By Krissah Thompson and Cheryl W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 17, 2009
NEW YORK, July 16 -- 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 association 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."
"The barriers of our time," he added, are "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 used his 34-minute speech to rally a loyal constituency that is working to hold him accountable even as it continues to celebrate his presidency.
Members of the NAACP crammed into a banquet hall and several overflow rooms to hear the president, and at times they seemed to simply relish his words.
Obama has become both a crowning symbol of the achievements of the civil rights movement and a hurdle to it. When the organization was founded in 1909, black Americans were routinely the victims of attacks by lynch mobs and were legally treated as second-class citizens. As it turns 100, a black man leads the country and social commentators are debating whether an organization founded to win civil rights for African Americans is still necessary.
NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous, who at 36 is the youngest person ever to lead the organization, said that Obama made clear that "the fight isn't over yet."
Obama thanked the association -- home over the years to towering African American figures such as W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson and Ida B. Wells -- for working to "promote equality and eradicate prejudice among citizens of the United States" and indicated that he still thinks it is needed.
"Make no mistake: The pain of discrimination is still felt in America," said Obama, who was greeted with cheers and extended applause. "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."
Obama has navigated the complicated terrain of race in a nuanced way, seldom dealing with it directly in terms of policy. During last year's campaign, he did not confront the subject fully until racially incendiary comments by his former pastor threatened to derail his candidacy. Then Obama delivered what many called a history-making address on race but did not touch on race-based government policies.
National Urban League President Marc Morial, who attended the convention earlier in the week, said Thursday that people have been looking for Obama "for a signal that he cares about people like me," adding: "They're looking for it in his words and in his deeds."
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.