The hashtag #ObamaFarewell trended on Twitter Tuesday night as the first African American president of the United States, Barack Obama, gave his final speech to the country. Obama pressed Americans to reject discrimination and stand up for U.S. values during the presidency of Donald Trump.
Coming full circle to his hometown of Chicago, where he announced his candidacy and celebrated his election in 2008, Obama spoke about the state of race relations in America.
Race Remains Divisive Force
“After my election there was talk of a post-racial America. And such a vision, however well intended, was never realistic,” Obama said before an audience of 18,000 and millions more watching at home. “Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.
“Now I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say.
“You can see it not just in statistics. You see it in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum. But we’re not where we need to be. And all of us have more work to do.
“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.
“So if we’re going to be serious about race going forward, we need to uphold laws against discrimination — in hiring, and in housing, and in education, and in the criminal justice system.”
Obama made criminal justice reform a major platform during his presidency. He has commuted the sentences of 1,176 federal prisoners, the White House said, as part of a push to reduce the number of people serving long sentences for non-violent drug offenses.
“Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s”
“But laws alone won’t be enough,” the president said. “Hearts must change.”
He continued, “For Blacks and other minority groups, that means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face.
“Not only the refugee or the immigrant or the rural poor or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic, and cultural, and technological change.”
In the November election, president-elect Trump won in part by appealing to working-class white men.
Obama continued, “For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment that our founders promised.”
He then addressed stereotypes regarding immigrants.
“For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles, who it was said were going to destroy the fundamental character of America,” he said.
“And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened.”
The president, who recently said he “absolutely” experienced racism while in office, has received both praise and criticism for his approach to addressing issues of race in the U.S. Though his approval rating among Blacks has been exceedingly high throughout his presidency, some Blacks think he has not been supportive enough of the Black community.
Writer Ta-neshi Coates, who penned the essay “My President Was Black,” argues Obama’s presidency became a symbol of “extraordinary Americanness.”
“Against the specter of Black pathology, against the narrow images of welfare moms and deadbeat dads, his time in the White House had been an eight-year showcase of a healthy and successful Black family spanning three generations, with two dogs to boot. In short, he became a symbol of Black people’s everyday, extraordinary Americanness,” Coates wrote.
But what cannot be disputed is no one else in the U.S. has ever walked the path Obama has taken, an African American man chosen to lead a nation where less than 200 years ago he would have been enslaved. He had an unprecedented presidency, and a task to unite all citizens in a country with an extensive history of racism.
Tribute to the First Lady, Sasha and Malia
During his speech, Obama wiped his eyes as he addressed his wife.
“Michelle LaVaughn Robinson of the South Side,” he began, “for the past 25 years you have not only been my wife and mother of my children, you have been my best friend.”
The Obama’s eldest daughter, Malia, wiped away tears with a tissue as she listened to her father.
“Malia and Sasha, under the strangest of circumstances, you have become two amazing young women, smart and beautiful, but more importantly, kind and thoughtful and full of passion,” Obama said. “You wore the burden of years in the spotlight so easily. Of all that I’ve done in my life, I’m most proud to be your dad.”
Sasha was not present during the speech as she stayed back in Washington, D.C., due to a school exam in the morning, a White House official told reporters.
In his farewell speech, Obama also made clear his positions had not changed and said his efforts to end the use of torture and close the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were part of a broader move to uphold U.S. values.
“That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans,” he said in a clear reference to Trump that drew applause.
The president said, “Just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.”
In addition, he added that strong action was needed to fight global warming and said “science and reason” mattered.
At 10:30 p.m. ET, the first lady tweeted a response to her husband’s speech:
— The First Lady (@FLOTUS) January 11, 2017
Material from Reuters was used in this report.