Everybody wants to know how, if at all, we should think about race in the Obama era. Well, President Barack Obama himself offered an answer in his speech to the NAACP last night. The address—his first explicitly on race as president—put a coda on his remarkable Philadelphia campaign speech, in which he addressed questions raised by his relationship with Jeremiah Wright. Taken together, the two represent what we might as well call the Obama doctrine on race: It still matters, deeply, but individual will and familial support are ultimately what govern life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in America.
It’s classic Obama, in that it rises above the fray of an old debate by declaring everybody the winner. In this case, the shouting match he wants to end surrounds the question of opportunity. Do individuals or the inequalities into which they’re born matter most? The president comes down squarely in the middle—or, to borrow as he did from MLK, it’s both/and. Which, of course, is obvious to anybody born black, brown or poor, or all of the above. The children of black and brown strivers across generations will recognize a familiar, if more politic, refrain in Obama’s message—assume these white folks are gonna be racist, then figure it out anyway.
“Yes, if you’re African American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher,” Obama preached last night. (and it was a sermon). “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.”
It’s important that we hear both halves of this message, though. Early press reports have, not surprisingly, focused on Obama’s call for personal responsibility among black youth and black parents, a theme he’s hammered repeatedly since he emerged on the national stage. From Booker T. Washington to Bill Cosby, America loves nothing so much as hearing a popular black man declare that racial inequality is a problem best solved through the self-improvement of those seeking said equality.
But just as important as the “no excuses!” refrain blaring from this morning’s headlines is an earlier, quieter discourse on the nature of inequality today. Racism, defined as overt discrimination based on skin color, is largely a thing of the past, Obama declared. We’ve all inherited, however, the racist structure Jim Crow bequeathed. “Prejudice and discrimination are not even the steepest barriers to opportunity today,” Obama offered. “The most difficult barriers include structural inequalities that our nation’s legacy of discrimination has left behind; inequalities still plaguing too many communities and too often the object of national neglect.”
That’s a concise articulation of how and why race does, alas, still matter. The president should say it more often—both to advance our national conversation about race and to support ambitious public efforts to dismantle those structural inequalities. “The object of national neglect” was steadily shoved to the edges of public policy at the 20th century’s close. Obama said last night that he does not embody the end of America’s struggle with race. He can, nonetheless, get us closer to that end by making the case for public responsibility as compellingly as he’s made the case for personal accountability.
Kai Wright is a senior writer for The Root.