Imagine the direction the country could have taken.
2008 seems so long ago. When running for president, then-Senator Obama held himself out as post-partisan and above the fray; calm, cool, and different. Americans bought in.
Obama’s “hope” and “change” campaign signaled a new direction, fresh ideas, and appealed to a new generation of voters. Young voters saw the perfect amalgam of a national leader: biracial, attractive, well-educated, and urban cool. Black Americans looked up to him as a standard bearer, a hip yet erudite man of the world. His election was historic, as it signified to all Americans and the world that there are no racial barriers to achieving the American dream.
Many Americans, whether they voted for him or not, believed Obama when he said: “There is not a black America or a white America or a Latino America or an Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” When he gave that speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he was an instant national sensation.
Post-racial, unifying, uplifting, and all from a Harvard-educated, married black American. With his election, so many Americans thought that we were finally leaving behind the divisive racial politics of the past, the inflammatory demagoguery of Al Sharpton-type agitators and self-promoters, the evil of seeing race.
It all seems so long ago now.
After six years of this administration, we now know the real Barack Obama. President Obama could have finished the job of binding up this nation’s wounds. But this man was never about healing racial wounds. Instead, he used the office of the presidency to fan racial tensions and to exploit select, isolated incidents, all while pretending he is a uniter, not a divider.
Imagine how different race relations would be in this country today if, starting in January 2009, President Obama used his office to better the black community and race relations. What a difference this could have made in places like Baltimore and Ferguson, where racially motivated violence has set cities ablaze.
Imagine how things might be different if, rather than give the speech he actually gave, Obama had given the following speech at the NAACP National Convention in July of 2009:
Thank you for inviting me to speak to this distinguished organization. It is particularly fitting that as the first African-American president, I am your keynote speaker on your 10oth Anniversary. I am humbled and honored to be here, and congratulate you on your centennial year.
Think of where we, as black Americans, have come over the past four centuries. Many of our ancestors were kidnapped and brought here against their will; enslaved, tortured, raped, lynched, and severely mistreated. Yet people of good will, especially those in the North, rose up and fought a fierce civil war at great cost to ensure our freedom. Millions of white Americans fought and died for our emancipation. Our brothers and sisters fought and died for our emancipation. Afterwards, the Constitution was changed to reflect the dignity of every American regardless of race.
But even after the Civil War was won by the North, we suffered injustices. At the ballot box, in employment, marriage — the list goes on and on.
Today, we view race through the eyes of politics, and in particular, political parties. But we often forget that it was the Republican Party that was founded, in large part, to free the slaves. And it was Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, who had the courage to wage war against the South, and had the brilliance to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and deliver the Gettysburg Address.
We have come a long way as a country since that bloody civil war, which pitted brother against brother and state against state.
Inspired by transcendent leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we — at least most of us — believe that men should be judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.
The dream that Dr. King talked about, in that most glorious of all speeches on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, is one that we should not forget. As a young boy, I listened to that speech over and over; as a young, college student, I heard it, but forgot its true meaning for a time. I didn’t walk the walk or talk the talk.
But today, I want to share with you my dream. That dream, marinated in our history, but peppered with reality, is one that must be told. After all, we are not, as Dr. King said on August 28, 1963, “crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”
Today, 46 years after his eloquent speech, we can freely vote, work and live wherever we want, marry regardless of race, receive preferential treatment when it comes to admission to colleges and universities, and obtain preferences in federal and state contracts and hiring to remedy past discrimination. Today, there are over 87 means-tested welfare programs for those most in need. In 1963, as Dr. King pointed out so brilliantly, America had defaulted on the promissory note that is the Declaration of Independence. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were elusive for blacks in 1963. That is why he rallied for the fierce urgency of Now.
Our country, and its laws, has changed for the better. All told, the federal government has spent over 22 trillion dollars on welfare-related programs since 1964. A vast portion of that money has gone to us — to black Americans. In 1963, the unemployment rate for working age black Americans was 10.9 percent. Today, it is about the same, despite countless federal and state jobs programs, and trillions of dollars of welfare targeted at our communities.
Taxpayers, through Congress, have spent hundreds of billions of dollars just for affordable housing in the inner city, including for Section 8 housing. Yet when I visit Cabrini Green, or any other Section 8 housing complex, I see decrepit buildings, gangs, and addicts. People who, despite public housing, food stamps, WIC, the availability of school vouchers, and dozens of other benefits, refuse to live a responsible and moral lifestyle. Dr. King would be ashamed at what one part of our community has done to itself in the last 46 years.
Today, there is a vibrant black middle class. Some have taken advantage of the blessings of liberty, and freedom, and yes, government assistance, to make a better life for themselves and their families. Many of our brothers and sisters in the inner city go to school, go to church, hold down jobs, pay their taxes, take care of their families, and abide by the law. Some of them — too many of them — struggle to get by. But they do, one day at a time, proudly, freely, and with God’s grace.
But far too many of our brothers and sisters have failed — yes, failed — to take responsibility for their own lives. Too many young men and women in our inner cities do not reach for the stars and strive to make a better life for themselves or their families. Instead, they reach for a joint, a gun, or a knife. The consequences are devastating.
It is to those brothers and sisters I want to speak now. My dream for you is this: stop seeing yourselves as victims, because you’re not. Go to school, stay in school, excel, and graduate from high school. Getting good grades is cool. Don’t get high. Save your money.
Relying on welfare, WIC, Section 8 housing, or any federal or state program is not a way of life. Sure, if you fall on hard times, use these programs. But get off them as soon as you can, get a job, and be financially responsible for yourself. Pay your taxes.
Stop committing crimes. Stop killing people. Stop harming your community. Going to prison is not cool. Gangs are stupid and worthless.
Don’t father children out of marriage, and stop having children when you’re in your teens. You’re sentencing your child, and quite possibly yourself, to a lifetime of hardship and misery.
For those of you who already have children out of wedlock, pay your child support and be a father. Read to your children, play with them. Live a virtuous life and be a good role model.
You do these things — all of them — and your lives will change for the better. You do these things — and believe in the dignity of doing them — and you will change America for the better. It was by doing those things that I got to where I am today. It is by doing those things that Eric Holder became attorney general. It was by doing those things that Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas became justices on the Supreme Court. It was by doing those things that Oprah Winfrey became one of the richest women in America.
America took too long to make good on the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence. All men and women are created equal. But this is 2009, and our country has made tremendous strides to level the playing field. Take responsibility for your own lives and take advantage of the many opportunities you have that many people in other countries around the world wish they had.
It’s time for all of us to make good on our part.
If Obama had given this speech, his legacy would have been very different. But Obama didn’t give this speech because it’s not who he is, even if he fooled millions of Americans in 2008 into thinking otherwise.