Monday 20 July 2009

Good words Obama, but don't forget your role!

Last week Barack Obama gave his first major speech on race during his address to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). During his speech he urged young black people to aspire to greater things then just being sports stars and rap artists, whilst reminding black parents of the role they have in providing their children with the best opportunities possible. I couldn’t agree more with what he had to say, but as always with such matters, things are more complicated then first appear.

Since Obama first emerged as a serious presidential candidate, one of his great skills and successes has been the way that he's shown himself to be a President for all Americans regardless of their race.

What’s interesting is that many people would assume that African Americans would clearly have been the first people to endorse him, but it’s now almost forgotten that to begin with, many African Americans were slightly wary of him. They didn’t know who he was, what he stood for or where he'd come from. It was Hilary and not Obama who most African Americans supported at the very beginning of the last Presidential race. Obama had quite a battle to convince Black America that he was one of them!

I was really interested in hearing about the speech he gave to the NAACP, as it was the first time since he became President that I thought ‘Here is a black president addressing the concerns of the black community’

At times I've almost forgotten that we now have a ‘black’ American President. I’ve just seen him as being a president full stop, and I think this has been brilliant as it’s shown that the position he's in and the challenges he’s dealing with have been more important than his colour.

Returning back to his speech last week, he talked about how there can be ‘no excuses’ for black underachievement and although the ‘pain of discrimination’ was still felt there was probably less discrimination in America than ever before.

I agree with all these sentiments, as I’m sure all those attending the speech did. But in many ways he’s already preaching to the converted.

I was always fortunate that growing up I had parents who had high expectations and aspirations for both me and my sister, despite coming from modest backgrounds themselves.

Yes I was told that there was racism and discrimination out there, but it was no reason for me to fail or underachieve at school or in life generally. I always remember at junior school we had weekly spelling tests which I was awful at.

I would usually get 2 or 3 out of 20. After hearing about this at parents evening, my mom could see no reason why I should be getting such bad marks, and I was forced to work harder on my spelling. Within a few weeks I was soon getting 15 and 16s out of 20. To this day getting my spelling right means so much to me. But that story reminds me that with high expectations there were no reasons for failure.

I was lucky enough to grow up feeling I could have a go at being whatever I wanted. Why should I restrict or limit myself in ambition because I was black or working class? Growing up I was always good at sports, but there was no way my parents were going to allow me fall into that stereotype of concentrating only on sport and neglecting academic studies.

I'm sure that many in the audience addressed by Obama could have spoken about similar attitudes and experiences, which is great if you come from a background of high aspirations, especially if you’re in or from a successful middle class background.

But how do you raise those aspirations for individuals from truly disadvantaged backgrounds, who are struggling economically, have no history of higher education, and live in poor housing and ill health. I don’t really think that just telling people to aim high and be positive is always enough, governments must still lend a hand.

What always strikes me with America, particularly when I’ve visited the country is just how big and successful the black middle class is. African Americans occupy positions in American society that are almost unthinkable for black people in the UK.

Despite this, there are still many African Americans living in total poverty. I remember back in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, it was quite shocking for the rest of the world to see how the destruction caused by the hurricane revealed a poverty stricken black under-class abandoned by the US government.

My parents visited New Orleans 10 years ago, my dad mentioned to me how shocked he was to see some of the conditions that African Americans were living in. In his own words he thought it was worse than what he experienced growing up in Jamaica during the 1940s and 50s!

Despite agreeing with everything Obama had to say, and being someone who very much looks at what I as an individual can do for myself, or what minority communities can do for themselves, you can’t escape the fact that there are still disadvantages out there based both on class and race that affect people’s lives on a daily basis.

In today’s Guardian the journalist Gary Young wrote and interesting article in response to Obama’s speech entitled:

‘Obama should realise that segregation may be over, but exclusion lives on’

It was a good piece as it touched on both points, particularly in the form of racial discrimination and how it has changed and evolved in the last 50 years.

He highlights an incident at a private swimming club in Philadelphia which having invited a number of black and latino children to use the pool, then cancelled the arrangements after white parents started complaining.

It’s important to remind people of their own responsibilities, but for many people there’s still a limit to how much they can do for themselves, particularly in the current economic climate.

Politicians and governments shouldn’t forget this and that they need to provide the resources as well as the words in helping people achieve their goals.

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