President Obama’s speech Thursday marking the 100th anniversary of the NAACP’s founding was widely reported as a “tough love” message directed at black America. “I’ve noticed that when I talk about personal responsibility in the African-American community, that gets highlighted,” Obama said in an interview Friday. “But then the whole other half of the speech, where I talked about government’s responsibility ... that somehow doesn’t make news.”
Fair enough, but he misses the point. The real news wasn’t in the content but the visuals: the nation’s leading black civil rights organization being addressed by the nation’s first black president. Obama could have read nursery rhymes and the event still would have been noteworthy.
In his six months in office, Obama has taken few occasions to confront the issue of race head-on. This moment was inescapable. But his words about the deficits that still plague black America were delivered to a room full of NAACP convention delegates who are, by and large, highly educated and comfortably affluent—men and women who already have high expectations for their children and know how to hold their elected officials accountable. Missing was the too-large segment of the black community that has been left behind.
“Don’t underestimate the degree to which a speech like the one I gave yesterday gets magnified throughout the African-American community,” Obama told me in the Oval Office, where a bust of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. surveys the room in silent admonition. “Folks on Friday go in and get their hair cut, they’re getting ready for the weekend, they’re sitting in the barber’s chair, and somebody said, ‘Did you see what Obama said yesterday?’ It sparks a conversation. ... And part of what my goal is here is to make sure that I’m giving a lot of folks permission to talk about things that maybe they’ve talked about around the kitchen table but don’t get fully aired in public.”
A century ago, when the NAACP was founded, black America was under siege—lynchings were common, race riots had rocked major cities and Jim Crow segregation was being codified throughout the South. Today, all of that is fast-receding history. Some critics have wondered whether there is still a role for an organization like the NAACP. Obama says there is—not just in advocacy but also in local-level efforts to mentor children and improve underperforming schools.
Obama embodies two trends that have made the African-American community increasingly diverse. He is the son of a Kenyan immigrant—at a time when highly educated people from Africa and the Caribbean are coming to this country in record numbers. And he is biracial—the product of a kind of relationship that long was illegal in many states.
“I think that I would add a third element ... which is a generational shift,” Obama said. “If we haven’t already reached this point, we’re getting close to reaching it, where there are going to be more African-Americans in this country who never experienced anything remotely close to Jim Crow than those who lived under Jim Crow. That, obviously, changes perspectives.”
One impact of these changes, I believe, has been to make it all but impossible to identify a single “black agenda” or see a clear path toward future progress, the way the NAACP’s founders saw the way forward. But we have to accept this new reality, because I can’t argue with Obama when he says that black America’s growing diversity is “all for the good.”
“One of the ways that I think that the civil rights movement ... weakened itself was by enforcing a single way of being black—being authentically black. And, as a consequence, there were a whole bunch of young black people—and I fell prey to this for a time when I was a teenager—who thought that if you were really ‘down’ you had to be a certain way. And oftentimes that was anti-something. You defined yourself by being against things as opposed to what you were for. And I think now young people realize, you know what, being African-American can mean a whole range of things. There’s a whole bunch of possibilities out there for how you want to live your life, what values you want to express, who you choose to interact with.”
No one could argue against possibility. But there was a time when no one had to ask what the NAACP was supposed to do—when black Americans, living with the common constraints of overt discrimination, had an obvious and urgent common purpose.
Said Obama: “I do think it is important for the African-American community, in its diversity, to stay true to one core aspect of the African-American experience, which is we know what it’s like to be on the outside.
“If we ever lose that, then I think we’re in trouble. Then I think we’ve lost our way.”
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group