In eight weeks, Washington, D.C., will see another historic event: the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. All but a few of the heads of state of the 54 nations of Africa have been invited and most are expected to attend. It will be the most heads of state to ever be in Washington at one time, likely creating traffic jams Washington has seldom seen before as the Secret Service escorts the presidents and prime ministers across town several times a day.
The purpose of the program is ostensibly to bring Africa and the United States closer together economically and politically. While it is a program also designed to strengthen the legacy of the Obama presidency, it is not without significant risks and challenges, for this summit will be like none the African leaders have ever experienced.
The summit represents a shift in strategy in the administration. In the first term, the administration was adamant that it would work with the "like-minded" nations (read, democratically elected leaders) first, receiving selected leaders in Washington either alone or in small groups of three or four. There would be no massive summits with Africa. During this period, no African head of state was given a state dinner, a fact that did not go unnoticed in Africa.
During the same period, China, Japan, India and Europe have all had African summits, respectively, with China being the first. Nearly every African head of state flew to Beijing and met Chinese leadership one-on-one and dined at a state dinner in the Great Hall. No leader of Africa was uninvited and the Chinese entertained the leaders lavishly and made commitments towards the development of most of the countries attending. A $20 billion commitment of aid to Africa was made, and that has since been supplemented
by another $10 billion.
Japan followed course, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave each of 46 African leaders a 15 minute meeting over a three-day period. Japan, fearing a rising China, and also needing Africa's trade and resources for its own economy, promised $30 billion in aid among several other means of support for African development, including 10,000 business internships for African students. India and the European Union also brought the African presidents together to pledge support and cooperation. There was little choice left at the White House but to also host nearly all African heads of state, but with some interesting wrinkles to the formula.
The White House has told African ambassadors and others that no African leader will be given a one-on-one meeting with President Obama during the August summit, a fact that has caused some African leaders to ask what is the utility of the trip. This breaks all protocol tradition as the Africans know it.
Instead, the African presidents received an invitation to "an interactive dialogue" with the American president on Aug. 6. What, many ask, is an interactive dialogue ? There will be a state dinner on the White House lawn for all presidents the evening before, but once the interactive dialogue is concluded the next day, so too is the summitt. There is to be no final document, another break with protocol. No doubt Obama will shake the hand of each president, but there will be little substantive dialogue.
The African leaders have been asked to come to Washington for at least three days, with a Monday morning program focusing on civil society and an afternoon with Congress, organized by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Africa. Currently, the White House has asked various cabinet secretaries to host African heads of state for private dinners that evening. This, too, is a very different approach to diplomacy. Cabinet secretaries and African government ministers rank below heads of state, of course, and protocol-sensitive heads of state may seriously question whether they should attend. Furthermore, who is hosted by the secretary of state or the secretary of defense will be noted by those hosted by less prestigious cabinet officers. It may be all too easy for some heads of state to take umbrage.
Economics and trade will have their day as well, as the administration plans a U.S.-Africa CEO summit, organized by the secretary of commerce and her staff. Three hundred CEOs will be invited to meet and discuss business and trade over six hours with African heads of state. The White House is strictly adhering to selected CEOs only. In some ways, this meeting may be the most critical of all to U.S.-Africa relations, as the U.S. private sector has been slow to respond to the new African market and is falling behind as an investor and trader in the world's largest emerging market. The administration is hoping that this program will spark new interest in Africa from the corporate world. To help them, the White House called upon business and political titan Michael Bloomberg to add his name as co-convener, in order to better draw corporate peers to this meeting.
The program breaks many international protocol traditions. That it is also held on President Obama's birthday has added fuel for critics who say that this more a legacy' program than a working meeting with real results. It is too early to say. An innovative program is being planned. This is a program of high risk, ultimately to be judged by the results to come. We shall hope and then we shall see.
Stephen Hayes is president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.
"This unconscionable act was committed by a terrorist group determined to keep these girls from getting an education - grown men attempting to snuff out the aspirations of young girls." United States First Lady Michelle Obama
The full Remark:
Hello everyone, I’m Michelle Obama, and on this Mother’s Day weekend, I want to take a moment to honor all the mothers out there and wish you a Happy Mother’s Day.
I also want to speak to you about an issue of great significance to me as a First Lady, and more importantly, as the mother of two young daughters.
