Editor’s note: Here are excerpts from President Obama’s speech to the National Urban League’s annual convention in New Orleans on July 25.
Hello, Urban League! And it’s good to be in “the Big Easy.”
For nearly a century, the National Urban League has been inspiring people of every race and every religion and every walk of life to reach for the dream that lies at the heart of our founding – the promise that no matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter where you came from, no matter how modest your beginnings, no matter what the circumstances of your birth, here in America, you can make it if you try.
Of course, this dream has never come easy. That’s why the Urban League was formed. In the aftermath of the Civil War…waves of men and women who traveled north to urban centers discovered that…opportunity was not guaranteed. It was something you had to work for, something you had to fight for – not just on your own, but side-by-side with people who believed in that same dream.
And so the White widow of a railroad tycoon and a Black social worker from Arkansas founded what would become the Urban League, to strengthen our cities and our communities brick by brick, and block by block, and neighborhood by neighborhood, life by life.
Decades later, I arrived in one of those cities my hometown of Chicago. (South Side!) And I was driven by this same cause. Like many of my classmates, I felt, I understood, the pull of a hefty paycheck that might come from a more conventional job.
But ultimately the pull to serve was even stronger. So I moved to the South Side of Chicago, and I took a job with a group of churches, mostly Catholic parishes, working to help families who had no place to turn when the local steel plants shut down, and when panic-peddling had led to enormous turnover in these communities. And we worked with laypeople and local leaders to rebuild neighborhoods and improve schools, and most of all, to broaden opportunity for young people, too many who were at risk.
And I confess that progress didn’t come quickly and it did not come easily. Sometimes, it didn’t come at all. There were times where I thought about giving up and moving on.
But what kept me going, day in and day out, was the same thing that has sustained the Urban League all these years, the same thing that sustains all of you, and that is the belief that in America, change is always possible; that our union may not be perfect, but it is perfectible; that we can strive over time through effort and sweat and blood and tears until it is the place we imagine. It may come in fits and starts, at a pace that can be slow and frustrating. But if we are willing to push through all the doubt and the cynicism and the weariness, then, yes, we can form that more perfect union…
Hard work should pay off
We’re not a nation of people who are looking for handouts. We certainly don’t like bailouts. We don’t believe government should be in the business of helping people who refuse to help themselves, and we recognize not every government program works.
But we do expect hard work to pay off. We do expect responsibility to be rewarded. We do expect that if you put in enough effort, you should be able to find a job that pays the bills.
You should be able to own a home you call your own…to retire in dignity and respect…to afford the security of health care…to give your kids the best possible education…
That idea that everyone should have equal opportunity – that’s what brought me to Chicago. That belief that this country works best when we are growing a strong middle class and prosperity is broad-based – that’s what led me into politics. And it is those values that have guided every decision that I have made as president of the United States.
Now, today we’re battling our way back from a once-in-a-lifetime economic crisis… When I took office, we were losing hundreds of thousands of jobs a month. Our auto industry was on the brink of collapse. Factories were boarding up their windows. We’d gone through almost a decade in which job growth had been sluggish, incomes had declined, costs were going up – all culminating in the financial system coming close to a breakdown.
Things are better
Today, three and a half years later, we’ve had 28 straight months of private sector job growth. Three and a half years later, the auto industry has come roaring back. Three and a half years later, companies are beginning to bring thousands of jobs back to American soil.
We still have much more work to do…what’s holding us back from meeting these challenges is not a lack of ideas or solutions…What’s holding us back is a stalemate in Washington between two fundamentally different views about which path we should take as a country. And it’s up to the American people to decide what direction we should go…
I believe that strong communities are places that attract the best jobs and the newest businesses. And you don’t build that kind of community by giving tax breaks to companies that are shipping jobs overseas. You build it by giving tax breaks to companies that create jobs in Detroit and in Cleveland and in Chicago and right here in New Orleans, right here in America – using American workers, making American products that we sell around the world, stamped with three proud words – “Made In America.”
