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At NAACP Convention, Obama Speaks of Progress and Continued Struggle

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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' as the nation's first black president. Video by AP

But American politics dictate that Obama take a race-neutral approach when it comes to policy, said Darrell J. Gaskin, associate professor of health economics at the University of Maryland and an expert on disparities in health care. "If the president is able to maintain a broader political coalition to move these things forward, if he's able to attack the education issue and the health-care issue and unemployment, then I think the black community will fare well under him," Gaskin said.

Obama did note a few specifics in his speech, including attempts to deal with what he referred to as "structural inequalities that our nation's legacy of discrimination has left behind." He said "the most difficult barriers" are being torn down with an expanded tax credit, by making housing more affordable, and by giving ex-offenders a second chance.

Before Obama's arrival at the week-long convention, which celebrated the NAACP's move into its second century, its leaders spent days looking back on their accomplishments, forging a modern civil rights agenda and confronting the question of its future role.

The organization's membership waned in the 1990s and those who still belong tend to be older. But at one point Obama directed his attention to a younger generation and returned to the theme of personal responsibility, on which he has often focused before black audiences.

"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 Lil 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."

Julian Bond, the longtime chairman of the NAACP and the dinner's guest of honor, said after Obama's speech, "Whenever any president's aims align with ours, we have been eager to help them achieve their aim. Curiously, a great many of President Obama's goals align with ours, probably more than any other president. We are going to do everything we can to make sure that our mutual goals become successful."

The civil rights community's pitched enthusiasm for Obama pointed to another awkward aspect of its rapport with the president. Many have been walking a fine line since the relationship between Obama and the African American electorate evolved last year from skepticism and doubt at the start of his campaign to a fierce loyalty still evident in polls. In a Gallup poll conducted earlier this month, 96 percent of black voters said they approved of the job Obama is doing, compared with 52 percent of whites and 81 percent of Hispanics.

"I'm anxious about us shouting before the game is over," said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who attended a portion of the convention. "We won the freedom struggle, but what about the equality struggle? Last year's victory was the climax of 100 years of fighting for freedom. Fighting for equality and access, I think, become the next century's struggle."

Jealous argued that it is possible to hold a posture of intense praise while demanding accountability. He ran a political action committee that campaigned for Obama in black communities during the early days of the Democratic primary before becoming NAACP president. Jealous has old friends in the White House, and he said he has been in contact with White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, her aide Michael Strautmanis and White House political director Patrick Gaspard.

"January 20th was a moment of transformative possibility," Jealous said in a speech this week that laid out his vision for NAACP. "But January 21st came and families across the country woke up and said, 'Why can't Dad find a job? Why does Mama have to work so many jobs? Why is my school an embarrassment to everything my country claims to stand for? . . . Why are so many in prison?"

"We must be clear about the true nature of the situation [in] which people of color find ourselves and the nation finds itself," Jealous said. "We must be clear about the way in which the virus known as racism has mutated in our own lifetimes."

Still, he acknowledged: "The nature of the battles we are fighting have shifted."

On that point, Obama agreed, saying: "What we need to do is make real the words of the NAACP charter and eradicate prejudice, bigotry and discrimination. . . . Let it be said that this generation did its part."

Cheryl Thompson reported from Washington. Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.


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