WASHINGTON, D.C. (NNPA) – Though the U.S. has made tremendous progress since the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, there is plenty of unfinished work to be done in order to make the nation a more perfect union, President Barack Obama says.
“Our high school graduation rate is at a record high, the dropout rate is falling, more young people are earning college degrees than ever before,” Obama told those attending the Congressional Black Caucus awards dinner. “Last year, the number of children living in poverty fell by 1.4 million, the largest decline since 1966. Since I took office, the overall crime rate and the overall incarceration rate has gone down by about 10%. That’s the first time they’ve declined at the same time in more than 40 years. Fewer folks in jail. Crime still going down.
“But our work is not done when too many children live in crumbling neighborhoods, cycling through substandard schools, traumatized by daily violence. Our work is not done when working Americans of all races have seen their wages and incomes stagnate, even as corporate profits soar; when African American unemployment is still twice as high as white unemployment; when income inequality, on the rise for decades, continues to hold back hardworking communities, especially communities of color. We’ve got unfinished work.”
Speaking just days after Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., the administration’s point man on race, submitted his resignation, Obama spoke more directly about race than perhaps anytime since he has been in office.
In past CBC appearances, Obama was sometimes viewed as lecturing CBC members about personal responsibility while failing to do the same to White audiences. In his speech before the CBC dinner Saturday night, Obama dropped his reluctance to speak boldly about the racial atmosphere in America.
“We still have to close these opportunity gaps,” he said. “And we have to close the justice gap—how justice is applied, but also how it is perceived, how it is experienced. Eric Holder understands this. That’s what we saw in Ferguson this summer, when Michael Brown was killed and a community was divided. We know that the unrest continues. And Eric spent some time with the residents and police of Ferguson, and the Department of Justice has indicated that its civil rights investigation is ongoing.
“Now, I won’t comment on the investigation. I know that Michael’s family is here tonight. I know that nothing any of us can say can ease the grief of losing a child so soon. But the anger and the emotion that followed his death awakened our nation once again to the reality that people in this room have long understood, which is, in too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement.”
Obama spoke to the everyday experiences of being a Black man in America.
“Too many young men of color feel targeted by law enforcement, guilty of walking while Black, or driving while Black, judged by stereotypes that fuel fear and resentment and hopelessness. We know that, statistically, in everything from enforcing drug policy to applying the death penalty to pulling people over, there are significant racial disparities. That’s just the statistics. One recent poll showed that the majority of Americans think the criminal justice system doesn’t treat people of all races equally. Think about that. That’s not just Blacks, not just Latinos or Asians or Native Americans saying things may not be unfair. That’s most Americans.”
It is unclear what poll the president was referencing. Most polls show a majority of Whites feel the criminal justice system is colorblind. For example, a Pew Research Center survey last year found that 70% of Blacks feel they are treated less fairly than Whites in their dealings with police. Only 37% of Whites said they think Blacks are treated less fairly by police.
The mistreatment of African Americans harms Whites as well as Blacks, the president said.
“And that has a corrosive effect—not just on the Black community. It has a corrosive effect on America,” Obama said. “It harms the communities that need law enforcement the most. It makes folks who are victimized by crime and need strong policing reluctant to go to the police because they may not trust them. And the worst part of it is it scars the hearts of our children. It scars the hearts of the white kids who grow unnecessarily fearful of somebody who doesn’t look like them. It stains the heart of Black children who feel as if no matter what he does, he will always be under suspicion. That is not the society we want. It’s not the society that our children deserve. Whether you’re Black or White, you don’t want that for America.”
Three countries (Russia, Iran and Egypt) have cited America’s mistreatment of African Americans as evidence of U.S. hypocrisy on human rights.
“As I said this week at the United Nations,” Obama said, “America is special not because we’re perfect. America is special because we work to address our problems, to make our union more perfect [a reference to the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution]. We fight for more justice. We fight to cure what ails us. We fight for our ideals, and we’re willing to criticize ourselves when we fall short. And we address our differences in the open space of democracy with respect for the rule of law; with a place for people of every race and religion; and with an unyielding belief that people who love their country can change it. That’s what makes us special, not because we don’t have problems, but because we work to fix them. And we will continue to work to fix this.
“And we’re not forgetting about the girls, by the way. I got two daughters, I don’t know if you noticed. African American girls are more likely than their White peers also to be suspended, incarcerated, and physically harassed. Black women struggle every day with biases that perpetuate oppressive standards for how they’re supposed to look and how they’re supposed to act. Too often, they’re either left under the hard light of scrutiny, or cloaked in a kind of invisibility.
“So in addition to the new efforts on My Brother’s Keeper, the White House Council for Women and Girls has for years been working on issues affecting women and girls of color, from violence against women, to pay equity, to access to health care. And you know Michelle has been working on that. Because she doesn’t think our daughters should be treated differently than anybody else’s son. I’ve got a vested interest in making sure that our daughters have the same opportunities as boys do.”
Obama ended his 23-minute speech, which was interrupted 34 times by applause, with an appeal for greater voter participation in November.
“Because people refused to give in when it was hard, we get to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act next year,” President Obama said. “Until then, we’ve got to protect it. We can’t just celebrate it; we’ve got to protect it. Because there are people still trying to pass voter ID laws to make it harder for folks to vote. And we’ve got to get back to our schools and our offices and our churches, our beauty shops, barber shops, and make sure folks know there’s an election coming up, they need to know how to register, and they need to know how and when to vote.”