On July 16, President Obama gave a speech at the NAACP Centennial Convention to mark the oldest civil rights organization’s 100 years.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in 1909 by a multiracial group of people including scholar W.E.B. Du Bois after the Race Riot of 1908, where white citizens of Springfield, Illinois burned black-owned businesses and killed black citizens for two days after the county’s sheriff released two black men from prison. The organization’s mission is “to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination.”
Obama’s speech recalls the early struggles of civil rights activists, both legendary and anonymous citizens who banded together to fight for equality, whether it be registering voters, sitting at whites-only lunch counters or boycotting buses. “Because of them I stand here tonight, on the shoulders of giants.”
But while some proclaim that the U.S. with an African American Commander-in-Chief is now “post-racial,” Obama offers evidence to the contrary:
“The pain of discrimination is still felt in America. By African American women paid less for doing the same work as colleagues of a different color and a different gender. By Latinos made to feel unwelcome in their own country. By Muslim Americans viewed with suspicion simply because they kneel down to pray to their God. By our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights.”
However he notes that the biggest obstacles of all are not individual acts of discrimination, but rather the structural inequalities that have formed because of the historic legacy of discrimination.
How to go about tackling discrimination and the barriers it creates? Obama advocates both government and personal responsibility. He outlines a number of programs and legislation aimed at improving education, health care and other issues for the overall well-being of citizens, but adds, “We need a new mind set, a new set of attitudes — because one of the most durable and destructive legacies of discrimination is the way we’ve internalized a sense of limitation; how so many in our community have come to expect so little from the world and from themselves.”
Obama goes on to say, in what seems to be the most compelling part of his speech, “We’ve got 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…[but] that’s not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school. No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands.”
Most of the mainstream media outlets have seemed to frame President Obama’s speech as a sort of stern lecture to the African American community about how they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That interpretation is a comfortable one to accept, allowing Americans who are not black to absolve all responsibility of fighting discrimination and the structural inequalities it creates, but it is far from accurate. Instead, his speech conveys a sense of concern yet optimism. It demonstrates that the United States as a nation has come so far in fighting injustice, yet still has a way to go in achieving equality, and that such a weight rests on the shoulders of everyone, citizens and government alike.