Like millions of people across the globe, my husband and I are outraged and heartbroken over the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls from their school dormitory in the middle of the night.
This unconscionable act was committed by a terrorist group determined to keep these girls from getting an education – grown men attempting to snuff out the aspirations of young girls.
And I want you to know that Barack has directed our government to do everything possible to support the Nigerian government’s efforts to find these girls and bring them home.
In these girls, Barack and I see our own daughters. We see their hopes, their dreams – and we can only imagine the anguish their parents are feeling right now.
Many of them may have been hesitant to send their daughters off to school, fearing that harm might come their way.
But they took that risk because they believed in their daughters’ promise and wanted to give them every opportunity to succeed.
The girls themselves also knew full well the dangers they might encounter.
Their school had recently been closed due to terrorist threats…but these girls still insisted on returning to take their exams.
They were so determined to move to the next level of their education…so determined to one day build careers of their own and make their families and communities proud.
And what happened in Nigeria was not an isolated incident…it’s a story we see every day as girls around the world risk their lives to pursue their ambitions.
It’s the story of girls like Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan.
Malala spoke out for girls’ education in her community…and as a result, she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman while on a school bus with her classmates.
But fortunately Malala survived…and when I met her last year, I could feel her passion and determination as she told me that girls’ education is still her life’s mission.
As Malala said in her address to the United Nations, she said “The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”
The courage and hope embodied by Malala and girls like her around the world should serve as a call to action.
Because right now, more than 65 million girls worldwide are not in school.
Yet, we know that girls who are educated make higher wages, lead healthier lives, and have healthier families.
And when more girls attend secondary school, that boosts their country’s entire economy.
So education is truly a girl’s best chance for a bright future, not just for herself, but for her family and her nation.
And that’s true right here in the U.S. as well…so I hope the story of these Nigerian girls will serve as an inspiration for every girl – and boy – in this country.
I hope that any young people in America who take school for granted – any young people who are slacking off or thinking of dropping out – I hope they will learn the story of these girls and recommit themselves to their education.
These girls embody the best hope for the future of our world…and we are committed to standing up for them not just in times of tragedy or crisis, but for the long haul.
We are committed to giving them the opportunities they deserve to fulfill every last bit of their God-given potential.
So today, let us all pray for their safe return... let us hold their families in our hearts during this very difficult time…and let us show just a fraction of their courage in fighting to give every girl on this planet the education that is her birthright. Thank you.
The Obama administration made it official on Tuesday that it will host the first “U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit” in August at Washington.
A statement from spokesman Jay Carney reads:
"The White House is pleased to announce that the United States will host the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, DC on August 5 and 6, 2014.
"President Obama looks forward to welcoming leaders from across the African continent to the Nation's Capital to further strengthen ties with one of the world's most dynamic and fastest-growing regions.
"The Summit will build on the progress made since the President's trip to Africa last summer, advance the Administration's focus on trade and investment in Africa, and highlight America's commitment to Africa's security, its democratic development, and its people."
President Obama and former President Bill Clinton delivered statements respectively, on the passing of former South African President and anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela.
"A man who took history in his hands, and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice."
"We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again," the President said. "So it falls to us as best we can to forward the example that he set: to make decisions guided not by hate, but by love; to never discount the difference that one person can make; to strive for a future that is worthy of his sacrifice." - President Obama
Statement by President Clinton on the Passing of Nelson Mandela
"Today the world has lost one of its most important leaders and one of its finest human beings. And Hillary, Chelsea and I have lost a true friend.
History will remember Nelson Mandela as a champion for human dignity and freedom, for peace and reconciliation. We will remember him as a man of uncommon grace and compassion, for whom abandoning bitterness and embracing adversaries was not just a political strategy but a way of life. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Graça and his family and to the people of South Africa. All of us are living in a better world because of the life that Madiba lived. He proved that there is freedom in forgiving, that a big heart is better than a closed mind, and that life’s real victories must be shared." - President Bill Clinton
“For you to fix the world, you must fix Africa. For you to fix Africa, you must fix Nigeria,” President Jonathan said to President Obama as they meet in New York in the opening of their bilateral and diplomatic meeting.
