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Originally published Friday, July 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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President talks of progress, barriers at NAACP convention

In his first speech before the nation's oldest civil-rights organization since taking office, President Obama paid tribute Thursday to the NAACP as it celebrated its centennial, delivering what the group's chief executive called his most "forthright speech on racial disparities."

The Washington Post

NEW YORK — In his first speech before the nation's oldest civil-rights organization since taking office, President Obama paid tribute Thursday to the NAACP as it celebrated its centennial, delivering what the group's chief executive called his most "forthright speech on racial disparities."

In his return to the organization that helped pave the way for him to become the first African-American president, Obama spoke directly to the concerns that have plagued the NAACP as it grapples with relevancy in an age that has been described as post-racial.

"We know that even as our economic crisis batters Americans of all races, African Americans are out of work more than just about anyone else," the president said. "We know that even as spiraling health-care costs crush families of all races, African Americans are more likely to suffer from a host of diseases but less likely to own health insurance than just about anyone else.

"We know that even as we imprison more people of all races than any nation in the world, an African-American child is roughly five times as likely as a white child to see the inside of a jail. And we know that even as the scourge of HIV/AIDS devastates nations abroad, particularly in Africa, it is devastating the African-American community here at home with disproportionate force.

"These are some of the barriers of our time," he added. "They're very different from the barriers faced by earlier generations. ... But what is required to overcome today's barriers is the same as was needed then."

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 and residents to pay better attention to their schools.

Obama touted education as essential to improving the lives of all children. He said the state of schools is an American problem, not an African-American one.

"You know what I'm talking about. There's a reason the story of the civil-rights movement was written in our schools. 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.

"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 someone in a wealthy suburb does not,' " 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, and don't you forget that."

Obama also pressed for NAACP members to encourage their young people to find new role models beyond sports or music.

To bolster his argument that it's within their reach, he cited his own biography, growing up with a single mother.

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"I don't come from a lot of wealth. I got into my share of trouble as a kid. My life could easily have taken a turn for the worse. But that mother of mine gave me love; she pushed me, and cared about my education; she took no lip and taught me right from wrong," Obama said. "Because of her, I had a chance to make the most of my abilities. I had the chance to make the most of my opportunities. I had the chance to make the most of life.

"They might think they've got a pretty good jump shot or a pretty good flow, but our kids can't all aspire to be the next LeBron (James) or Li'l Wayne," Obama said, referring to the pro basketball and music stars. "I want them aspiring to be scientists and engineers, doctors and teachers, not just ballers and rappers. I want them aspiring to be a Supreme Court justice. I want them aspiring to be president of the United States."

Obama expanded his message of equal rights beyond the black communities. He said many Americans still face discrimination.

Racism, he said, is felt "by African-American women paid less for doing the same work as colleagues of a different color and gender. By Latinos made to feel unwelcome in their own country. By Muslim Americans viewed with suspicion for simply kneeling down to pray. By our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights."

Material from The Associated Press is used in this report.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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