Barack Obama photo

Remarks to the National Conference of Black Mayors in Baton Rouge, Louisiana

May 05, 2007

It is an honor to be here at Southern University. It is a privilege to stand with so many of our leading mayors from across this country. Whether it's a small town or a big city, the government that's closest to the people is the one the people count on the most.

Our mayors are on the frontlines when it comes to housing, education, job creation, and finding new ways to strengthen our families and communities. They are some of the hardest working people in America and when a disaster strikes: a Katrina, a shooting, or a six alarm blaze -- it's city hall we lean on. It's city hall we call first. And it's city hall we depend on to get us through the tough times.

Last weekend, I attended a service to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the LA Riots. After a jury acquitted 4 police officers of beating Rodney King -- a beating that was filmed and flashed around the world -- Los Angeles erupted. I remember the sense of despair and powerlessness in watching one of America's greatest cities engulfed in flames.

But I want to start today with an inspiring story from that tragic event -- a story about a baby who was born into this world with a bullet in its arm.

We learned about this child from a doctor named Andy Moosa. He was working the afternoon shift on April 30 at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood as the second day of violence was exploding in the streets.

He told us about a pregnant woman who had been wearing a white dress. She was in Compton and on her way to the supermarket. Where the bullet came from nobody knew. Her sister-in-law noticed a red spot in the middle of her white dress and said that I think you've been shot. The bullet had gone in, but it had not exited. The doctor described the ultrasound and how he realized that the bullet was in the baby. The doctor said, "We could tell it was lodged in one of the upper limbs. We needed to get this baby out so we were in the delivery room."

And here's the thing: the baby looked great. Except for the swelling in the right elbow in the fleshy part, it hadn't even fractured a bone. The bullet had lodged in the soft tissue in the muscle. The baby was fine. It was breathing and crying and kicking. They removed the bullet, stitched up the baby's arm, and everything was fine. The doctor went on to say that there's always going to be a scar to remind that child how quickly she came into the world in very unusual circumstances.

Let's think about that story. There's always going to be a scar there, that doesn't go away. You take the bullet out. You stitch up the wound and 15 years later, there's still going to be a scar.

Many of the students in this room were just learning to read and write when the riot started and tragedy struck the corner of Florence and Normandy. Most of the mayors here know that those riots didn't erupt over night; there had been a "quiet riot" building up in Los Angeles and across this country for years.

If you had gone to any street corner in Chicago or Baton Rouge or Selma or Trenton or Arcola, Mississippi -- you would have found the same young men and women without hope, without prospects, and without a sense of destiny other than life on the edge -- the edge of the law, the edge of the economy, the edge of family structures and communities.

Those "quiet riots" that take place every day are born from the same place as the fires and the destruction and the police decked out in riot gear and the deaths. They happen when a sense of disconnect settles in and hope dissipates. Despair takes hold and young people all across this country look at the way the world is and believe that things are never going to get any better. You tell yourself, my school will always crumble. There will never be a good job waiting for me to excel at. There will never be a place that I can be proud of and I can afford to call my home. That despair quietly simmers and makes it impossible to build strong communities and neighborhoods. And then one afternoon a jury says, "Not guilty" -- or a hurricane hits -- and that despair is revealed for the world to see.

Much of what we saw on our television screens 15 years ago was Los Angeles expressing a lingering, ongoing, pervasive legacy -- a tragic legacy out of the tragic history this country has never fully come to terms with. This is not to excuse the violence of bashing in a man's head or destroying someone's store and their life's work. That kind of violence is inexcusable and self-defeating. It does, however, describe the reality of many communities around this country.

And it made me think about our cities and communities all around this country, how not only do we still have scars from that riot and the "quiet riots" that happen every day -- but how in too many places we haven't even taken the bullet out.

Look at what happened in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast when Katrina hit. People ask me whether I thought race was the reason the response was so slow. I said, "No. This Administration was colorblind in its incompetence." But everyone here knows the disaster and the poverty happened long before that hurricane hit. All the hurricane did was make bare what we ignore each and every day which is that there are whole sets of communities that are impoverished, that don't have meaningful opportunity, that don't have hope and they are forgotten. This disaster was a powerful metaphor for what's gone on for generations.

In New Orleans, the murder rate was one of the highest in the country -- ten times the national average -- well before the hurricane hit. Young men died far more frequently from gunshot wounds than they did from anything else. The schools were failing long before the levees broke. The city's poverty rate was twice the national average. There was a reason why the evacuation failed and so many people were stranded on their roof tops. The folks who were making the plans assumed that people had cars that they could fill up with gas, put some Perrier in the back, drive to a hotel, and check in with a credit card for a week.

Of course, the federal response after Katrina was similar to the response after the riots in Los Angeles. People in Washington wake up and are surprised that there's poverty in our midst, and that others were frustrated and angry. Then there are panels and there are hearings. There are commissions. There are reports. Aid dollars are approved but they can't seem to get to the people. And then nothing really changes except the news coverage quiets down.

This isn't to diminish the extraordinary generosity of the American people at the time. I want to thank the faculty and students here at Southern University for turning your field house and dorms into shelters for so many in the aftermath of Katrina. That act of kindness -- the light in that storm -- will never be forgotten. I want to thank the National Conference of Black Mayors for their efforts: securing more $125 million in New Market Tax credits to assist with redevelopment, and creating your own disaster relief fund that helped 5,000 families in 54 Gulf Coast communities.