As world leaders gathered in New York for United Nations annual diplomatic converging of heads of State, the first diplomatic initiative has already been taken place between Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and American President Barack Obama. The both leaders met at Lyndon B. Johnson suite in the Waldorf-Astoria for the bilateral meeting.
Speaking on the Kenya attack by terroists at the Mall and on broader Africa Obama said, “We stand with them against this terrible outrage that’s occurred, we will provide them with whatever law enforcement help that is necessary. The United States will continue to work with the entire continent of Africa and around the world to make sure that we are dismantling these networks of destruction.”
According to Associate Press, "The two leaders met Monday in New York. Obama stressed a comprehensive anti-terror approach that calls for creating economic opportunity and protecting human rights. During remarks to the media, Obama said ensuring that governments are responsive to people's needs is the best way to undermine the agenda of radical groups like Boko Haram.
Boko Haram's violence occurs mostly in northern Nigeria. Obama called it one of the most vicious terrorist organizations in the world. The White House says Obama also restated U.S. support for strengthening transparent, democratic governance, and of making sure upcoming Nigerian elections in 2015 are peaceful, transparent and credible."
“The arc of the universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own." - President Obama
To the King family, who have sacrificed and inspired so much; to President Clinton; President Carter; Vice President Biden and Jill; fellow Americans.
Five decades ago today, Americans came to this honored place to lay claim to a promise made at our founding: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In 1963, almost 200 years after those words were set to paper, a full century after a great war was fought and emancipation proclaimed, that promise — those truths — remained unmet. And so they came by the thousands from every corner of our country, men and women, young and old, blacks who longed for freedom and whites who could no longer accept freedom for themselves while witnessing the subjugation of others.
Across the land, congregations sent them off with food and with prayer. In the middle of the night, entire blocks of Harlem came out to wish them well. With the few dollars they scrimped from their labor, some bought tickets and boarded buses, even if they couldn’t always sit where they wanted to sit. Those with less money hitchhiked or walked. They were seamstresses and steelworkers, students and teachers, maids and Pullman porters. They shared simple meals and bunked together on floors. And then, on a hot summer day, they assembled here, in our nation’s capital, under the shadow of the Great Emancipator — to offer testimony of injustice, to petition their government for redress, and to awaken America’s long-slumbering conscience.
We rightly and best remember Dr. King’s soaring oratory that day, how he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions; how he offered a salvation path for oppressed and oppressors alike. His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time.
But we would do well to recall that day itself also belonged to those ordinary people whose names never appeared in the history books, never got on TV. Many had gone to segregated schools and sat at segregated lunch counters. They lived in towns where they couldn’t vote and cities where their votes didn’t matter. They were couples in love who couldn’t marry, soldiers who fought for freedom abroad that they found denied to them at home. They had seen loved ones beaten, and children fire-hosed, and they had every reason to lash out in anger, or resign themselves to a bitter fate.
And yet they chose a different path. In the face of hatred, they prayed for their tormentors. In the face of violence, they stood up and sat in, with the moral force of nonviolence. Willingly, they went to jail to protest unjust laws, their cells swelling with the sound of freedom songs. A lifetime of indignities had taught them that no man can take away the dignity and grace that God grants us. They had learned through hard experience what Frederick Douglass once taught — that freedom is not given, it must be won, through struggle and discipline, persistence and faith.
That was the spirit they brought here that day. That was the spirit young people like John Lewis brought to that day. That was the spirit that they carried with them, like a torch, back to their cities and their neighborhoods. That steady flame of conscience and courage that would sustain them through the campaigns to come — through boycotts and voter registration drives and smaller marches far from the spotlight; through the loss of four little girls in Birmingham, and the carnage of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the agony of Dallas and California and Memphis. Through setbacks and heartbreaks and gnawing doubt, that flame of justice flickered; it never died.
And because they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, a Civil Rights law was passed. Because they marched, a Voting Rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes. (Applause.) Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed, and Congress changed, and, yes, eventually, the White House changed. (Applause.)
Because they marched, America became more free and more fair — not just for African Americans, but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans; for Catholics, Jews, and Muslims; for gays, for Americans with a disability. America changed for you and for me. and the entire world drew strength from that example, whether the young people who watched from the other side of an Iron Curtain and would eventually tear down that wall, or the young people inside South Africa who would eventually end the scourge of apartheid. (Applause.)
