Obamas most comfortable talking about race when in Chicago

ARLINGTON, VA - MAY 27: First lady Michelle Obama (R) and U.S. President Barack Obama (L) greet people while visiting section 60 at Arlington Cemetery, May 27, 2013 in Arlington, Virginia. For Memorial Day President Obama layed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, paying tribute to military veterans past and present who have served and sacrificed their lives for their country. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Michelle and President Barack Obama. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

President Obama's comments about race relations in the United States on Friday marked his most extensive and personal remarks on the subject since becoming the nation's first African American president. But the president and first lady have made a clear connection between the challenges many young African Americans face and their own before. A careful examination shows three recent speeches on the subject, all of which took place in Chicago, Michelle's hometown and the president's adopted one. In each instance, the nation's first couple has talked about how closely they identify with African Americans who often face daunting odds and try to straddle different worlds.

On Thursday, Michelle Obama spoke to the first graduates of the Urban Alliance Chicago program, explaining that she “can clearly relate, because growing up on the South Side and then — one minute on 74th and Euclid, the next minute in a dorm room at Princeton University” --  was a hard transition.

Upon arriving at the school she called "probably the iviest of Ivies," prompting laughter from the audience, the first lady recounted, "I met the granddaughter of the person who the dorm was named after -- it was just like, really? There was just a whole world of people and privilege and opportunity."

She urged the students to go into college "owning your background" rather than denying it. "That's one of the reasons why, as first lady, I talk about my background -- because I'm proud of it. Growing up on the South Side; not having a lot of resources; struggling through some of the best schools; being one of the few black women in the room of a board room, at a table -- that has prepared me for this."

In April, Michelle Obama delivered a rare policy address on gun violence in Chicago in which she invoked the memory of Hadiya Pendleton, the Chicago teenager who was killed in a shooting just days after she had performed with her high school band at Obama's second inauguration.

"Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her," she told a group of business leaders in April. "But I got to grow up and go to Princeton and Harvard Law School and have a career and family and the most blessed life I could ever imagine ... Hadiya's family did everything right, but she still didn't have a chance."

Obama, speaking to students at the Hyde Park Academy in Chicago the month before, explored  the same issue, but from the African American male perspective.

"There are entire neighborhoods where young people, they don't see an example of anybody succeeding," he said. "And for a lot of young boys and young men, in particular, they don't see an example of their fathers or grandfathers, uncles, who are in a position to support families and be perspective."

The president met with some of the Hyde Park Academy students before his public address, and he remarked during his speech, “what I explained to them was I had issues, too, when I was their age. I just had an environment that was a little more forgiving. So when I screwed up, the consequences weren’t as high as when kids on the South Side screw up.”

During his remarks Friday, Obama noted that he and his wife "talk a lot about" the question, "how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys?"

"There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement," the president said. "And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?"

It is, as Obama acknowledged, "a long-term project." But it is one which both the president and his wife are uniquely positioned to oversee.

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Ed O'Keefe | July 22, 2013