Barack Obama on March 18, 2008

A little more than 12 years ago, harassed by racists and his primary challenger, Hillary Clinton, expected to disown the opinions of pastor Jeremiah Wright, Obama stepped forward to provide a coherent statement on race in America, offering his “A More Perfect Union” speech.

He choose the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, to emphasize that America’s racial sins are part of our origins, encoded in our DNA. I encourage you to go find that speech. Read it. Here’s a passage that has always captured my attention:

“William Faulkner once wrote, ‘The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.’ We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist between the African-American community and the larger American community today can be traced directly to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

Segregated schools were and are inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education. And the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.

Legalized discrimination — where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions or the police force or the fire department — meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between blacks and whites, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persist in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.

A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family contributed to the erosion of black families — a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods — parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pickup, building code enforcement — all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continues to haunt us.”

He didn’t talk about police violence in the African American community. But he did address it, over and over again, during his 2 terms in the White House, every time another unarmed African American was killed by police officers. He assembled a task force to examine the problem, and they produced a road map — the Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing — to reform policing in America’s cities. The Trump administration put it in a drawer and ignored it.

Joe Biden did a good job today. He went to Philadelphia to address the dizzying breakdown in the social fabric of the nation. And his comments, in contrast to the actions of the cheerleader for hate and division currently in the White House, were welcome.

Here’s part of what he said:

“Let us vow to make this, at last, an era of action to reverse systemic racism with long overdue and concrete changes.

That action will not be completed in the first 100 days of my Presidency — or even an entire term. It is the work of a generation.

But if this agenda will take time to complete, it should not wait for the first 100 days of my Presidency to get started. A down payment on what is long overdue should come now.


And later:

“A few days before Dr. King was murdered, he gave a final Sunday sermon in Washington.

He told us that though the arc of a moral universe is long, it bends toward justice. And we know we can bend it — because we have. We have to believe that still. That is our purpose. It’s been our purpose from the beginning. To become the nation where all men and women are not only created equal — but treated equally. To become the nation defined — in Dr. King’s words — not only by the absence of tension, but by the presence of justice.

Today in America it’s hard to keep faith that justice is at hand. I know that. You know that.

The pain is raw. The pain is real.

A president of the United States must be part of the solution, not the problem. But our president today is part of the problem.”

Did Biden choose Philadelphia to deliver his address because Obama chose the city for a similar address 12 years earlier? I don’t know. There is a primary in Pennsylvania today. It is a short drive down the highway from Delaware. There has been unrest in Philly, like most of America.

But it is significant that he returned to Philadelphia 12 years after Obama’s speech. It is heartbreaking. Because it feels like we have made no progress in a dozen years.

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