Small businesses critical
You build it by investing in America’s manufacturing base and providing the dollars for research so that we have the most advanced products in the world. You do it by investing in small businesses – the way we’ve provided 18 tax breaks to small businesses since I’ve been in office. And if you’re a company that wants to relocate in a community that’s been particularly hard hit when a factory left town, I believe you should get help financing that new plant or equipment, or training for your workers – because we can’t leave anybody behind if we want to grow America the way it can grow.
We also believe that every entrepreneur should have the chance to start a business…That’s why we’ve supported financing and assistance and exporting to small businesses across the board…(and) helped African-American businesses and minority-owned businesses and women-owned businesses gain access to more than $7 billion in contracts and financing – that allowed them to grow and create jobs.
That’s why we’ve emphasized helping our veterans create small businesses – because if they fought for us, they shouldn’t have to fight to get financing…for a job…for a roof over their heads when they come home.
…(S)trong communities are places where people can afford to buy what their local businesses sell…Today, taxes are $3,600 lower for the typical family than they were when I came into office.
(M)ore than 2 million African-American families – are better off thanks to our extension of the child care tax credit and the earned income tax credit – because nobody who works hard in America should be poor in America. That’s how strong communities are built…(W)hen working folks have money in their pockets, businesses do well because they’ve got customers, and all of us grow.
Parents, early education
…If this country is about anything, it’s about passing on even greater opportunity to the next generation. And we know that has to start before a child even walks into the classroom. It starts at home with parents who are willing to read to their children, and spend time with their children – and instill a sense of curiosity and love of learning and a belief in excellence that will last a lifetime.
But it also begins with an early childhood education, which is why we’ve invested more in childcare, and in programs like Early Head Start and Head Start that help prepare our young people for success…
…(W)e challenged every state in the country to raise their standards for teaching and for learning…We have seen the biggest transformation in terms of school reform in a generation, and we’ve helped some of the country’s lowest-performing schools make real gains in reading and math, including here in New Orleans.
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’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.
That’s why…I’m establishing the first-ever White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans – so that every child has greater access to a complete and competitive education from the time they’re born all through the time they get a career.
And that’s why we’re pushing all colleges and universities to cut their costs – because we can’t keep asking taxpayers to subsidize skyrocketing tuition. A higher education in the 21st century cannot be a luxury. It is a vital necessity that every American should be able to afford. I want all these young people to be getting a higher education, and I don’t want them loaded up with tens of thousands of dollars of debt just to get an education…
…(T)hat means all of you all have got to hit the books…Don’t cheer and then you didn’t do your homework. Because that’s part of the bargain…America says we will give you opportunity, but you’ve got to earn your success.
You’re competing against young people in Beijing and Bangalore. They’re not hanging out…. They’re not playing video games. They’re not watching “Real Housewives.”…You’ve got to earn success. (That wasn’t in my prepared remarks. But I’m just saying.)
(S)trong communities are places where you and your family can work and save and buy your home.
That’s why we’ve helped more than a million responsible homeowners – these are folks who were making their payments – refinance their mortgages at these historically low rates, saving thousands of dollars every year. Because people who did everything right shouldn’t pay the price for somebody else’s irresponsibility. So now we want to expand that refinancing opportunity to every homeowner who’s making their payments on time.
…(L)et’s put construction workers back on the job…not only rebuilding roads and bridges and ports, but also rehabilitating homes in communities that have been hit by foreclosures, businesses that have been hit hardest by the housing crisis…It raises property values, and it strengthens the economy of the entire nation.
…(W)e believe that in the richest nation on Earth, you shouldn’t go broke when you get sick. And after a century of trying, and a decision now from the highest court in the land, healthcare reform is here to stay…
Insurance companies will no longer be able to discriminate against those who are sick. Prescription drug prices will be lower for our seniors. We’re going to close that “doughnut hole.” Young people will be able to stay on their parent’s insurance until they’re 26 years old. Thirty million Americans without health insurance will finally know the security of affordable care…
Good jobs, quality schools, affordable health care, affordable housing – these are all the pillars upon which communities are built. And yet, we’ve been reminded recently that all this matters little if these young people can’t walk the streets of their neighborhood safely; if we can’t send our kids to school without worrying they might get shot; if they can’t go to the movies without fear of violence lurking in the shadows.
