RALEIGH (NNPA) - On July 14, 2008, when then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama addressed the NAACP Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, he reminded all of his former days as a community organizer on the desperate streets of Southside Chicago, setting up job training, "after-school programs to help keep kids off the streets, and block by block, we helped turn those neighborhoods around."
Later in that same address, hitting the self-responsibility message Blacks sometimes criticized him for overdoing, candidate Obama challenged African-Americans to "…fight for all those young men standing on street corners with little hope for the future besides ending up in jail. We have to break the cycle of poverty and violence that's gripping too many neighborhoods in this country."
He continued, "I know that nine little children did not walk through a schoolhouse door in Little Rock so that we could stand by and let our children drop out of school and turn to gangs for the support they are not getting elsewhere…That's not the dream they had for our children."
Now President Barack Obama returned to speak to the NAACP July 16, this time to help celebrate the civil rights organization's momentous 100th anniversary in New York.
Despite prior speculation that Obama would cautiously distance himself from any celebration of being "the first Black president," the sometimes "lecturer-in-chief" delivered a fiery message to the enthusiastic crowd, again balancing his thoughts about what government should be doing for African-Americans with what Obama felt Blacks should also be doing for themselves.
"We have to say to our children, ''Yes, if you're African-American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher," the president told the NAACP, and the hundreds of NAACP youth leaders present. "Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that someone in a wealthy suburb does not. But that's not a reason to get bad grades, that's not a reason to cut class, that's not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school. No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands - and don't you forget that."
Powerful words, but, the same Black president who has told young Black males to stop fathering children they can't raise, Black youth to stop limiting themselves and get a good education, and Black parents to turn off the television and do homework with their children, did not come anywhere near telling some of his community's children to put down the guns, and stop the violence.
This topic was absent from his speech despite his history of strongly addressing the issue:
• In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, he wrote, "I also believe that when a gangbanger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels someone disrespected him, we have a problem of morality. Not only do we need to punish that man for his crime, but we need to acknowledge that there's a hole in his heart, one that government programs alone may not be able to repair."
• When asked in a July 2007 NAACP Presidential Primary Forum to comment on gun violence being the number one cause of death of Black men in America, he said, "…[I]n this year alone, in Chicago, we've had 34 Chicago public school students gunned down and killed. And for the most part, there has been silence. We know what to do. We've got to enforce the gun laws that are on the books." He later added, "[What] we also have to do is to make sure that we change our politics so that we care just as much about those 30-some children in Chicago who've been shot as we do the children in Virginia Tech. That's a mindset that we have to have in the White House and we don't have it right now."
• In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times in April 2008 after more deadly shootings gripped Chicago, the then-presidential candidate said, "Children have to be taught right and wrong, and violence isn't a way to resolve problems. Kids have to be kept off the streets at night. A lot of these kids, unfortunately, they might not have parents at home who are helping to give them guidance.''
• He had boldly asked Black youth in July 2007 during remarks made at Avalon Park's Vernon Park Church of God on the Far South Side of Chicago: "Once the programs are in place and you've got more cops on the street, what do you do when the cycle of violence continues? … Who do you blame? An entire generation of young men have become products of violence, and we are going to have to break the cycle. That is going to require your help,'' he said.
Veteran Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell, an African-American, wrote at the time, "Obama bore witness to the simple truth. If Black people don't begin to show each other love, if Black men don't step up to make a difference in their own sons' lives and in the lives of boys who are fatherless, then it won't really matter who wins the White House in 2008."
President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama enjoy tremendous credibility among youth. They also have even more of the community's attention and support than in 2007. Therefore, some believe that he missed a golden opportunity to issue and urgent message and to bolster the efforts of the very parents and community leaders he referenced earlier in his speech to quell the bloodshed.
"Yes, Mr. President, please speak to our young people and tell them they need to go to school. They need to get a job. They need to be good parents. But don't just say the words. Give them the help they need to make these platitudes a reality in their lives," says Francine Smith, administrator of the Goldsboro, NC-based Stop the Funeral Initiative.
On the other hand, some leaders, like NCCU Law Professor Irving Joyner, said even the Black community as a whole has not taken a strong enough stance against violence.
"I don't see that our communities have sufficiently isolated and identified this problem to be as serious as it is," Joyner added. "Within our communities, we are ducking this issue. It is up to the community leaders and organizations to publicly elevate this issue to the national status which it deserves."
Still others, like Smith, want more from the Oval Office.
"The growing level of Black on Black crime is abhorrent," said Bruce Lightner, chairman of the Raleigh Martin Luther King Committee. "Young African-Americans routinely killing other young African-Americans is a serious detriment to the fiber and soul of our community … As uplifting as Obama's speech to the NAACP was," Lightner continued, "he did not speak boldly to how and when the White House will man-up to this national curse."
Corey Ealons, Black Press liaison for White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, did not respond to a request for comment that was emailed to him the night of Obama's NAACP speech.
Homicide is a national problem that is plaguing every major city. According to the Violence Policy Center's (VPC) latest annual study, Black Homicide Victimization in the United States: An Analysis of 2006 Homicide Data, based on the FBI rankings of all 50 states, Pennsylvania leads the nation in Black homicide victimization with 36.86 per 100,000 per capita.
"The top five states with each state's corresponding Black homicide victimization rate are: 1) Pennsylvania, 36.86 per 100,000; 2) Michigan, 33.40 per 100,000; 3) Indiana, 32.65 per 100,000; 4) Kansas, 32.47 per 100,000; and, 5) Nevada, 32.26 per 100,000," the report stated.
VPC Executive Director Josh Sugarmann stated, "While Pennsylvania has the highest rate of Black homicide victimization, this is a crisis that is devastating Black teens and adults across our nation. The key role played by guns in Black homicide victimization cannot be denied and must be addressed.''
Earlier this year in New York, anti-youth violence activists called $4 million in stimulus money devoted to curbing gang and illegal gun activity throughout the state "chump change" that couldn't even begin to address the high level of violence in inner city New York City alone.
"This is a state of emergency," Andre Mitchell, founder/CEO of Man Up Inc. told The Amsterdam News last May. "How many more young people have to die before something serious is done?"
At that time, NYPD crime stats had already logged 138 homicides in the city.
What makes the president's omission even more notable is that as part of its urban policy agenda, the Obama Administration is addressing the issue of gang and youth violence through the Officer Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Grant Program.
Funded $2 billion through the president's stimulus American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) after the Bush Administration cut funding previously, the program gives grants to local and state police agencies to target gun and drug-related gang violence with strategies ranging from drug treatment and education to inmate re-entry efforts.
But most community activists agree that a law enforcement approach alone will not stop the violence. They say that a concerted effort partnering parents, community leaders and law enforcement, in addition to, as Pres. Obama told the NAACP in 2008, job creation and constructive after-school programs, holds the real key to stemming the bloody tide.