Politics & Policy

Dr. King, Race Relations, and Obama’s Farewell Address

Martin Luther King in New York City, 1967 (Photo: Library of Congress)
The president deserves credit for acknowledging American racial progress. But the societal problems his speech failed to mention are just as important.

Let me begin my take on Barack Obama’s farewell address last week and the state of race relations as he leaves office by quoting what I wrote in 2004, after he delivered the Democratic National Convention keynote that vaulted him into the public eye:

Barack Obama gave a fine speech, but it was not a speech that reflects the current Democratic Party. It celebrated America as “a magical place”; it did not bemoan our racism and imperialism. It professed that this black man “owe[d] a debt to those who came before” him; it did not call for reparations. It spoke of an “awesome God”; it did not banish Him from public discourse. It admitted that black parents, and black culture, need to change the way black children are raised; it did not blame or even mention racism. It quoted “E pluribus unum” and translated it correctly as “Out of many, one”; it did not misquote it, as Al Gore infamously did, as “Many out of one.” Most of all, the speech celebrated one America, “one people,” and rejected the notion of a black America, a white America, a Latino America, and an Asian America — a notion completely foreign to the multiculturalism that now dominates the Democratic Party.

Alas, the Democratic party of 2017 is just as bad as it was in 2004, and Barack Obama has gotten worse in the intervening years.

A sizeable chunk of Obama’s farewell address was devoted to “race relations.” Let me give credit where it is due: He acknowledged that race relations have gotten better in recent decades “no matter what some folks say,” which separates him from many on the hard left who insist that there’s as much racism now as there was under Jim Crow and it’s just better disguised. (See, for example, the title of one holy text in this area, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.) The president is also to be praised for a (rather oblique, admittedly) swipe at the notion of “white privilege,” when he warned nonwhites to have some sympathy for “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.”

In other respects, however, the speech was disappointing, especially compared with what Obama said in 2004. Racism past and present is now put at center stage, and indeed it is emphasized that the “effects of slavery and Jim Crow” are still with us. The president warned that “we need to uphold laws against discrimination,” as if anyone is calling for their repeal; he suggested that those calling for stricter immigration enforcement do so because immigrants “don’t look like us.”

Obama suggested, too, that there is something wrong with those who criticize racial preferences (a.k.a. affirmative action), dismissing the notions of “an undeserving minority” and “reverse racism” and “political correctness.” The fact of the matter is that, too often, he is wrong when he says protesters (and I’m thinking in particular of campus protesters) are “not demanding special treatment but equal treatment.”

The president rightly called for greater unity and “common purpose.” Even if this time he did not use the phrase E pluribus unum, he did endorse “a basic sense of solidarity -– the idea that for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.” He quoted the Declaration of Independence, honored the military, and expressed his desire for a nation where every citizen “loves this country.” These were all laudable sentiments.

The policies of Obama’s party, and his administration, are inconsistent with achieving E pluribus unum.

But the policies of Obama’s party, and his administration, are inconsistent with achieving E pluribus unum. His administration has, in any number of ways, insisted on the government’s classifying people according to skin color and national origin, and indeed he has proposed on his way out the door that the Census ramp up the use of these classifications. In other respects, too, his policies and language divide us, rather than uniting us through patriotic assimilation. How can he call for “common purpose” and “solidarity” and, at the same time, insist that it is perfectly okay for Americans to be treated differently based on their race and the country their ancestors came from?

The biggest fault of the speech, though, was in something that the president did not say, or even advert to. I noted above that the 2004 speech “admitted that black parents, and black culture, need to change the way black children are raised.” And from time to time the president has been willing to confront, in particular, the problem of out-of-wedlock births among African Americans. Indeed, it was such talk that prompted Jesse Jackson (who has fathered at least one child out of wedlock) to threaten to “cut [Obama’s] nuts off” in 2008. But there was no mention of the implosion of the black family in the farewell address, even though out-of-wedlock births — and not just among African Americans — are the country’s number-one social problem.

In a word: Nothing can purport to be a serious discussion of race relations in this country unless it discusses out-of-wedlock birthrates, because it is the disparity in out-of-wedlock birthrates that now most drives other racial disparities.

Consider the federal government’s latest numbers on out-of-wedlock birthrates, by race and ethnicity. The data are from last summer, and they contain nothing new or surprising. But it is disturbing and depressing nonetheless. In 2015, 40.2 percent of all births were out of wedlock, and there are very big disparities among the different racial and ethnic groups. Highest are non-Hispanic blacks at 70.4 percent, followed by American Indians/Alaska Natives at 65.8 percent, and Hispanics at 52.9 percent. Somewhat better are non-Hispanic whites at 29.2 percent, with the lowest figures by Asians/Pacific Islanders at 16.4 percent.

That’s a big range — from more than seven out of ten to fewer than two out of ten — and there is an obvious fit between how well a group is doing by any social indicator you like (education, crime, employment, poverty, etc.) and the percentage of children it produces out of wedlock. This turns out to be true not only across different racial and ethnic groups but also within them.

Racism is a bad thing, and it still exists. But the president is right that only the delusional think it is anything like the problem it was 50 years ago. The principal impediment for those who would like to narrow our ongoing racial disparities is not racism; it’s the “70.4 percent” figure above. Obama had a duty to talk about that again, too, and he failed to do so.

The Left has never been happy with anyone, especially a black president, saying this, and it has always insisted on race-specific, rather than race-neutral, social programs. As his presidency ends, alas, Obama has acceded more and more on both points.

I don’t think that Martin Luther King would be happy with this. He did, after all, dream of a country where individuals are judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. As for the disintegration of the black family, it was well under way in the 1960s, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned. Dr. King had his extramarital affairs, but he was a pastor, and it is hard to imagine that he would be happy about the rate of out-of-wedlock births among African Americans, which is more than double today what it was back then.

There was speculation after Obama’s farewell speech that he might return to his community organizing. I mean no disrespect when I say that I hope he will. He said near the end of his speech that he was proudest of the fact that he is his daughters’ father. In that, and in his marriage to Michelle, he is an invaluable role model where one is most sorely needed.


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