Those are the victories they won, with iron wills and hope in their hearts. That is the transformation that they wrought, with each step of their well-worn shoes. That’s the debt that I and millions of Americans owe those maids, those laborers, those porters, those secretaries; folks who could have run a company maybe if they had ever had a chance; those white students who put themselves in harm’s way, even though they didn’t have; those Japanese Americans who recalled their own internment; those Jewish Americans who had survived the Holocaust; people who could have given up and given in, but kept on keeping on, knowing that “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” (Applause.)
On the battlefield of justice, men and women without rank or wealth or title or fame would liberate us all in ways that our children now take for granted, as people of all colors and creeds live together and learn together and walk together, and fight alongside one another, and love one another, and judge one another by the content of our character in this greatest nation on Earth. (Applause.)
To dismiss the magnitude of this progress — to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed — that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years. (Applause.) Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Martin Luther King Jr. — they did not die in vain. (Applause.) Their victory was great.
But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency. Whether by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote, or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all, and the criminal justice system is not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails, it requires vigilance. (Applause.)
And we’ll suffer the occasional setback. But we will win these fights. This country has changed too much. (Applause.) People of goodwill, regardless of party, are too plentiful for those with ill will to change history’s currents. (Applause.)
In some ways, though, the securing of civil rights, voting rights, the eradication of legalized discrimination — the very significance of these victories may have obscured a second goal of the March. For the men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract ideal. They were there seeking jobs as well as justice — (applause) — not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity. (Applause.)
For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal? This idea — that one’s liberty is linked to one’s livelihood; that the pursuit of happiness requires the dignity of work, the skills to find work, decent pay, some measure of material security — this idea was not new. Lincoln himself understood the Declaration of Independence in such terms — as a promise that in due time, “the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”
And Dr. King explained that the goals of African Americans were identical to working people of all races: “Decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community.”
What King was describing has been the dream of every American. It’s what’s lured for centuries new arrivals to our shores. And it’s along this second dimension — of economic opportunity, the chance through honest toil to advance one’s station in life — where the goals of 50 years ago have fallen most short.
Yes, there have been examples of success within black America that would have been unimaginable a half century ago. But as has already been noted, black unemployment has remained almost twice as high as white unemployment, Latino unemployment close behind. The gap in wealth between races has not lessened, it’s grown. And as President Clinton indicated, the position of all working Americans, regardless of color, has eroded, making the dream Dr. King described even more elusive.
For over a decade, working Americans of all races have seen their wages and incomes stagnate, even as corporate profits soar, even as the pay of a fortunate few explodes. Inequality has steadily risen over the decades. Upward mobility has become harder. In too many communities across this country, in cities and suburbs and rural hamlets, the shadow of poverty casts a pall over our youth, their lives a fortress of substandard schools and diminished prospects, inadequate health care and perennial violence.
And so as we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks could join the ranks of millionaires. It was whether this country would admit all people who are willing to work hard regardless of race into the ranks of a middle-class life. (Applause.)
The test was not, and never has been, whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many — for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran. To win that battle, to answer that call — this remains our great unfinished business.
We shouldn’t fool ourselves. The task will not be easy. Since 1963, the economy has changed. The twin forces of technology and global competition have subtracted those jobs that once provided a foothold into the middle class — reduced the bargaining power of American workers. And our politics has suffered. Entrenched interests, those who benefit from an unjust status quo, resisted any government efforts to give working families a fair deal — marshaling an army of lobbyists and opinion makers to argue that minimum wage increases or stronger labor laws or taxes on the wealthy who could afford it just to fund crumbling schools, that all these things violated sound economic principles. We’d be told that growing inequality was a price for a growing economy, a measure of this free market; that greed was good and compassion ineffective, and those without jobs or health care had only themselves to blame.
And then, there were those elected officials who found it useful to practice the old politics of division, doing their best to convince middle-class Americans of a great untruth — that government was somehow itself to blame for their growing economic insecurity; that distant bureaucrats were taking their hard-earned dollars to benefit the welfare cheat or the illegal immigrant.
And then, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways, as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support — as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.
