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Convocation: Barack Obama: Politics, Race and the Common Good

Created 5 February 1999; Published 6 November 2008

By Phil Stark

Barack Obama is a civil rights attorney, author, lecturer, community development specialist, the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review, and an Illinois state senator. He was the Convocation Speaker for Black History Month at Carleton College's Skinner Memorial Chapel on February 5, 1999.

Transcript

part 1:
Black History Month Convocation

Intro of Barack Obama: civil rights attorney, author, lecturer, community development specialist, first African-American president of Harvard Law Review. Introducer then discusses Obama's resume. Obama currently works as a civil rights attorney in Chicago specializing in voting rights, employment discrimination, and fair housing litigation and civil rights professor at University of Chicago. He's the author of "Dreams of My Father, a Story of Race and Inheritance."

part 2:
Obama apologizes for having a cold he caught from his seven month old daughter. It's his first trip to Minnesota. He thanks the people who have brought him to Carleton and the audience for attending.

His topic is Politics and Public Life. He currently serves in the state legislature in Illinois, the State Senator representing the Hyde Park Area, South Shore, the areas surrounding the University of Chicago.

People typically ask him two questions: How did he get that funny name? He'd explain that his father was from Kenya which was where he got his name, and his mother is from Kansas, which is where he got his accent. The second question was harder to answer. Why would a nice fellow like you go into something nasty like politics? He got the same question when he went into community organizing straight out of college. He understands the question because public life of any sort is not held in high esteem in our culture. What's going on in Washington D.C. confirms our skepticism. We think politics is about self-aggrandizement and money. We conclude that our involvement in public life is useless.

He says there is another tradition to a life well lived. It's a tradition that involves principle and mission and sacrifice. The measure of our greatness is a measurement of how well we're treating the most vulnerable in our society. Our measure as a society has to be tied to the notion that we're all connected somehow. By that measure, he says, we are not doing very well.

In large cities in America, close to a third of children are living in poverty. In the middle of the greatest economic boom in our history, families are working two jobs and barely able to make ends meet. Incarcerations are up and college admissions are down in many minority communities. Inequality is going up and our concern for inequality is going down. Our public life is atrophied and suffering.

How do we start reversing these trends? His students say they are concerned about the issues, but they don't know where to start. Life is so much more complicated now than during the Civil Rights era that they read about. Though the danger was great, the purpose was clear. When you look at contemporary problems you wonder who is our enemy? It's one thing to de-segregate lunch counters, but how do we make sure that people can pay for their lunch? Organizing public life seems so much more difficult that sometimes we feel hopeless.

part 3:

He doesn't have all the answers. He does have principles that offer hope and guidance. Principle number one is that it's never been easy. It's always been complicated. People like Dr. King have never operated having all the answers.

There was a time when seeing this many young women in college was extremely controversial and had to be fought for and organized around. The same is true of the civil rights movement. We forget that none of these successes were obvious at the time. He takes confidence from the fact that there is something to be gained by acting on what we believe to be morally just even in the midst of confusion. It's important for the young not to be paralyzed by analysis.

Principle number two is the principle of public engagement. We live in a privatized age. It's easy to forget that we are social beings. None of us are significant in isolation. Few things of significance are accomplished in isolation.

More troubling is the notion that public life is the province of the specialist. More troubling in minority communities. In the African-American community, everybody's waiting for the next Martin Luther King. If you look at progress in this country, it's only through grassroots organization that significant change takes place. He reminds his constituents that he will only be as good a legislator as they force him to be. Problems faced in cities today like drugs and violence may be solved because people work together at the grass roots level.

The biggest mistake is to guilt trip people into getting involved in their communities. The reason you engage with your community isn't an obligation or a debt to others, but because you have an obligation to yourself. Meaning in your life is tied to a larger social meaning.

We need to break out of "either/or" mentality and embrace a "both/and" mentality. Most of our public debates around issues revolve around an either/or mentality. This is evident in our public discussions of race. Racism and discrimination exist, but this only partially explains the percentage of young African-Americans incarcerated. There are other factors, like individual initiative, community cohesion, questions of values. It's a both/and problem.

Welfare reform is discussed in the same way. Society has an obligation to make sure opportunities are available and that the individuals have an obligation to take advantage of those opportunities. We have a mutual responsibility.

In the issue of public education, he tells parents that he will fight to get more money into urban school systems, but that money won't make any difference unless you are willing to turn off the television when your children come home and to make sure they do their homework.

He will fight to make sure banks reinvest in their communities. Nobody will invest in your community if we as a community don't take the time to put our garbage in a garbage can instead of throwing it in the streets.

We understand in our lives that we need to look at things as both/and, but in our public policy debates this is ignored.

part 4:
Principle number three is an insistence on empathy. A politics based on the belief that we share some common ground. On college campuses we have a tendency to emphasize why we are different. The notion of common hopes, common dreams seems naive. It's easier to retreat into what's familiar. Without empathy we can't release the potential of this country or our individual potential.

