On Friday, President Obama addressed the issue of race perhaps more openly than at any other point in his presidency.
Reacting to emotional debate over the Trayvon Martin case, the president explained that "the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away."
In many ways, the president's remarks were amazingly similar to his famous speech on race as a senator and presidential candidate in 2008. It's still worth reading that original speech. It's unfortunate for America that virtually every problem remains the same.
What follows is an abbreviated and edited text of my response to his 2008 address, a speech I gave at the American Enterprise Institute nine days later. I think you will find it remarkably relevant today, almost without change:
I really do believe that we have a unique opportunity to think anew about the challenge of poverty, racism, and those Americans who have been left out of the pursuit of happiness.
I think that it is the opportunity which (President) Obama gave all of us in his speech to re-engage in a dialogue about poverty, race, and the future of those Americans who are currently unable to pursue happiness. That is something we should not casually set aside.
(President) Obama said, and I quote:
"This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can't learn, that those kids who don't look like us are somebody else's problem. The children of America are not those kids; they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st-century economy. Not this time."
Let me suggest to all of you that if you set aside the normal partisanship and cynicism of politics, that that's a very powerful paragraph, and a paragraph worthy of response at the same level. I take up this opportunity, both to reject cynicism, but also to suggest that we find real solutions. But to find real solutions, I would argue, we have to have real honesty and a serious dialogue in which unpleasant facts are put on the table and bold proposals are discussed.
(President) Obama gave us a very courageous speech. We owe it to him and to the topic to take it very seriously and respond to the level of eloquence and systematic explanation that he gave us. He asked historic questions, and that is appropriate. And I want to make quite clear, my speech today is not an answer to (President) Obama. It is not a refutation. Hopefully, it is the beginning of a genuine dialogue in which people of all backgrounds can come together to have a serious conversation about America's future.
Let me start by talking about the concept of anger, because I do think there's an authenticity and legitimacy of anger by many groups in America. (President) Obama said in his speech:
"That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician's own failings. ... That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition."
I think that that's right, and I think that it's important to recognize that anger can be a source of energy to create a better future -- in which case it's a very good thing. But if anger is a self-inflicted wound that limits us, it is a very bad and a very dangerous thing. And we have to be very careful about the role that anger plays in our culture. Tragically, what has happened is that cultural and political leaders have used anger as an excuse to avoid reality, as an excuse to avoid change, as an excuse to avoid accountability, because everything that is wrong is somehow somebody else's fault.
Now, (President) Obama is right about the destructive impact of historic injustices and the anger they cause in different groups of Americans. And as a historian, of course, I agree with (William) Faulkner, as quoted in (President) Obama's speech: "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past."
In my own life, I was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I grew up in an integrated U.S. Army at Fort Riley, Kansas; in Orleans, France; and in Stuttgart, Germany. I did not encounter legal segregation until I was a junior in high school at Columbus, Georgia. Segregation was a horrible institution imposed by force by the state. It ruined the lives of people, it crippled their futures, it was a terrible injustice, and it is totally authentic to be angry about it.
As (President) Obama notes,"The legalized discrimination -- where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments -- meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations."
Anyone who thinks that there was not this destructive impact is simply not in touch with the reality of American history for African-Americans.
Other groups have reasons for anger. Native Americans have a claim probably at least as great if not greater than African-Americans. Japanese-Americans went through a period of internment in World War II. Jewish Americans have a history which includes the Holocaust but extends back before the Holocaust to pogroms in Russia; anti-Semitism in Poland; expulsion from Spain; and, in the last 50 years, an unrelenting and virtually hysterical effort by their Arab neighbors to exterminate them in a way which no other group has experienced.
So there are many groups that could find causes for anger. But I would go a step further. I would argue that as citizens of a country which asserted that we are all endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, every American has things to be angry about. Simply ask yourself, if it was your daughter or son, if it was your granddaughter or grandson, trapped in some of the disastrous conditions of the very poor and very dispossessed in America, how angry would you be?
Consider some examples: At the Rosebud Sioux reservation in 2007, (with) a population of 13,000, 144 young Native Americans tried to commit suicide -- arguably the highest suicide rate in the United States.
In 2006, the poverty rate in America was 12.3%. For non-Hispanic whites, it was 8.2%, but for blacks, it was 24.3%.
In 2007, 46.8% of 12th-graders admitted to taking some sort of illicit drug in their lifetime; 35.6% of 10th-graders made the same admission; and in 2006, 20.9% of eighth-graders -- let me repeat this, among eighth-grade Americans, every fifth American child -- admitted to taking some sort of illicit drug.
(Nearly) 1% of the American population ... is in prison. That is (roughly) the entire population of the cities of Washington, Baltimore, Atlanta, (and) Detroit ... combined.
Now, how can you hear these things -- in a country that says we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights -- and not be angry? So I think anger can be, should be, a universal American feeling about those things that dissatisfy us and about a culture and a government which is failing.
Consider homicides in our cities: In Philadelphia in 2006, there were 406 murders.