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.
…(E)very 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…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.
And when there is an extraordinarily heartbreaking tragedy like the one we saw, there’s always an outcry immediately after for action. And there’s talk of new reforms, and there’s talk of new legislation…those efforts are defeated by politics and by lobbying and eventually by the pull of our collective attention elsewhere…
(W)e’ve been able to take some actions on our own, recognizing that it’s not always easy to get things through Congress these days. The background checks conducted on those looking to purchase firearms are now more thorough and more complete…(T)he federal government is now in the trenches with communities and schools and law enforcement and faith-based institutions, with outstanding mayors like Mayor Nutter and Mayor Landrieu – recognizing that we are stronger when we work together.
We’re partnering with local officials to reduce crime, using best practices…we’ve been able to help connect more young people to summer jobs so that they spend less time on the streets…we’re helping communities set up youth prevention and intervention programs that steer young people away from a life of gang violence, and towards the safety and promise of a classroom…
Other steps to reduce violence have been met with opposition in Congress…particularly when it touches on the issues of guns. I…believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms. And we recognize the traditions of gun ownership that passed on from generation to generation – that hunting and shooting are part of a cherished national heritage.
Gun owners agree
But 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.
So I’m going to continue to work…to arrive at a consensus around violence reduction – not just of gun violence, but violence at every level…looking at everything we can do to reduce violence and keep our children safe – from improving mental health services for troubled youth – to instituting more effective community policing strategies.
…(E)ven as we debate government’s role, we have to understand that when a child opens fire on another child, there’s a hole in that child’s heart that government alone can’t fill.
It’s up to us…to make sure our young people don’t have that void inside them…to spend more time with them, to pay more attention to them, to show them more love so that they learn to love themselves – so that they learn to love one another, so that they grow up knowing what it is to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes and to view the world through somebody else’s eyes. It’s up to us to provide the path toward a life worth living; toward a future that holds greater possibility than taking offense because somebody stepped on your sneakers.
‘Big Easy’ knows
(T)his proud city and those who call it home, they know something about hardship…But what this city also knows is resilience, and determination, and heroism…(O)ne person I want to end with is…the superintendent of schools in St. Bernard’s Parish, Doris Voitier. Now, when Katrina’s waters rose, Doris and the faculty and staff of Chalmette High School saved the lives of hundreds of their neighbors, many of them old and sick, by moving them to shelter in the school’s second floor…
Of that first night she said, “There were no riots; there were no disruptions; there were just hundreds of people just like you and the person sitting next to you, in the blink of an eye, having lost everything they had worked for over their entire lifetimes, who now looked to us for rescue. And we accepted that responsibility because that’s what school people do.”
…(I’ve) discovered is that’s not just what school people do…That’s what Americans, at their best, do…
Hasn’t been easy
For more than two centuries, our journey has never been easy, and our victories have never come quickly. And we have faced our share of struggles and setbacks and climbs that have seemed too steep – just like we do today.
But we know what we’re fighting for. We can see the America we believe in –- a country where everybody gets a fair shot and everybody is doing their fair share, where everybody is playing by the same set of rules. And if we don’t keep fighting as hard as we know how for that America, if we don’t keep fighting for better jobs and better schools and a better future, who will?
That’s our challenge. We don’t quit. Folks in New Orleans didn’t quit. Americans don’t quit. We accept responsibility. We keep on going…keep marching…keep moving forward. Failure is not an option. This is not a time for cynics…for doubters. It is time for believers. It is time for folks who have faith in the future.
I still believe in you. And if you still believe in me, I ask you to stand with me, march with me, fight with me. And as I do, I promise we will finish what we started, turn this economy around, seize our future, and remind the world why the United States of America is the greatest nation on Earth.
Source: The White House