All of that history is how progress stalled. That’s how hope was diverted. It’s how our country remained divided. But the good news is, just as was true in 1963, we now have a choice. We can continue down our current path, in which the gears of this great democracy grind to a halt and our children accept a life of lower expectations; where politics is a zero-sum game where a few do very well while struggling families of every race fight over a shrinking economic pie — that’s one path. Or we can have the courage to change.
The March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history; that we are masters of our fate. But it also teaches us that the promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together. We’ll have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling, the coalition of conscience that found expression in this place 50 years ago.
And I believe that spirit is there, that truth force inside each of us. I see it when a white mother recognizes her own daughter in the face of a poor black child. I see it when the black youth thinks of his own grandfather in the dignified steps of an elderly white man. It’s there when the native-born recognizing that striving spirit of the new immigrant; when the interracial couple connects the pain of a gay couple who are discriminated against and understands it as their own.
That’s where courage comes from — when we turn not from each other, or on each other, but towards one another, and we find that we do not walk alone. That’s where courage comes from. (Applause.)
And with that courage, we can stand together for good jobs and just wages. With that courage, we can stand together for the right to health care in the richest nation on Earth for every person. (Applause.) With that courage, we can stand together for the right of every child, from the corners of Anacostia to the hills of Appalachia, to get an education that stirs the mind and captures the spirit, and prepares them for the world that awaits them. (Applause.)
With that courage, we can feed the hungry, and house the homeless, and transform bleak wastelands of poverty into fields of commerce and promise.
America, I know the road will be long, but I know we can get there. Yes, we will stumble, but I know we’ll get back up. That’s how a movement happens. That’s how history bends. That’s how when somebody is faint of heart, somebody else brings them along and says, come on, we’re marching. (Applause.)
There’s a reason why so many who marched that day, and in the days to come, were young — for the young are unconstrained by habits of fear, unconstrained by the conventions of what is. They dared to dream differently, to imagine something better. And I am convinced that same imagination, the same hunger of purpose stirs in this generation.
We might not face the same dangers of 1963, but the fierce urgency of now remains. We may never duplicate the swelling crowds and dazzling procession of that day so long ago — no one can match King’s brilliance — but the same flame that lit the heart of all who are willing to take a first step for justice, I know that flame remains. (Applause.)
That tireless teacher who gets to class early and stays late and dips into her own pocket to buy supplies because she believes that every child is her charge — she’s marching. (Applause.)
That successful businessman who doesn’t have to but pays his workers a fair wage and then offers a shot to a man, maybe an ex-con who is down on his luck — he’s marching. (Applause.)
The mother who pours her love into her daughter so that she grows up with the confidence to walk through the same door as anybody’s son — she’s marching. (Applause.)
The father who realizes the most important job he’ll ever have is raising his boy right, even if he didn’t have a father — especially if he didn’t have a father at home — he’s marching. (Applause.)
The battle-scarred veterans who devote themselves not only to helping their fellow warriors stand again, and walk again, and run again, but to keep serving their country when they come home — they are marching. (Applause.)
Everyone who realizes what those glorious patriots knew on that day — that change does not come from Washington, but to Washington; that change has always been built on our willingness, We The People, to take on the mantle of citizenship — you are marching. (Applause.)
And that’s the lesson of our past. That’s the promise of tomorrow — that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it. That when millions of Americans of every race and every region, every faith and every station, can join together in a spirit of brotherhood, then those mountains will be made low, and those rough places will be made plain, and those crooked places, they straighten out towards grace, and we will vindicate the faith of those who sacrificed so much and live up to the true meaning of our creed, as one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. (Applause.)
Courtesy of the White House Press Office:
Well, I — I wanted to come out here first of all to tell you that Jay is prepared for all your questions and is — is very much looking forward to the session.
Second thing is I want to let you know that over the next couple of weeks there are going to obviously be a whole range of issues — immigration, economics, et cetera — we’ll try to arrange a fuller press conference to address your questions.
The reason I actually wanted to come out today is not to take questions but to speak to an issue that obviously has gotten a lot of attention over the course of the last week, the issue of the Trayvon Martin ruling. I gave an — a preliminary statement right after the ruling on Sunday, but watching the debate over the course of the last week, I thought it might be useful for me to expand on my thoughts a little bit.
