One hundred years after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People established and identified itself as a voice and champion of black Americans, President Barack Obama — perhaps the most visible and potent beneficiary of the success of the NAACP’s mission — addressed its annual meeting on Thursday in New York City.
The newly-minted president of the United States, fighting two foreign wars and facing serious challenges from Congress on his health-care plan, put on his rhetorical latex rubber gloves and played the role of Dr. Toughlove.
In an address that offered a deep, churchy appreciation of what the NAACP has achieved in 100 years, Obama also spoke truth to power when it comes to African Americans owning up to the problems in their own house — our own house — and what must be done to correct them.
On Thursday, Obama weaved his usual oratorical spell, noting the NAACP’s formidable history and its origins in a knife-edge time for African Americans.
“It was a time when Jim Crow was a way of life; when lynchings were all too common; when race riots were shaking cities across a segregated land.
It was in this America 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; where an association was born that would, as its charter says, promote equality and eradicate prejudice among citizens of the United States.”
In that statement and elsewhere, the president duly noted the NAACP’s work throughout the century whose legacy DuBois accurately prophesized as “the color-line.”
But, the president seemed to say, that line has its dsecendants.
◊ ◊ ◊
“[M]ake no mistake: The pain of discrimination is still felt in America. By African American women paid less for doing the same work as colleagues of a different color and a different gender. By Latinos made to feel unwelcome in their own country. By Muslim Americans viewed with suspicion simply because they kneel down to pray to their God. By our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights.”
“On the 45th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, discrimination cannot stand — not on account of color or gender; how you worship or who you love. Prejudice has no place in the United States of America. That's what the NAACP stands for.”
Thus were African Americans — and particularly those in the NAACP’s demographic sweet spot, skewing significantly older and more culturally conservative — put on notice that there were no excuses for black Americans stoking ill will against Latino Americans, in the wrong-headed perception that Latinos were taking jobs from blacks. And there were no excuses for blacks continuing to look askance at gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons within the race and outside it.
And no more excuses for young black men and women finding some perverse success in failure.
◊ ◊ ◊
“We've got 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 somebody in a wealthy suburb does not have to face. 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 — you cannot forget that. That's what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses. No excuses.
You get that education, all those hardships will just make you stronger, better able to compete. Yes we can. To parents — to parents, we can't tell our kids to do well in school and then fail to support them when they get home.
“You can't just contract out parenting. For our kids to excel, we have to accept our responsibility to help them learn. That means putting away the Xbox -- putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour.
“It means attending those parent-teacher conferences and reading to our children and helping them with their homework. And by the way, it means we need to be there for our neighbor's sons and daughters.
“That's the meaning of community. That's how we can reclaim the strength and the determination and the hopefulness that helped us come so far; helped us make a way out of no way.
It also means pushing our children to set their sights a little bit higher. 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 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 the President of the United States of America.”
◊ ◊ ◊
The NAACP is challenged like never before in its history, and much of that challenge comes, ironically enough, from the people the organization was created to serve. In recent months, there’s been much discussion in black media of the NAACP’s pertinence in today’s America; some have (rightly) called for the organization to at least consider a name change, an acknowledgment of the long-prevailing existential shift that led most African Americans to stop calling themselves “colored people” generations ago.
But regardless of the name, the organization still matters. The NAACP has outlived Jim Crow, the most pervasive era of the Ku Klux Klan, and the very century it was born in. President Obama’s address was a deserved vote of confidence in the NAACP’s next 100 years.
Image credits: Obama: White House/Lawrence Jackson. W.E.B. Du Bois: Public domain.