Obama calls for a new mindset among racial minorities

Barack Obama tells African-Americans to push children beyond sport and music.

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NEW YORK // Barack Obama used his first major speech on race since his election as the first African-American president of the United States to acknowledge his debt to the civil rights movement but also to urge individual responsibility to combat inequality and bolster family values. His address to the 100th anniversary celebrations of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in New York on Thursday night was greeted with several standing ovations by the 3,000-strong crowd, which responded enthusiastically to his pastor-like tone even when they were being challenged.

He said while African-American children faced bigger problems than their more wealthy contemporaries, this was no excuse for parents to give up pushing them towards education. "We need a new mindset, a new set of attitudes because one of the most durable and destructive legacies of discrimination is the way that we have internalised a sense of limitation; how so many in our community have come to expect so little of ourselves," he said.

White House officials said Mr Obama spent about two weeks working on the 45-minute speech, in which he paid tribute to his mother, a white Christian woman who mostly raised him in the absence of his Kenyan-Muslim father. NAACP leaders, meanwhile, hoped the speech would help to attract new and younger members to the country's biggest civil rights group, which has struggled in recent years to prove its relevance to the wider African-American community.

Mr Obama outlined how the "pain of discrimination is still felt in America". "By African-American women paid less for doing the same work as colleagues of a different colour and gender. By Latinos made to feel unwelcome in their own country," he said. "By Muslim Americans viewed with suspicion because they kneel to pray. By our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights."

Blacks suffered from higher unemployment and more disease but were less likely to own health insurance while an African-American child was about five times as likely as a white child to be sent to jail, said Mr Obama. But his tough-love message on parenting appeared to resonate the most with his fellow African-Americans, who were encouraged to push their children beyond sport and music. "I want them aspiring to be scientists and engineers, doctors and teachers, not just ballers and rappers," said Mr Obama. "I want them aspiring to be a Supreme Court justice. I want them aspiring to be president of the United States."

The family was one of the most important issues yet to be addressed by the NAACP as it sought to adapt to changing times, said Victor Hall, pastor of the Cavalry Baptist Church in Queens, New York, who welcomed Mr Obama's directness. "Family is the most elemental institution in society," he told the New York One cable television channel. "He delivered a much-needed message and it's where the NAACP should be."

The NAACP has more than 500,000 members but their average age is 50-55. The organisation hopes to benefit from the greater interest in politics and community activism generated by Mr Obama among young African-Americans. But many African-Americans see the group as out of touch. "We need to be pushing our kids into education and off the streets but I don't see the NAACP doing that," said Karl, who did not want to give his full name and who spoke before Mr Obama delivered his speech. "The group is for people who are already educated and have made it."

His remarks were echoed in a recent article by Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune newspaper. He said the group "runs the risk of becoming an organisation for elites, rallying those who already have some financial, educational and community resources but missing those who need help the most". The NAACP last year elected Benjamin Todd Jealous, then 35, as the organisation's youngest president and CEO. One of his recent innovations was to introduce a monitoring system for people to use their mobile phones to capture images of any instances of police misconduct.

Mr Jealous said recently that the election of Mr Obama had not made his organisation irrelevant, given the continuing socio-economic disparities between blacks and whites. "We're not just for the advancement of a coloured person but the coloured people," he said. sdevi@thenational.ae