First of all, you know, I — I want to make sure that, once again, I send my thoughts and prayers, as well as Michelle’s, to the family of Trayvon Martin, and to remark on the incredible grace and dignity with which they’ve dealt with the entire situation. I can only imagine what they’re going through, and it’s — it’s remarkable how they’ve handled it.
The second thing I want to say is to reiterate what I said on Sunday, which is there are going to be a lot of arguments about the legal — legal issues in the case. I’ll let all the legal analysts and talking heads address those issues.
The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a — in a case such as this, reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works.
But I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling. You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that — that doesn’t go away.
There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.
And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
And you know, I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.
The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.
Now, this isn’t to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.
We understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.
And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.
I think the African-American community is also not naive in understanding that statistically somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.
So — so folks understand the challenges that exist for African-American boys, but they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it or — and that context is being denied. And — and that all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.
Now, the question for me at least, and I think, for a lot of folks is, where do we take this? How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction? You know, I think it’s understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests, and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through as long as it remains nonviolent. If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family.
But beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do? I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here. Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government — the criminal code. And law enforcement has traditionally done it at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.
That doesn’t mean, though, that as a nation, we can’t do some things that I think would be productive. So let me just give a couple of specifics that I’m still bouncing around with my staff so we’re not rolling out some five-point plan, but some areas where I think all of us could potentially focus.
No. 1 precisely because law enforcement is often determined at the state and local level, I think it’d be productive for the Justice Department — governors, mayors to work with law enforcement about training at the state and local levels in order to reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists.
You know, when I was in Illinois I passed racial profiling legislation. And it actually did just two simple things. One, it collected data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped. But the other thing was it resourced us training police departments across the state on how to think about potential racial bias and ways to further professionalize what they were doing.
And initially, the police departments across the state were resistant, but actually they came to recognize that if it was done in a fair, straightforward way, that it would allow them to do their jobs better and communities would have more confidence in them and in turn be more helpful in applying the law. And obviously law enforcement’s got a very tough job.
So that’s one area where I think there are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought to bear if state and local governments are receptive. And I think a lot of them would be. And — and let’s figure out other ways for us to push out that kind of training.
Along the same lines, I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if it — if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations.
I know that there’s been commentary about the fact that the “stand your ground” laws in Florida were not used as a defense in the case.
On the other hand, if we’re sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there’s a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we’d like to see?
And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these “stand your ground” laws, I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?
And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.
No. 3 — and this is a long-term project: We need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys? And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?
You know, I’m not naive about the prospects of some brand-new federal program.
I’m not sure that that’s what we’re talking about here. But I do recognize that as president, I’ve got some convening power.
And there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front. And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African-American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that — and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed — you know, I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation. And we’re going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that.
And then finally, I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. You know, there has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.
On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s a possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can; am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.
And let me just leave you with — with a final thought, that as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean that we’re in a postracial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.
And so, you know, we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues, and those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. But we should also have confidence that kids these days I think have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long, difficult journey, you know, we’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.
All right? Thank you, guys.
GATHERING valedictory material on Nelson Mandela as he faded in a Pretoria hospital the other day, I came across a little book called “Mandela’s Way.” In this 2010 volume, Rick Stengel, the ghostwriter of Mandela’s autobiography, set out to extract “lessons on life, love and courage” he had learned from three years of immersion in Mandela’s life.
Stengel, who is the managing editor of Time magazine, could not resist comparing his hero to another tall, serene, hope-bearing son of Africa: Barack Obama.
“Obama’s self-discipline, his willingness to listen and to share credit, his inclusion of his rivals in his administration, and his belief that people want things explained, all seem like a 21-century version of Mandela’s values and persona,” he wrote. “Whatever Mandela may or may not think of the new American president, Obama is in many ways his true successor on the world stage.”
A bit much, yes? Well, Stengel was hardly alone back then in awarding the American president a stature he had scarcely begun to earn. The Nobel Committee, which had awarded its peace prize to Mandela for ending the obscenity of apartheid, bestowed that honor on Obama merely for not being George W. Bush.
Different men, different countries, different times. Perhaps even Mandela — who was more successful liberating South Africa than governing it — could not have lived up to the inflated expectations heaped on Obama. But it is interesting to imagine how Obama’s presidency might be different if he had in fact done it Mandela’s way.
