President Obama on Thursday night called for a "new mind-set" and urged Americans to rise once more to meet the challenges ahead as he paid tribute to the civil rights leaders who paved the way for his historic presidency. The occasion was the 100th-anniversary celebration of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in New York.
Mr. Obama noted that the "steepest barriers to opportunity today" include the "structural inequalities" that are the legacy of discrimination, which still disproportionately affects African-Americans in education, healthcare, and the criminal justice system. He also emphasized the need for personal responsibility to continue the fight on which the NAACP was founded.
"We need a new mind-set, 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," he said.
In a nod to the NAACP's mission, Obama emphasized the need to close racial and ethnic disparities. He also praised civil rights leaders like W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King Jr. who "understood" the need to overturn unjust laws and enact legislation that would lift "the stain of slavery and segregation." But he also extolled the efforts of the ordinary people who "made the civil rights movement their own," and he again urged Americans to "encourage excellence in our children."
"We have to say to our 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," he said. "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."
Obama was attempting a delicate dance between talk of individual responsibility and the need for government action to address issues of deep-seated inequities. In the past, when African-American figures like Bill Cosby talked about personal responsibility, it was read by some in the African-American community as a way of dismissing the inherent racism that still besets the United States.
"There has to be a moment when President Obama explicitly says that talk of personal responsibility cannot be viewed in a vacuum," says Eddie Glaude, a professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton University in New Jersey. "He has to say, 'This is not about old discourses of cultural pathologies or state responsibility; it's all of these mixed together.' "
Obama has been criticized by some African-American leaders for his race-neutral language and hesitancy to overtly push for programs that target remaining racial structural inequalities. NAACP chairman Julian Bond echoes that criticism.
"Perhaps you can [better close the disparities] when your policies are more targeted and race conscious," Mr. Bond says. "I don't say it can't be done [Obama's way], but in my view, it's better to have more targeted programs." After a slight pause, he adds, "But I'm not the president."
Such policy debates appeared to matter little to some of the 3,000-plus delegates celebrating the historic evening at the NAACP convention.
Some like Flora Williams, a Tennesseean, thought that Obama had earned her measure of faith.
"I know a lot of people say he's talking a good game," said Ms. Williams, who had kicked off her strappy orange heels about three hours into the four-hour program. "But he's only been [in the presidency] six months, and I think if we give him another two years, he'll do everything he said, plus more."