Obama Tells Fellow Blacks: ‘No Excuses’ for Failure
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
President Obama delivered a fiery sermon to black America on Thursday night, warning black parents that they must accept their own responsibilities by “putting away the Xbox and putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour,” and telling black children that growing up poor is no reason to get bad grades.
“No one has written your destiny for you,” he said, directing his remarks to “all the other Barack Obamas out there” who might one day grow up to be president. “Your destiny is in your hands, and don’t you forget that. That’s what we have to teach all of our children! No excuses! No excuses!”
Mr. Obama spoke for 45 minutes to an audience of several thousand people, most of them black, clad in tuxedos and ball gowns, who had gathered in a ballroom of the Hilton New York to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation’s largest civil rights organization.
He was one part politician and one part black preacher as he spoke in lilting cadences, his voice quiet at times, thundering at others, in unusually personal terms. At one point, when his audience shouted back at him, repeating his words, he threw back his head and laughed, saying, “I’ve got an amen corner back there.”
Mr. Obama spoke directly about his own upbringing, crediting his mother (who was white) with setting him straight, and departing from his prepared text to talk about how his life might have turned out had she not. “When I drive through Harlem and I drive through the South Side of Chicago and I see young men on the corners,” he said, “I say there but for the grace of God go I.”
It was an unusual moment for a president who has sought to transcend race and has only reluctantly embraced his unique place in history. Six months into his presidency, Mr. Obama has seemed more comfortable embracing his identity as the first black American president overseas than at home, as was the case during his trip to Ghana last week, when he declared, “I have the blood of Africa within me.”
At home, though, Mr. Obama has largely avoided talking about himself in racial terms. As a candidate, he jumped into the issue of race relations when his campaign was threatened by the controversial remarks of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and delivered a pointed speech to black fathers on Father’s Day in 2008.
But the White House was low-key in preparations for the N.A.A.C.P. event. When a reporter tried to cast the speech as Mr. Obama’s first to the black community, the press secretary, Robert Gibbs, demurred, saying, “I think the first speech to black America and the first speech to white America, the first speech to America was the Inaugural Address.”
But there was no mistaking Thursday night that Mr. Obama was speaking directly to black America. In part, it was a policy speech.
Mr. Obama told his audience what it wanted to hear on housing, the criminal justice system, education, health care, and jobs — all issues central to the N.A.A.C.P.’s agenda.
Even as he urged blacks to take responsibility for themselves, he spoke of the societal ills — high unemployment, the housing and energy crisis — that have created the conditions for black joblessness. And he said the legacy of the Jim Crow era is still felt, albeit in different ways today.
“Make no mistake, no mistake: the pain of discrimination is still felt in America,” Mr. Obama said, by African-American women who are paid less for the same work as white men, by Latinos “made to feel unwelcome,” by Muslim Americans “viewed with suspicion” and by “our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights.”
Mr. Obama paid particular attention to education, declaring that more than 50 years after the Supreme Court’s landmark segregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, “the dream of a world-class education is still being deferred all across this country” as African-American students lag behind white classmates in reading and math.
The organization’s president, Benjamin T. Jealous, said afterward that the address “was the most forthright speech on the racial disparities still plaguing our nation” Mr. Obama has given since moving into the White House.
But as much as a policy speech, it was a personal one. Details of the address were closely held, partly because Mr. Obama was still working on it through the afternoon.
Aides said he intended to make the case for personal responsibility — a frequent theme of his presidency — in the context of the civil rights movement and how it has shaped his own life. But he also wanted to send a message to black parents, and especially to black children.
“They might think they’ve got a pretty jump shot or a pretty good flow,” Mr. Obama said, “but our kids can’t all aspire to be 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 of America.”