We all grew up with blind spots. That's part of the problem with the Tribe. Diversity is the engine of excellence, not opposed to excellence. But only if diverse groups sit down and talk to each other.

Values can be universal. When Dr. King stood before the Lincoln Memorial, he didn't say: "it's a black thing, you can't understand." He said it's a human thing. The founding fathers recognized common values hold us together, like kindness, honesty, hard work, discipline.

We need to spend more time talking about our shared values. We need to expend more energy helping people understand how those values play out in the society. There are differences, and values are shaped by their environment. We need to understand each other's language, and have to take the leap of faith that says we do share.

Most important: the principle of hope. You have to have hope to get out of your own private life and to engage publicly. Every movement that's brought progress has left the legacy of hope. He's not talking about blind optimism. Ignoring problems is willful ignorance. He's talking about the hope of slaves sitting around the fire singing freedom songs. Hope in the face of difficulty, in the midst of uncertainty. There's something audacious about hope.

If we reengage and recommit ourselves to public life, then our hope will be rewarded. Out of the darkness a brighter day will come.

part 5:
He opens the floor to questions.

Questioner talks about a welfare reform bill passed by MN Senate (garbled). He asks if the Illinois legislature passed a similar bill.

Obama: In 1996 Republicans passed and President Clinton signed a bill that put an end to the entitlement system. Though in favor of some kind of reform, Obama would not have supported the Federal bill. Work is better than welfare because it provides income, orders peoples lives and incorporates them into the larger society. In communities like his, the main problem is that there is no job growth in those areas. People lack basic skills. The minimum wage is so low that full time workers are still dirt poor, even worse off with no health benefits and having to pay for transportation.

In Illinois they've done good things with respect to welfare reform. The Work Pays program allows people transitioning off of welfare to keep some part of their welfare income even while beginning jobs. They've increased the amount of daycare money involved. The central problem is how do you create enough affordable jobs that pay a living wage. This remains the major issue. There is a battle about how they can generate enough money in the state to do that and to train skilled workers. They can't.

He talks about his white grandfather getting a job in the WPA after the army. If those jobs were good enough for his grandfather, why not for an inner city youth? Because people not making it under the market system are sufficiently isolated politically that we can ignore them. We need to combine programs that encourage people to work with actual jobs that will support a family. How we get there is difficult. Political power has shifted to suburban areas that don't have a lot of unemployment. The debate around taxes is narrow and doesn't talk about those kinds of long term programs.

One good thing about welfare reform is that it desegregates the urban poor from the working poor. Now, since everyone has to work, you just have one group. That offers an opportunity. He talks about Illinois and how the working poor now constitute a political majority, although they don't all vote.

Question: Talk about integration of the principles you talked about in the communities in which you lived and whether or not it was successful.

Obama: The principles are ones that healthy communities exhibit more than unhealthy ones. The ones he worked in were by definition unhealthy, poor, isolated. The biggest challenges for those working in urban areas is disintegration of the fabric of community life in these areas. He looks at what institutions can help to re-knit the fabric of those communities. As an organizer he would only organize with churches, because they were one of the institutions that were cohesive enough to bring people together to talk about their long term self interest issues of values of identity, things that can be integrated with ideas about economic justice. Where we can incorporate these principles into our political and civic activities, those places are more successful than where we cannot do that.

part 6:

Q&A continued

Questioner asks (garbled) about the either/or mentality, affirmative action, and diversity.

Obama: Affirmative action is a knotty problem. It is more important symbolically than as a practical matter. It doesn't function once you get out of college. If you walk into an average corporation, you will not see more than 5% black people, and most are secretaries and delivery people. It works very narrowly. If those who opposed affirmative action came to minority communities and said, "we'll eliminate affirmative action, but only after we have fully funded the EEOC and made sure that anti-discrimination enforcement is firmly in place, and significantly invested in education and job training and skills training in ways that it would be easier for minorities to compete in the job market," at least we would now be able to create a space for serious conversation. Instead, opponents want to eliminate affirmative action because they say racism doesn't exist. So the minority community says, "why should I give up the one little thing that we got?"

If we see conservatives willing to acknowledge that there are some fundamental problems, then we might see some movement on this issue.

Question: Do you see other institutions replacing the church?

Obama: In African-American and Latino communities they are higher churched than the majority. The place where the church is losing influence is in the middle class and upper class communities. I don't see other institutions that hold as powerful a sway in the black and latino communities.

There are other mediating institutions, though, that we have to think about. For example, it is not a healthy thing for our civic life that unions have become so beaten down. Historically, unions have been powerful institutions for positive change in the society. I'd like to see a restoration of unions to a rightful place in the workplace. They have to take into account issues of childcare and healthcare, and think about the people who are unemployed. The union movement has been fairly myopic. It also has to take competitiveness into account. That would be one example of mediating institutions.

You're also starting to see a lot of other not for profit organizations taking a more activist role. Foundations historically thought in terms of charity, but are now thinking more about what can be done in these communities to impact job growth, for example.

Some rights reserved. Carleton College licenses this work under the Creative Commons Noncommerical/Attribution 3.0 License.

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