With just ten days left in his presidency, President Barack Obama flew to Chicago yesterday (January 10) to deliver his farewell speech to the nation. The nearly hour-long speech covered highlights of his two terms in office, the current state of the democracy and the power of a people committed to change.
Along the way, Obama took time to directly address race relations in America, saying, “When minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness. When they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our founders promised.”
If you can’t watch the full speech above, take the time to watch the section on race. It starts at about the 22-minute mark. And a transcript of that portion of his remarks appears below, courtesy of the White House.
There’s a second threat to our democracy—and this one is as old as our nation itself. After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. And such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society. Now, I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say. You can see it not just in statistics, you see it in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum.
But we’re not where we need to be. And all of us have more work to do. If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking White middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves. If we’re unwilling to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we will diminish the prospects of our own children—because those Brown kids will represent a larger and larger share of America’s workforce. And we have shown that our economy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Last year, incomes rose for all races, all age groups, for men and for women.
So if we’re going to be serious about race going forward, we need to uphold laws against discrimination—in hiring and in housing and in education and in the criminal justice system. That is what our Constitution and our highest ideals require.
But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. It won’t change overnight. Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change. But if our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction—Atticus Finch—who said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
For Blacks and other minority groups, it means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face—not only the refugee, or the immigrant, or the rural poor, or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged White guy who, from the outside, may seem like he’s got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change. We have to pay attention, and listen.
For White Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s—that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness. When they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our Founders promised.
For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians and Poles—who it was said we’re going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened.
So regardless of the station that we occupy, we all have to try harder. We all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.
Read the full transcript of the president’s speech here.
Want to see Obama’s famous, no words reserved speech on race from March 2008, when he was still on the campaign trail? It’s below, in all its glory.