Obama at the NAACP: No excuses

“Government programs alone won’t get our children to the Promised Land,”President Obama said at the NAACP convention. Parents and community leaders must expect more and do more. (Here’s the video.)

We’ve got to say to our children, yes, if you’re African American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher. 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 — (applause) — that’s not a reason to cut class — (applause) — that’s not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school. (Applause.) 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. (Applause.) No excuses.

You get that education, all those hardships will just make you stronger, better able to compete. Yes we can. (Applause.)

To parents — to parents, we can’t tell our kids to do well in school and then fail to support them when they get home. (Applause.) You can’t just contract out parenting. For our kids to excel, we have to accept our responsibility to help them learn. That means putting away the Xbox — (applause) — putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour. (Applause.) It means attending those parent-teacher conferences and reading to our children and helping them with their homework. (Applause.)

. . .  our kids can’t all aspire to be LeBron or Lil Wayne. (Applause.) I want them aspiring to be scientists and engineers — (applause) — doctors and teachers — (applause) — not just ballers and rappers. I want them aspiring to be a Supreme Court Justice. (Applause.) I want them aspiring to be the President of the United States of America. (Applause.)

. . . Yes, government must be a force for opportunity. Yes, government must be a force for equality. But ultimately, if we are to be true to our past, then we also have to seize our own future, each and every day.

Great speech. But will it make a difference?

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  1. Bill Cosby has been excoriated for years for giving that same speech. If it takes this president to get the message across, then so be it. But I’m not holding my breath that the seas will part tomorrow.

  2. Great speech, indeed. Now give them vouchers to get out of the crap schools that have ineffective teachers.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    Talked to a relation the other day who was in awe of the speech.
    She’s a liberal, of course.
    Told her Cosby had been getting a ration of crap for the same thing for several years.
    Big surprise to her.
    What is it with these people?
    If it makes a difference, it will only be that it can be ignored, rather than the speaker excoriated.
    Being a victim has too many benefits.
    Personal responsibility too many costs.

  4. Darren and Richard, I think there’s a difference in Obama’s speech and in Cosby’s speeches. The way you say something matters. Obama’s language is measured and clear, with specific changes to be made that are easily achievable. It’s not hard to start reading to your child or to attend a parent teacher conference.

    Cosby’s speeches, on the other hand, are much angrier (or at least the pound cake one was). I don’t disagree with what he’s saying but the way he said it is much more divisive. He’s attacking the parents and the children for their choices, and while he’s not wrong, when people feel under attack or like they’re being insulted, they’re not likely to want to make changes. When you say something like, “These people are fighting hard to be ignorant,” you’re not inviting dialogue or giving people hope that they can change, you’re just slapping them in the face and making them feel bad. No one wants to feel like a bad parent, even if they are.

    I don’t know if Obama’s speech will make a difference, but I think it has a better possibility because of the difference in tenor.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:


    Right. Sort of. There are two groups. The professional race hustlers who are the ones mad at Cosby because he TOOK AWAY some of their perenniall blame game.
    And then there are the parents.
    We only know of the responses of the first group.
    Thing is, there have been blacks promoting the same thing since Frederick Douglass and the need is still there.
    I have a book, “Tales of The Great Lakes”, a compilation of pieces written about the history of the area by the folks who were there. Not history as in somebody looking back, but folks on the scene. One piece is “Two Generations under Freedom” by Booker T. Washington, about a trip he made in 1903 to Cass County in Michigan where ex-slaves had settled. Same message: Work hard, be responsible. Success will come. As it did. His story from the get-go.
    Thing is, BTW is sometimes seen as a sellout today.
    I think zero will get away with this without the crap Cosby got, but nobody will pay any more attention.

  6. I’m often a cynic and a pessimist, but I’m optimistic about this. I have admired Bill Cosby in the past for saying things like this. I didn’t know that Cosby was “excoriated”, as Darren says, and I wasn’t aware that his speeches were “angrier” as teachin’ says. But maybe I miss a lot.

    Will Obama’s speech make a difference? I think it will, over time, and I think it has. I think it is a message whose time has come. Obama said things like this in the campaign. I wondered at the time just how calculated that was. But I don’t think it matters. If he said these things because he believes them, that’s wonderful. If he said them because he calculated a political advantage, that’s wonderful too. That means the ideas are being accepted.

    For all my cynicism and pessimism, I think it is true that people do learn. They often learn slowly and painfully. They often learn as a last resort. But they do learn. It may be true that cultural change comes glacially slowly, but it is also true that sometimes tipping points are invisible, until they are reached. And people are often learning long before they show any evidence of it. Richard Aubrey mentions the parents, indicating we don’t know their responses to Cosby and Obama’s ideas. I think we’ll discover as time goes on that they’ve been learning for a long time.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    I suppose we could ask an experienced inner-city school teacher.

  8. Maybe I’m wrong – maybe Cosby isn’t angrier, exactly. Maybe it’s that he’s a humorist. His language is more exaggerated by necessity, because of who he is, and so it has a different feel than the measured speech of a politician.

    As to how the parents respond…I don’t know. I teach in an urban school, over 80% free and reduced lunch, 65% Latino (though hardly any Black students – just not our demographic), and what I see is parents who love their kids, who want what’s best for them, but who don’t necessarily know how to navigate a middle class school system or who are too overwhelmed and too busy dealing with the challenges of everyday life (many are single parents, lots have more than one job, and quite a number are actually grandparents or aunts or older siblings) to be as involved in their child’s education as one might hope.

    A lot of our parents don’t have a lot of education themselves, or didn’t have particularly good experiences in school, and that can be hard to overcome. My school does a pretty crappy job of parent engagement (in my opinion) but we’re working on it, because it’s just a whole lot easier for kids to succeed when their parents know what’s going on and are pushing them to make choices that will further their education instead of just furthering their good times with friends after school.

    It’s a difficult balance to strike between giving parents strategies to use that are concrete and relatively easy to put in place, and being overbearing and acting like we know what’s best for THEIR kids. (I’m talking about my own experience here, not trying to push that on anyone else, and I am certainly not the most experienced teacher around.) I think schools need to do a better job of accommodating our families’ needs and challenges, as well as honoring their strengths, so that all of them can access school resources. We’re working on it. It’s a process.

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    Good luck to you.
    But your views do not coincide with the “funding” answer to all problems or the “racism” answer to all problems.
    In fact, it practically blames the victim.
    Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
    The “blame the victim” prohibition is so strong that, if we see a guy who’s just shot himself in the foot and he’s hopping around trying to draw a bead on the other one, and we ask if he maybe wants to rethink it, we’ll be hammered for blaming the victim.
    I used to think that a strategy would include subscribing to a news magazine, but that might misinform the kid to an extent not offset by reading practice and exposure to other ideas.
    Library cards are generally free or quite reasonable and in big cities there are usually branches not too far away.
    Maybe you could facilitate parents’ applications for library cards. Recommend a book a month in student hand-outs.
    I understand Harry Potter got a lot of kids–a lot, according to reports–reading for fun who hadn’t bothered in years.

  10. Obama’s call not to depend on the government to solve all of our problems would have a lot more credibility if he weren’t personally responsible for the current unprecedented expansion of government into our private lives in the form of federal bailouts of private industry, socialized medicine, and so on.