Obama's NAACP speech called for reforms - and made me proud

Obama to NAACP convention: “If we are going to deal with this problem and the inequities involved, then we have to speak honestly.” (TOM GRALISH / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S speech before the annual NAACP convention moved me - not just because he called for reforming the penal system, but because he also got into the whys surrounding the issue.

Why is it that so many African-American men get ensnared in the criminal-justice system?

Why is it that African-Americans make up almost half of the 2.3 million prisoners incarcerated in the United States?

Why is it that one in every 35 African-American men is serving time, compared to one in every 214 white men?

It's not a pleasant topic.

Nor is it one that you hear explained well all that often.

Usually, what passes for commentary on this sore subject includes a whole lot of finger-pointing and blame, as if black people are inherently criminal and awful.

Yesterday, though, the world got to hear from a sitting U.S. president about how "this did not happen by accident."

Yeah, he went there.

No-Drama Obama brought up the brutal history of how most of our ancestors were dragged here in bondage and how the residuals from that horrific era continue to dog us today.

He didn't dwell on it.

Nah, the president's too cool for that. But the nation's first African-American president did give some much-needed background about America's deeply entrenched institutional racism, which a whole lot of people deny still exists.

"Part of this is the legacy of hundreds of years of slavery and segregation, structural inequalities that are compounded over generations," Obama stated, to applause.

"Partly, it's the result of continuing - and sometimes more subtle - bigotry," the president added. "Whether it's who gets called back for a job interview or who gets suspended from school. Or what neighborhood you're able to rent an apartment in . . . We can't be satisfied - are not satisfied - until the opportunity gap is closed for everybody in America. Everybody."

Listening, I felt proud.

And relieved. This was the president explaining how America isn't some post-racial place but a country where the residuals of the ugliest parts of our history get played out on inner-city drug corners night after night. I glanced around at all the TV cameras and thought: Yes. Tell the world, Mr. President.


"This is not a new topic," Obama continued. "There's a long history of inequity in the criminal-justice system in America."

He covered a lot in his 45-minute speech, including calling for reducing or eliminating mandatory-minimum sentences for certain crimes and re-examining the use of solitary confinement.

For the record, he didn't sugar-coat things.

"Now we need to be honest that there are a lot of folks who belong in prison," he said, as audience members laughed and applauded. "If we are going to deal with this problem and the inequities involved, then we have to speak honestly."

But you can't really be honest about where we are unless you explain not just what the problem is but why it exists. Yesterday, Obama did a pretty good job of doing just that.

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