Obama Tells NAACP Gap Between Races Must Close

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Barack Obama gave his first speech to a predominantly black audience since becoming president. He delivered the keynote address at the 100th anniversary dinner of the NAACP in New York Thursday. He told the civil rights organization that the government can help narrow the achievement gap between the races, but the black community has to do its part.


Here's some news that is awkward, to say the least, for President Obama's effort to change health care. All along, the White House has been determined to find ways to deliver health care more efficiently. That's the only way to save enough money to extend health insurance to everybody. The government needs to find many billions of dollars in savings, otherwise this is a fiscal disaster. But the Congressional Budget Office has been looking at the proposals actually before Congress this summer, and it says none of them would reduce the government's healthcare costs. Instead, the bills would actually go up. Several Republicans said this should serve as a warning to move carefully. Presidential advisor David Axelrod said the Budget Office's assessment was premature.

As lawmakers absorbed that news, the president went to New York City. He gave the keynote address at the 100th anniversary dinner of the NAACP.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: America's first black president paid tribute to the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization. The NAACP, Mr. Obama said, was founded at a time when Jim Crow was a way of life and lynchings were all too common. The president credited the NAACP for his own success, saying I stand here tonight on the shoulders of giants.

President BARACK OBAMA: And because ordinary people did such extraordinary things, because they made the civil rights movement their own, even though there may not be a plaque or their names might not be in the history books -because of their efforts, I made a little trip to Springfield, Illinois a couple of years ago where Lincoln once lived and race riots once raged and began the journey that has led me to be here as the 44th president of the United States of America.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: The president talked a lot about education, the issue he singled out as the most important facing the black community.

Pres. OBAMA: You know what I'm talking about. There's a reason the story of the civil rights movement was written in our schools. There's a reason Thurgood Marshall took up the cause of Linda Brown. There's a reason why the Little Rock Nine defied a governor and a mob. It's because there's no stronger weapon against inequality and no better path to opportunity than an education that can unlock a child's God-given potential.

LIASSON: Mr. Obama said that the government can help close the achievement gap between the races but that individuals have a responsibility too. He said the black community needed a new mindset to replace the low expectations that so many African-Americans have for themselves.

Pres. OBAMA: We've got to say to our children, yes, if you're African-American, the odds growing up amid crime and gangs are high. 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.

LIASSON: This a sermon Mr. Obama has delivered several times before but not since becoming president. He said parents have to put away the Xbox and get their kids to bed at a reasonable hour.

Pres. OBAMA: It also means pushing 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.

LIASSON: It was Mr. Obama's first speech about race as president. In the past, he has seemed reluctant to talk about his own racial identity, but last night he departed from his prepared remarks to describe driving through Harlem and the south side of Chicago and seeing young men on the corners and thinking: there, but for the grace of God, go I.

Mara Liasson, NPR News.

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