Philip Elliott, AP, July 17, 2009
Saying that civil rights leaders from decades past paved the way for his election as the nation’s first black commander in chief, President Barack Obama paid homage to the NAACP and advised members that their work remains unfinished.
Obama traced his historic rise to power to the vigor and valor of black civil rights leaders, telling the nation’s oldest civil rights organization Thursday night that their sacrifice “began the journey that has led me here.” He also prodded them to look beyond simply African-American rights as the group celebrated its 100th convention.
“Make no mistake: The pain of discrimination is still felt in America,” the president told the friendly audience that erupted in standing applause and the occasional “Amen” during his remarks.
Painting himself as the beneficiary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’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.
Obama expanded his message of equal rights beyond the black communities. He said many Americans still face discrimination and suggested the NAACP–looking to declare a mission for its second century–might embrace a broader mandate in coming years.
He urged parents to take a more active role, residents to pay better attention to their schools and students to aspire beyond basketball stars and rappers.
Throughout his comments, Obama sought a balance, contending that the government must foster equality but individuals must take charge of their own lives. It was reminiscent of earlier Obama speeches, calling on fathers to help their children and adopting a tone that at times seemed drawn from the pulpit.
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, he said discrimination persists–and not just for blacks–and chided those who may contend otherwise.
When President Barack Obama takes the stage here Thursday night at the NAACP’s annual conference, he will be greeted by a base of black supporters who see him as the crowning achievement in the struggle for civil rights. Six months into his presidency, there are few signs that black support for Obama is softening.
Yet, many are hoping to hear from Obama something that they have yet to hear–specific plans to address the black agenda. Obama’s broad approach to race has left some cold and has fueled the idea that he is punting on the issue and ignoring the specificity of the problems in the black community where, for instance, the unemployment rate is nearly 15 percent, compared to 9 percent nationwide.
They might be disappointed. White House aides said Obama will touch on the organization’s accomplishments, cast himself as a beneficiary, emphasize the need for personal responsibility and talk broadly about his domestic agenda, but not unveil any specific policy.
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous praised Obama for several early steps in his presidency but said he wants to hear from Obama a commitment to ending discrimination in his remarks tonight, and a recognition of the work of the NAACP, celebrating its 100th anniversary.
Yet if his remarks amount to a rah-rah speech about the NAACP, then “people will be pretty happy and then they will wake up the next day feeling empty,” Jealous said.
Just hours before his speech, Obama nominated the associate director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Jacqueline A. Berrien, to head the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“The reality is, Barack Obama can go into some black audiences and read the phone book and people would say that’s the best sounding phone book I have ever heard before. We don’t want a whole lot from him, not yet at least,” said Michael Fauntroy, a public policy professor at George Mason University.
“But there is a small and growing sentiment among some African Americans that perhaps we need a more forward and overt conversations about some things. He is taking the approach that in dealing with the economy and health care that he is dealing with black issues, but there are some other issues that have a unique impact on African Americans.”
Fauntroy added that the Obama’s emphasis on personal responsibility is not enough.
“Not everything can be addressed through talk. I want to hear some policy prescriptions,” he said. “Not just pull up your pants. We know that already.”
“Rising tides will not lift all boats. Some boats are locked in and getting them out requires investment. Urban America will recover when it’s targeted,” Jackson [Jesse Jackson Sr.] said. “I think he has opened the window for hope and opportunity, but those who have the most need, whether they are inner city blacks or whites in Appalachia, must be targeted. The banks were targeted–now the most unemployed need a targeted stimulus.”
“As Obama said, metropolitan areas can’t be looked on as problems, but solutions. Who lives in metropolitan areas? You upgrade the education there, the transportation there, you fight the crime there. Who benefits?” said former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder said. “I don’t think it can be listed and called the black agenda. I think it should be an agenda that can uplift people who would be left out and that includes African-Americans. You do what you need to do with it without calling it that.”
Strategically, that kind of raceless, universal approach served Obama well in the campaign, and he was able to hold racial issues at arms length, with the implicit understanding among blacks that he couldn’t be “the black president.” But with that tacit agreement, there were also expectations, University of Maryland professor Ron Walters said.
“They want the agenda to be recognized but they are reluctant to press it. There is going to be a lot of listening going on to see if he begins to press aspects of this agenda,” said Walters, who ran Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns. “And there’s going to be a ‘where’s the beef, come to Jesus’ meeting somewhere down the line without any concrete action.”