of many months of committed advocacy work from groups focused on the well-being of Black women and girls.

When the president announced his My Brother’s Keeper initiative focused on the structural challenges faced by men and boys of color in Winter 2014, more than 1,500 Black women signed a letter demanding that the program include remedies for Black women and girls. This public push led to months of closed-door meetings in which a series of reports about the dismal outcomes Black girls face with regard to the school-to-prison pipeline and the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline forced the president’s team to reconsider what it might mean to suggest that only one sex was worthy of his attempts to address structural racism.

Much of that research was referenced throughout Obama’s remarks on Saturday. The speech specifically used the conditions Black women face to talk about the continuing wage gap, threats to defund Planned Parenthood, and the mass incarceration crisis. He noted that “mass incarceration rips apart families” and “perpetuates poverty.” In almost apologetic tones, he talked about his focus on My Brother’s Keeper:

“Although in these discussions a lot of my focus has been on African American men and the work we’re doing with My Brother’s Keeper, we can’t forget the impact that the system has on women, as well. The incarceration rate for black women is twice as high as the rate for white women. Many women in prison, you come to discover, have been victims of homelessness and domestic violence, and in some cases human trafficking.  They’ve got high rates of mental illness and substance abuse. And many have been sexually assaulted, both before they got to prison and then after they go to prison. And we don’t often talk about how society treats black women and girls before they end up in prison. They’re suspended at higher rates than white boys and all other girls. And while boys face the school-to-prison pipeline, a lot of girls are facing a more sinister sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline. Victims of early sexual abuse are more likely to fail in school, which can lead to sexual exploitation, which can lead to prison.”

This framing of the structural vulnerability of Black women and girls is powerful because it does not equivocate on the fact Black women are victims and not perpetrators of structural violence. Moreover, the president did not shy away from discussing the high levels of sexual violence that Black women encounter, even though most of that sexual violence happens at the hands of Black men and boys.

The president managed to avoid his usual turn to respectability politics, which often finds him wagging his fingers at Black people and telling them to be better, more involved parents and to take responsibility for what ails Black communities. In this regard, even Black men fare better in political discourses centered on the plight of Black women. It is harder to demonize young women for dropping out of school due to rampant and unchecked sexual harassment, but any set of policy solutions that makes schools safer for young women while keeping in mind the perils of the school-to-prison pipeline also effectively criminalizes fewer men and boys of color in the process.

In addition to the nuts and bolts of the speech, there are the affective dimensions as well. Obama did not only talk about the structural precarity of Black women’s lives. He also talked about the pain of continued stereotypes about Black womanhood. He talked about the “deep social prejudice and stereotypes” that Michelle Obama faced, including questions about her being “too assertive, too angry, or too tall.” “I like tall women,” he responded.

This reclamation of Michelle was a reclaiming not just of the public narrative that has sought to malign her throughout his presidency, but it was a public affirmation (by a Black man no less) of Black women in general, who labor under similar stereotypes. He also advocated for the first lady to receive a salary. In that telling moment, he linked Michelle to Hillary Clinton, saying, “We’ve got an outstanding former secretary of state here who is also former first lady, and I know she can relate to Michelle when she says, 'How come you get paid and I don’t?'”

Though the reference to Hillary Clinton in his speech constituted only a couple of lines, it represents one of the biggest political opportunities that the speech opens up.

In 2008 and 2012, Black women were the single biggest voting demographic: 96 percent of Black female voters cast their vote with President Obama. By linking Michelle Obama’s struggles with stereotypes about her womanhood to the earlier and similar struggles that Hillary Clinton faced as first lady, the president created a narrative of political solidarity that might resonate with Black female voters.

Until this speech on Saturday, Black women had been the single most overlooked political demographic in terms of receiving political concessions that Black women would find meaningful. And it remains to be seen what substantive policy or executive initiatives will come forth from this speech. But one of the speech’s greatest impacts is that it made Black women’s concerns visible and helped to create the basis of a policy platform that will shape how Black women voters assess candidates in 2016.

Obama gave Hillary Clinton both a head nod and a script. The script should she choose to follow it would require a forthright acknowledgment of the importance of Black women voters to the Democratic Party. And it would demand that Clinton, Bernie Sanders and any other candidate recognize that mass incarceration, reproductive justice, good, safe schools, and protection of the vote are not just American issues. They are Black women’s issues, too.


By Brittney Cooper

Brittney Cooper is a contributing writer at Salon, and teaches Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter at @professorcrunk.

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Barack Obama Black Women Racial Justice Racism White Supremacy Women Of Color