In his farewell address in his hometown of Chicago, President Barack Obama—the country’s first black president—revisited the subject that haunted his entire tenure in the White House, and lauded the progress the United States has made in race relations in the last few decades but warned that the nation has yet to fully grapple with inequities of skin color.
Speaking at convention facility McCormick Place, the outgoing president said that the nation was a more just place that it was a decade or three ago—”no matter what folks say”—not just in statistics in the “attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum.” But he said that the talk of a “post-racial America” after his 2008 election “however well-intended, was never realistic.”
“We’re not where we need to be, and all of us have more work to do,” Obama said. “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.”
He noted that last year, incomes rose for all races, all age groups and for both men and women. He said that laws against discrimination need to be upheld, in hiring, housing, education and the criminal justice system.
“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,” he said.
Tensions over criminal justice came to the fore repeatedly in Obama’s second term, particularly in the aftermath of police killings of unarmed black males like Eric Garner of Staten Island and Michael Brown of Ferguson in 2014. These killings appear to have inspired a man to assassinate NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in Brooklyn that December.
Black Lives Matter protests began again after the deaths of Walter Scott in Charleston and Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015, and in Chicago after police released a video of officers fatally shooting Paul O’Neal. Similar killings in Louisiana and Minnesota appear to have triggered the assassination of cops in Baton Rouge and Dallas this past summer. Milwaukee erupted in flames last August in response to the police homicide of Sylville Smith.
And in July 2015, Dylann Roof, a white male, murdered nine black worshipers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. He was sentenced to death only hours before Obama made his speech.
The president alluded to these events, and asserted that peaceful protesters seek not “special treatment,” but “equal treatment.”
In his farewell address, Obama touted the achievements of his administration, including marriage equality, the Affordable Care Act providing health insurance to 20 million Americans, and opening up a new chapter with the Cuban people and shutting down Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
He also took some jabs at President-elect Donald Trump, who made a number of racially inflammatory remarks on the campaign trail, without actually saying his name.
“It [our democracy] needs you—not just when there’s an election, not just when you own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime,” he said. “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.”
And he encouraged people to get out and vote and to run for office if they are dissatisfied with the status quo—and pointed out that people are quick to blame the system without evaluating how they contributed to the flaws within the system.
“When we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt and when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them,” he said.
He also urged aging white Americans to invest in the education of “brown kids” and new immigrants who will form the workforce of the future.
The Democratic president concluded his address in saying that it has been the “honor of my life to serve you” and said that he will be “right there with you as a citizen for all my remaining days.” The outgoing president encouraged people to remain motivated.
“I’m asking you to believe—not in my ability to bring about change but in yours,” he said ending the speech with his popular 2008 campaign slogan, “Yes we can.”