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An American message Obama, the man and symbol, delivered for NAACP

Howard Manly

Lost in all the recent noise about health care reform and the media sensation surrounding the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was a rather thoughtful speech delivered by President Barack Obama at the annual NAACP convention, held last month in New York City.

It was a historic occasion. Started in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was celebrating its 100th anniversary. And while some critics questioned the usefulness of the venerable civil rights organization after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case and the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s, none of that sentiment appeared in Obama’s speech.

In fact, the president urged the group to press on toward another milestone.

“One hundred years from now,” Obama concluded, “on the 200th anniversary of the NAACP, let it be said that this generation did its part; that we too ran the race.”

It is almost laughable these days to even suggest that Obama is not black enough, as many mainstream news organizations did during the early days of the presidential campaign. Most egregious were the words of Stanley Crouch, the bombastic New York Daily News columnist.

“Obama’s mother is of white U.S. stock. His father is a black Kenyan,” Crouch wrote in a Nov. 2, 2006, piece entitled “What Obama Isn’t: Black Like Me.”

But Obama was black enough that night in New York City, trumpeting the achievements of the nation’s oldest civil rights group while at the same time exhorting African Americans to use his well-known story as an example of what can be achieved when all Americans work together for a common good.

“What we celebrate tonight,” Obama said, “is not simply the journey the NAACP has traveled, but the journey that we, as Americans, have traveled … Because of what they did, we are a more perfect union.”

It’s clear that Obama is not a racial bomb-thrower. His DNA doesn’t have that gear. But he is extremely cognizant of from whence America has come, starting with the U.S. Constitution and its reluctance to deal with what he called ‘the nation’s original sin of slavery,” and leading up to the founding of the NAACP, when a biracial group of wealthy and poor, white and black, fought side by side to ensure democracy for all.

“It was in this America,” Obama told the NAACP gathering, “where an Atlanta scholar named W.E.B. Du Bois, a man of towering intellect and a fierce passion for justice, sparked what became known as the Niagara Movement; where reformers united, not by color, but [by] cause; and where an association was born that would, as its charter says, promote equality and eradicate prejudice among citizens of the United States.”

But that was then and the nation today is a far different place; Obama readily acknowledges that he himself is living proof of that. But he is also quick to declare that “too many barriers still remain.”

“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,” Obama 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.”

Though less a problem now than ever before, discrimination is a part of modern day life.

“The pain of discrimination is still felt in America,” Obama said. “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.”

Some of the solution lies in government. Obama has emphasized reforms in health care and education to level the playing field. He has also focused on affordable housing and creating new jobs in a more environmentally friendly economy.

Most important, Obama urged African Americans to get back to basics.

“Government programs alone won’t get our children to the promised land,” he said. “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.

“We have to say to our children, ‘Yes, if you’re African American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher,’” the president continued. “‘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.’”

Obama also called on parents and neighborhood leaders to reinstate the values of excellence, discipline and hard work throughout their families and within their neighborhoods.

“It also means pushing our kids to set their sights higher,” Obama said. “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. 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.”

And that’s where the NAACP comes in.

“The NAACP was not founded in search of a handout,” Obama said. “The NAACP was not founded in search of favors. The NAACP was founded on a firm notion of justice; to cash the promissory note of America that says all our children, all God’s children, deserve a fair chance in the race of life.”