Mandela, in his time on the political stage, was a man of almost ascetic self-discipline. But he also understood how to deploy his moral authority in grand theatrical gestures. Facing capital charges of trying to overthrow the state in the Rivonia Trial, he entered the formal Pretoria courtroom dressed in a traditional Xhosa leopard-skin cape to dramatize that he was an African entering a white man’s jurisdiction. And then he essentially confessed to the crime.
In 1995, Mandela, newly elected president of a still deeply divided country, single-handedly turned the Rugby World Cup — the whitest sporting event in South Africa, long the target of anti-apartheid boycotts — into a festival of interracial harmony. He was, in short, the opposite of “no drama.”
Obama’s sense of political theater peaked at his first inaugural. He rarely deploys the stirring reality that he is the first black man to hold the office. As my Times colleague Peter Baker notes, “Obama’s burden as he sees it, different from Mandela’s, is to make the fact that he’s black be a nonissue. Only then will his breakthrough be truly meaningful.” Still, I think Mandela would have sought a way to make a more exciting civic bond out of the pride so many Americans felt in this milestone.
Mandela understood that politics is not mainly a cerebral sport. It is a business of charm and flattery and symbolic gestures and eager listening and little favors. It is above all a business of empathy. To help win over the Afrikaners, he learned their Dutch dialect and let them keep their national anthem. For John Boehner, he’d have learned golf and become a merlot drinker. “You don’t address their brains,” Mandela advised his colleagues, and would surely advise Obama. “You address their hearts.”
Mandela was a consummate negotiator. Once he got you to the bargaining table, he was not going to leave empty-handed. He was an expert at deducing how far each side could go. He was patient. He was opportunistic, using every crisis to good effect. He understood that half the battle was convincing your own side that a concession could be a victory. And he was willing to take a risk. I don’t envy Obama’s having to deal with intransigent Republicans or his own demanding base, but Mandela bargained with Afrikaner militants, Zulu nationalists and the white government that had imprisoned him for 27 years. By comparison, the Tea Party is, well, a tea party.
Mandela usually seemed to be having the time of his life. Perhaps this is because (sadly for his family) the movement was his life. He shook every hand as if he was discovering a new friend and maintained a twinkle in his eye that said: this is fun. We’ve had joyful presidents — Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan. Obama more often seems to regard the job as an ordeal.
Mandela, above all, had a clear sense of his core principles: freedom, equality, the rule of law. He changed tactics, shifted alliances (one day the Communist Party, another day the business oligarchs) but never lost sight of the ultimate goal. In fairness to Obama, Mandela had a cause of surpassing moral clarity. The American president is rarely blessed with problems so, literally, black and white. And if Obama leaves behind universal health care and immigration reform — two initiatives that have consistently defeated previous presidents — that will be no small legacy. But tell me, do you have a clear sense of what moral purpose drives our president?
Bill Keller is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times and writes for The New York Times Magazine. His column appears on Mondays. From July 2003 until September 2011, he was the executive editor of The Times, presiding over the newsroom during a time of journalistic distinction, economic challenge, and transformation. During his eight years in that role, The Times sustained and built its formidable newsgathering staff, winning 18 Pulitzer Prizes, and expanded its audience by mastering the journalistic potential of the Internet. The newsroom also participated in the creation of a digital subscription plan to help secure the company’s economic future.
Mr. Keller was succeeded by Jill Abramson, a former investigative reporter and Washington bureau chief who had been one of his two top deputies since 2003. Before becoming executive editor, Mr. Keller had spent two years as a senior writer for The New York Times Magazine and an Op-Ed columnist. He served as managing editor from 1997 to September 2001 after having been the newspaper’s foreign editor from June 1995 to 1997. As chief of The Times bureau in Johannesburg from April 1992 until May 1995, he covered the end of white rule in South Africa.
"President Barack Obama is calling his visit to a Senegalese island, from which Africans were said to have been shipped across the Atlantic Ocean into slavery, a "very powerful moment." Obama says visiting Goree Island on Thursday with his wife, Michelle, and daughters helps them fully appreciate the magnitude of the slave trade. Obama also said that, as an African American and an African-American president, the trip gives him even greater motivation to stand up for human rights around the world. He said the island is a reminder of what happens when those rights aren't protected."- AP
Credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
President Barack Obama's 26 June-3 July visit to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania is an important statement of his intent towards Africa during his final term.
