WASHINGTON, July 16, 2009 -- Speaking at the NAACP's 100th Anniversary dinner, President Barack Obama said that overall there's less discrimination in America today, but warned to not be tempted to think that discrimination is no longer a problem.
"Make no mistake: the pain of discrimination is still felt in America," the first African American president told the nation's oldest civil rights group at their annual dinner in New York City. "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 to their god. By our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights.
Obama said the new barriers – of an economic crisis, health care costs, the scourge of HIV/AIDS, and imprisonment – are all things that crush all races but particularly the African American race by higher numbers.
"These are some of the barriers of our time," Obama said. "They're very different from the barriers faced by earlier generations. They're very different from the ones faced when fire hoses and dogs were being turned on young marchers; when Charles Hamilton Houston and a group of young Howard lawyers were dismantling segregation."
The president said these barriers can be solved by structural changes in community and government – such as the need for a world-class education system that he said is still being deferred around the country.
"African-American students are lagging behind white classmates in reading and math – an achievement gap that is growing in states that once led the way on civil rights. Over half of all African-American students are dropping out of school in some places. There are overcrowded classrooms, crumbling schools, and corridors of shame in America filled with poor children – black, brown, and white alike."
Obama said that the state of schools is an American problem, not just an African-American problem and referenced an odd-couple team that has lobbied the president on education reform.
"And if Al Sharpton, Mike Bloomberg, and Newt Gingrich can agree that we need to solve it, then all of us can agree on that," Obama said, laughing and recalling their visit to the White House. "Those guys came into the Oval Office. I was sitting in the oval office. Kept on doing a double take. That's a sign of progress and a sign of the urgency of the education problem."
Much of the president's remarks were not only focused on the need for governmental structural reform, but also reform individually, within families, and within communities -- a tough-love emphasis that he's spoke about in the past.
"Government programs alone won't get our children to the promised land. We need a new mindset, a new set of attitudes – because one of the most durable and destructive legacies of discrimination is the way that we have internalized a sense of limitation; how so many in our community have come to expect so little of ourselves."
Obama said that parents must say to their 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. 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. No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands – and don't you forget that."
The president instructed parents to put away the Xbox, put their kids to bed at a reasonable hour, attend parent-teacher conferences and read to their children -- to push them to higher levels.
"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 or Lil Wayne. 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."
A Homecoming Of Sorts
Tonight's highly anticipated address was the president's first speech to a traditional African American audience since taking office – causing a major level of expectation in the speech six months into his presidency.
"I stand of the shoulders of giants," Obama said of those who fought for civil rights it the past.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs down played the notion that tonight's speech is a first by the first African American U.S. president.
"I think the first speech to black America and the first speech to white America, the first speech to America was the inaugural address," Gibbs told reporters on Wednesday.
At last year's address candidate Obama promised the group that he would be back for their 100 year anniversary celebration as president.
"I will come back to you next year on that anniversary and I will stand before you as the president of the United States of America. And at that moment, you and I will truly know that a new day has come in this country we love."
The president's appearance was a homecoming of sorts to a community that has been lifted up by the election of the first African American president.
He told ABC's Ann Compton during a press conference in March that he recognizes the pride that African Americans have taken because of his election.
"Obviously at the inauguration I think that there was justifiable pride on the part of the country that we had taken a step to move us beyond some of the searing legacies of racial discrimination in this country," Obama said. "But that lasted about a day and, you know, right now the American people are judging me exactly the way I should be judged, and that is are we taking the steps to improve liquidity in the financial markets, create jobs, get businesses to reopen, keep America safe. And that's what I've been spending my time thinking about."
Changing Mission of the NAACP?
The president's address this evening comes at a time when the NAACP is going though organizational changes – in part spurred by the group's leadership.
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous has been advocating for the group to expand its work to broader human rights causes, not only African American causes.
The president briefly touched on the continuation of their mission during his speech.
"On the 45th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, discrimination must not stand. Not on account of color or gender; how you worship or who you love. Prejudice has no place in the United States of America. That's what the NAACP will stand for."
The president's address at the Hilton Hotel in New York City follows a week of prominent speakers including Mayor Bloomberg, Rev. Al Sharpton and Attorney General Eric Holder. Chairman Julian Bond received the Spingard Medal, the organization's highest honor.