Apparently President Obama isn’t afraid of speaking to Black supporters. After he dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to keynote the NAACP convention earlier this month, the media narrative was all about how the president was avoiding speaking directly to the Black community.
The president not only delivered the keynote at the National Urban League Conference in New Orleans, but he came with big news, announcing an important executive branch directive to create the first ever White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans by executive order.
The president highlighted his administration’s increase in funding for Pell Grants and Head Start programs in order to speak to his efforts towards doing what is best for middle and working class families.
“Our education policy hasn’t just been based on more money, we’ve also called for real reform. So we challenged every state in the country to raise their standards for teaching and for learning. And three years later, nearly every state has answered the call…We’ve made it our mission to make a higher education more affordable for every American who wants to go to school. That’s why we fought to extend our college tuition tax credit for working families — saving millions of families thousands of dollars. That’s why we’ve fought to make college more affordable for an additional 200,000 African American students by increasing Pell grants. That’s why we’ve strengthened this nation’s commitment to our community colleges, and to our HBCUs.”
The president’s raucous reception took a more serious and somber tone when he moved on to discuss the recent shootings in Colorado and connected that tragedy with the ongoing epidemic of shootings in inner city communities. “Our hearts break for the victims of the massacre in Aurora. We pray for those who were lost and we pray for those who loved them. We pray for those who are recovering with courage and with hope. And we also pray for those who succumb to the less-publicized acts of violence that plague our communities in so many cities across the country every single day. We can’t forget about that. Every day — in fact, every day and a half, the number of young people we lose to violence is about the same as the number of people we lost in that movie theater. For every Columbine or Virginia Tech, there are dozens gunned down on the streets of Chicago and Atlanta, and here in New Orleans. For every Tucson or Aurora, there is daily heartbreak over young Americans shot in Milwaukee or Cleveland. Violence plagues the biggest cities, but it also plagues the smallest towns. It claims the lives of Americans of different ages and different races, and it’s tied together by the fact that these young people had dreams and had futures that were cut tragically short.”
By connecting inner city violence to Colorado, President Obama made the case that gun violence is an ongoing problem and not just something that is happening once a year on a mass scale. It’s the first time since the tragedy that the president has directly addressed the issue of gun control, which he described as “violence reduction,” and framed as simply implementing a common sense approach like more vigorous background checks so that assault weapons do not end up in the hands of the wrong people.
“I also believe that a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals — that they belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities. I believe the majority of gun owners would agree that we should do everything possible to prevent criminals and fugitives from purchasing weapons; that we should check someone’s criminal record before they can check out a gun seller; that a mentally unbalanced individual should not be able to get his hands on a gun so easily. These steps shouldn’t be controversial. They should be common sense.”
President Obama’s remarks on education and guns are newsworthy at a time when many initiatives reach a dead end in the hyper-partisan Congress. Hopefully this speech will lay the framework for progress in these areas after the November election.
Zerlina Maxwell is a democratic strategist and soon-to-be attorney. You can follow her on Twitter: @ZerlinaMaxwell