His election as president of the United States in November 2008 raised expectations around the world about the emergence of a more consistently and strategically engaged US policy approach to diplomacy and international relations. Given his own mixed African and American ancestry, these expectations were especially strong among pro-African communities within the United States, just as they were in cities and villages across sub-Saharan Africa.
Early in his first administration, Obama visited Ghana in July 2009. The speech he gave in Accra had few specific pledges other than a promise to cut down on funding American consultants and administrators. Instead, President Obama’s Ghana trip was mostly about symbolism, offering an effective backdrop for a sharp critique of corruption and repression on the continent, and advocating home-grown governance and stronger institutions and remedies. Ghana was chosen to illustrate an African country that enjoys political pluralism and a growing economy.
A further trip by President Obama had been planned for Sub-Saharan Africa (Michelle Obama visited South Africa and Botswana) but domestic demands such as the US economy in meltdown, pressing foreign policy priorities such as Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea resulted in low-key engagement in comparison to his predecessor George W. Bush, and a policy marked by greater continuity with previous administrations rather than change.
There were highlights during Obama’s first term: Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State made Africa a diplomatic priority, visiting 23 African states (out of 54); the 2011 referendum, and then the independence of South Sudan; the changing fortunes of Somalia and discreet mediation efforts by key officials in Malawi, Guinea, Senegal, are all examples of what US good offices can achieve. The $3.5 billion African food security initiative of the Obama administration had impact and the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), enacted under the Clinton administration, has increased US trade with Africa. It is due for renewal by 2015 but early action on this would be a positive statement of America’s desire to deepen trade partnerships with Africa.
There were also disappointments: slowness of appointments to key Africa jobs, such as no permanent assistant administrator of the US Agency for International Development for Africa until 2012 and a US Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa was not released till June 2012 - hardly the signal that Africa was an Obama administration priority.
Hopefully for Obama's second Africa trip, African expectations are more realistic. Symbolism plays a role again: Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania are important democratic US partners. There is also a need to ensure geographical spread, so West, Southern and Eastern Africa is covered. Two key countries are missing from the list because of their current political condition, Kenya and Nigeria. Avoiding Nairobi while the uncertainty of the International Criminal Court cases hang over President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto is prudent.
The decision to avoid Nigeria is questionable. Nigeria will soon host the third largest population in the world and Africa’s largest economy but President Goodluck Jonathan and his administration are facing multiple security and governance challenges that require international partnership. A good initiative during the first Obama administration was to re-open a US Consulate in northern Nigeria given the crisis there.
Sadly, spiralling security costs, and a lack of appetite for opening new US diplomatic footprints in dangerous places following the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi has shelved those plans. Yet the US administration can ill afford to be as blind as it is today to northern Nigerian politics.
Relations with South Africa 'awkward'
Senegal and Tanzania are straightforward visits for Obama but not South Africa which theoretically is a strategic partner of the US. South Africa proudly flaunts its membership of the BRICS and sees itself as a vanguard of a new global governance order. Its African National Congress regularly issues communiques condemning US imperial aggression, offering solidarity to Havana, Tehran and Ramallah. The 2011 Libyan intervention in particular is still a raw issue as despite backing UNSC resolution 1973, South Africa's official position was against the NATO bombing and in support of the African Union's 'road map to peace'.
The US-South Africa relationship has been awkward for many years, following a fairly constructive period during the transition from apartheid until the late 1990s. This is despite a US-South Africa Strategic Dialogue and the fact that the US is still one of South Africa’s key trading partners in the world.
President Obama's visit will not immediately change this prickly relationship but given South Africa’s leadership role in Africa including as a member of the G20, it is important the US and South Africa can understand their respective strategic concerns, improve bilateral relations and trade, and seek common solutions to shared common goals, such as poverty reduction, global health and education.
With elections in Zimbabwe and Swaziland in coming months, a deepening political crisis in Madagascar, continued instability in eastern Congo, and armed violence erupting in Mozambique threatening 20 years of peace, South Africa’s neighbourhood does not look stable and Pretoria and Washington will need a better strategic partnership than the one they have currently.
Alex Vines is Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; and Head, Africa Programme of Chatham House.