Obama Assesses Race Relations


Presidential election year rhetoric invariably generates hyperbolically negative commentary about the status quo—-John Kennedy bemoaned a non-existent “missile gap,” Richard Nixon decried LBJ’s conduct of the Vietnam War and promised a “secret plan” for quickly ending the conflict, Gov. Romney railed against the lack of employment in the midst of a historic hiring spurt and on and on. This year is no different except that the 24/7 news networks cycle can make the repetition of our “woes” unrelentingly depressing.

To listen to the present presidential debate one would think that America is on the brink of an abyss and race relations are worse than ever.

But last week President Obama eloquently refuted these negative views about America when he delivered the“> paper that documents the president’s assertions regarding progress towards racial equality—he was reciting facts, not distortions or exaggerations.

As Community Advocates has written on numerous occasions, it is critically important to have a sense of America’s progress and a realistic yardstick against which to measure our efforts. If we don’t, we are bound to be forever unhappy with never reaching nirvana and dismissive of what has been achieved by prior activists and leaders. As the president noted:

…to deny how far we’ve come would do a disservice to the cause of justice, to the legions of foot soldiers; to not only the incredibly accomplished individuals who have already been mentioned, but your mothers and your dads, and grandparents and great grandparents, who marched and toiled and suffered and overcame to make this day possible.

He encouraged his audience to do more than kvetch: “change requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program, and it requires organizing.” And to make crystal clear what he meant, he admonished young people for not voting—in 2014 “youth turnout was less than 20 percent. Four out of five did not vote. In 2012, nearly two in three African Americans turned out. And then, in 2014, only two in five turned out.” [That’s a drop from 66% to 40%.]

He then offered historical perspective to make transparently clear how inexcusable not voting is,

And you don’t have excuses.   You don’t have to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap to register to vote.  You don’t have to risk your life to cast a ballot.  Other people already did that for you.  Your grandparents, your great grandparents might be here today if they were working on it.  What's your excuse?

Finally, he admonished young firebrands—in a not so veiled slap at Black Lives Matter militants and the proponents of campus “safe spaces”—that righteous indignation, dogmatism and failure to compromise is dangerous and, ultimately, counter-productive:

….change requires more than just speaking out—it requires listening, as well. In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise…..You can be completely right, and still you are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. If you think the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want. And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged.  And that will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair.  And that's never been the source of our progress. That’s how we cheat ourselves of progress.

So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them.  There's been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally.  Don’t do that — no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths.

Amidst the tumult of the 2016 election cycle and the breathless cable news obsession with polls and meaningless primaries, it’s refreshing to hear sane, sober and thoughtful comments from our president about where we are in inter-group relations and how we move forward. The headlines and the talking heads may peddle gloom and doom and images of an irretrievably racist America, but the reality is anything but that.

Keep his words [The New York Times described his speech as a “

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