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Opinion: Biden’s Morehouse address was a farewell speech


Opinion by Shermichael Singleton

(CNN) — Sunday served up more than its share of symbolism as the 140th Commencement Exercises at Morehouse College were conducted. Four hundred and fourteen graduates became Morehouse Men with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities to be candles in a dark world through leadership and service.

The ceremony is reverent and ritualistic and mirrors the formal rigorous academic Baptist roots of the college. The awarding of degrees is similar to a baptism after the doors of the church have been opened. Having had the privilege of attending Morehouse, I know all too well the reverence of such an occasion, particularly when reflecting on the history of the countless number of Black people — some known, but many often forgotten by history — who sacrificed more than I can imagine for those of us who today have the opportunity to be educated and foster change. Simply put: We are their dreams and desires.

This old-school religious tradition prizes one segment of religious worship above all else — that of the sermon, the preaching moment. The honor this year fell to President Joseph R. Biden Jr. It was an important occasion for the president. He suffers from double-digit defections from his 2020 Black electoral coalition, according to the polls. That exodus is led by Black men.

Morehouse extended him the wonderful opportunity to speak directly to a constituency the Biden-Harris administration cannot afford to lose support from. But despite the opportunity, the speech was inadequate.

The address was heavy on personal anecdotes and reflections of a history of Morehouse largely known to Black America. Biden also discussed his focus on spending the federal government’s money and critiquing whether election administrators in Georgia provide water to voters while they wait in line during election time, which is important. But the Biden address at Morehouse was devoid of vision. It did not speak to the majority of Black men who do not apply to college, gain admission or complete their undergraduate degrees. It did not speak to the absence of access to the American Dream.

The shortcomings of the president’s speech highlight the broader set of problems he’s having with Black voters as revealed consistently by the polls. It’s clear that Biden and his campaign are acutely aware of these problems given the president’s recent series of outreach efforts aimed at Black voters.

Before his appearance at Morehouse, he spoke at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. There he reflected on the historical significance of the museum in maintaining and telling the story of Black people, while noting his commitment to tackling disparities in education and wealth.

At the NAACP dinner in Detroit, Michigan — a key city with a strong Black voting bloc in a crucial battleground state — he discussed protecting voting rights and economic opportunities. In these and other public remarks to Black audiences, Biden highlighted key accomplishments of his tenure, such as increased funding for historically Black colleges and universities and the expansion of the child tax credit.

But the Morehouse crowd, at least, understood that no matter how much Biden talks about his proximity to HBCU graduates and having worked with President Barack Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris, his policies have yet to fully meet their expectations, and while some may argue that a little progress is better than no progress at all, it begs the question for many of how long they should accept minimal change when the needs are far greater.

Democrats dismissing Biden’s bad poll numbers showcases the disconnect between wealthy Washington elites whose hubris does not allow them to understand the very real and salient experiences of many working-class Black people who feel disillusioned and often forgotten by a political class that only shows up when it’s time to vote.

Democrats are frankly delusional if they think they can take these voters’ sentiments for granted. There’s a strong chance they will not vote for Biden at the same level they did in 2020.

It’s not enough for Biden to discuss history or accomplishments that don’t move the needle in any significant way for the average Black person, who has yet to notice any reprieve from their daily plight.

Younger Black voters see what their ancestors saw: a permanent state of hard times that require more than the blame games that Biden tried to play with the Supreme Court or Republicans. Young voters are focusing their expectations on who can deliver and who prioritizes their needs — and the current perception is that Biden can’t, which will undoubtedly lead to many staying home.

What do the CHIPS Act and the Inflation Reduction Act mean when the primary beneficiaries of such laws are large institutions? State and local governments or businesses are the ones responsible for executing the design, finance, construction, maintenance and operations of the legislation touted constantly by the Biden administration and are the real winners.

Black-owned businesses do not build wafers for microchips and construction companies have structural barriers to hiring Black men — among them a preference for low-wage, undocumented immigrant labor promoted by Democrats.

At present, the Biden administration thinks criminal justice reform is discussing reclassifying marijuana. While that is important for a sector of Black men, the relief for Black men writ large comes from a robust economic plan. It should focus on financial literacy, grant opportunities through the Small Business Administration and policies that emphasize ownership and entrepreneurship that promote prolonged economic growth that can be sustained and generationally passed on.

Similarly, spending money for new roads and encouraging prescription drug costs to be lower are poll-tested ideas that sound nice on public opinion surveys but don’t address the structural economic problems that Black Americans face.

The Biden campaign is just entering the valley of despair that Black men have to navigate every day of their lives. The late arrival has been noticed. The damage done is in many ways irreparable. By accepting the invitation to address the Morehouse College Class of 2024 and receive an honorary degree, Biden had the opportunity to meet the moment and the magnitude of his audience.

The families of the Morehouse College Class of 2024 and alumni of the college were polite in their acknowledgments of the office of the presidency. The concerns of many about the nation’s foreign policy and war footing were largely subdued. That’s because the constituencies of Morehouse are focused on making Black America’s leaders of tomorrow. They refused to embrace spectacle and instead were celebrating the transition to the next stage of their lives.

But Biden’s public addresses over the last 50 years have never inspired audiences and the noticeable decline in his speaking abilities during his presidency did not suggest there would be much for the listening audience to gain from his speaking presentation. In that sense, he didn’t disappoint.

The speech was more a farewell from a past ally than an invitation to a new vision for a prosperous future. Biden is in the valley as Black voters led by young men abandon him, even while speaking from a red clay hill.

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