President Barack Obama on Thursday traced his historic rise to power to the vigor and valor of black civil rights leaders, telling the NAACP that their sacrifice “began the journey that has led me here.” The nation’s first black president bluntly warned, though, that racial barriers persist.
“Make no mistake: The pain of discrimination is still felt in America,” the president said in honoring the organization’s 100th convention.
Rousing up his audience, Obama offered his most direct speech on race since winning the White House, a mix of personal reflection and policy promotion. He worked on it for about two weeks and revised it until shortly before he spoke, his aides said, underscoring the importance of his message and his audience.
Implicit in his appearance: He is seeking the backing of the powerful NAACP and its members for his ambitious domestic agenda.
Painting himself as the beneficiary of the NAACP’s work, Obama cited historical figures from W.E.B. DuBois to Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr. to Emmet Till, to explain how the path to the presidency was cleared by visionaries.
Despite the racial progress exemplified by his own election, Obama said African-Americans must overcome a disproportionate share of struggles, including being more likely to suffer from many diseases and having a higher proportion of children end up in jail.
“These are some of the barriers of our time,” Obama said. “They’re very different from the barriers faced by earlier generations. They’re very different from the ones faced when fire hoses and dogs were being turned on young marchers,” Obama said. “But what’s required to overcome today’s barriers is the same as what was needed then. The same commitment. The same sense of urgency.”
Obama’s remarks, steeped in his personal biography as the son of a white mother from Kansas and black father from Kenya, challenged the audience — those in the room and those beyond — to take greater responsibility for their own future.
He told parents to take a more active role, students to aspire beyond basketball stars and rappers, and residents to pay better attention to their schools.
Throughout his comments, Obama sought a balance, contending that the government must foster equality but individuals must take charge of their own lives.
The key to success, Obama said, is improving education for all. Citing school segregation and the fight that was waged both on school steps and in courthouses, he said the condition of schools is an American problem, not an African-American one.
“There’s a reason Thurgood Marshall took up the cause of Linda Brown. There’s a reason the Little Rock Nine defied a governor and a mob,” Obama said. “It’s because there is no stronger weapon against inequality and no better path to opportunity than an education that can unlock a child’s God-given potential.”
Unlocking that potential, though, means both acknowledging the challenges facing black youth and then finding a solution to problems that are the legacy of decades of institutionalized discrimination.
“We have 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,” Obama said, returning to his tough-love message familiar from his two-year presidential campaign.
“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 said. “No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands.”
NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous described Obama’s speech as “pitch-perfect,” praising him for talking about the racial disparities that still exist in areas like education and in incarceration.
“This evening is an affirmation of all the work that we’ve done for a century,” Jealous said. “It’s also an affirmation of all the work that we’re doing right now.”
Obama expanded his message of equal rights beyond the black communities. He said many Americans still face discrimination and suggested that the NAACP — in search of a mission for its second century — might embrace a broader mandate in coming years.
Today, Obama said, it is not prejudice or discrimination that presents the greatest obstacles for blacks, but rather structural inequities— in areas such as education and health care. Still, though, he said discrimination persists — and not just for blacks — and he chided those who may contend otherwise.
Obama also pressed for NAACP members to encourage their young people to find new role models beyond sports or music.
“I want them aspiring to be scientists and engineers, doctors and teachers, not just ballers and rappers,” Obama said. “I want them aspiring to be a Supreme Court justice. I want them aspiring to be president of the United States.”
With that line, Obama drove the hotel ballroom audience to its feet.
To bolster his arguments, Obama cited his own biography, growing up with a single mother.
“I know what can happen to a child who doesn’t have that chance,” Obama said. “But I also know what can happen to a child who does. I was raised by a single mom. I don’t come from a lot of wealth. I got into my share of trouble as a child. My life could easily have taken a turn for the worse. When I drive through Harlem or I drive through the South Side of Chicago, when I see young men on the corners, I say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.'”
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.