But despite this extraordinary generosity, here we are 19 months later -- or15 years later in the case of LA -- and the homes haven't been built, the businesses haven't returned, and those same communities are still drowning and smoldering under the same hopelessness as before the tragedy hit.

It is time for us to come together and take the bullet out.

If we have more black men in prison than are in our colleges and universities, then it's time to take the bullet out. If we have almost 2 million people going to the emergency room for treatable illnesses like asthma that costs us half a billion dollars; it's time to take the bullet out. If one out of every nine kids doesn't have health insurance; it's time to take the bullet out. If we keep sending our kids to dilapidated school buildings, if we keep fighting this war in Iraq, a war that never should have been authorized and waged, a war that's costing us $275 million dollars a day and the sacrifice of so many innocent lives -- if we have all these challenges and nothing's changing, then every mayor in America needs to come together -- form our own surgery teams -- and take the bullets out.

Let's start with education.

We know what works. We know that if we put a dollar into early childhood education that we get seven dollars back in reduced drop out rates, reduced delinquency, reduced prison rates, more young people can go to college and get good jobs.

We know they work. An important study about an old program called Abecedarian, in which children from low-income families, almost all of them black, received full-time educational child care from infancy through age 5, said kids were three times more likely to go to college. They were half as likely to become a teen parent and smoke marijuana. In another study about another effective program at the Perry Preschool, which served low-income black children in Michigan, kids needed special education less often, and they were three times as likely to own their own home and half as likely to go on welfare. That early childhood program even helped the next generation.

So we know what it takes to improve our schools. We know that if children are learning in dilapidated buildings with teachers that are underpaid and textbooks that are 20 years old, they will not learn.

To change this, we need to fundamentally reform No Child Left Behind. The slogan is right, but how the law has been implemented is wrong. The slogan is good, but how they left the money behind is wrong. Let's get serious.

Let's finally make a quality education accessible to every American child so that every student can graduate from high school ready for college and work in a knowledge-based economy.

To begin the great transformation in our schools, we need to invest in the most important part of a child's education: the man or woman standing at the head of the classroom. As President, I will recruit hundreds of thousands of new teachers and principals. For what it costs us to fund the Iraq war for 30 days, we can recruit a new army of teachers and principals.

As President, I will recruit a new generation of science and technology leaders to teach our children the skills they will need to be competitive. We need to expand summer learning opportunities for our children emphasizing math and science. And students, who live in poverty, suffer from a learning disability or who don't speak English at home, should get the extra help they need and their schools need the resources to help their students reach their full potential.

I want to support teachers at all stages of their careers by increasing salaries across the board, improving incentives to get the best teachers to work in our rural areas and our most challenging cities, providing more resources so that teachers have more security and control over their classrooms, and by providing more opportunities for professional development.

There are models of excellence in many communities that show when you put a great teacher in a classroom, students can learn. There's Murphy High School in Mobile Alabama and Rufus King in Milwaukee Wisconsin. There's no shortage of great ideas; we just need to scale them up. We need to get past the old style of politics that only talks about education and start actually educating our kids for the 21st century.

And while we're at it, let's do something for the young people ready for college. Here at Southern University in Baton Rouge, I'm sure that this won't come as a surprise when I say that college tuition rates are rising almost 10 percent a year. Those increases have priced out more than 200,000 students in 2004. And for what it costs to fund the Iraq War for three weeks, we could provide each student with four years at a public college or university.

We all know how important education is. It's a passport to a better life. But millions of children are not given an equal chance to realize their own potential. And for too long, our kids -- not "those kids," but our kids -- have been asked to settle for mediocrity simply because of their zip code, the color of their skin, and how much their parents earn.

This is wrong. We must change. We must take this bullet out if America is to remain the leading force for good and creativity and innovation in this world.

But we can't stop at education if we want stronger communities. We need to provide economic opportunity in every corner of our country if we want to take the bullet out.

We know what it takes to develop our communities economically. Right now, the Iraq War is set to cost us $2 trillion dollars -- that's more than enough to lay broadband lines from " Columbia South Carolina to Portland Oregon." What good is the Information Super Highway when too many towns and cities are still riding around in dial-up. We must connect the disconnected so economic opportunity is there for everyone -- not just everyone who can afford it. It might not stop certain jobs from being outsourced to India, but this national effort would create jobs over 60,000 jobs a year over the next two decades and improve our country's competitiveness.

We know that we have to invest in transitional jobs too. When there are people who are homeless, veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder from this war in Iraq, and thousands of children aging out of foster care, we can't expect them to have all the skills they need for work. They may need help with basic skills -- how to show up to work on time, wear the right clothes, and act appropriately in an office. We have to help them get there.

That's why I have called for $50 million to begin innovative new job training and workforce development programs. This plan will also provide mentoring opportunities and let case workers help men and women make difficult transitions. It will coordinate with local employers, community colleges, and community organizations so that job training programs are actually connected to good paying jobs with the opportunity for career growth. This would help lift more people out of poverty and into the middle class.

There are models all across this country for how for how we can rebuild our cities and communities. There's a new idea coming for the Gulf Coast and the New Orleans area. Congressman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, Emanuel Cleaver, the former mayor of Kansas City and head of the National Conference of Black Mayors, and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus will soon introduce legislation that creates a Gulf Coast recovery and empowerment initiative. It will employ people who fled the region to rebuild the region: the houses, the businesses, roads and bridges. It will give people an incentive to move back home and put them back to work. That's the kind of leadership we need to take the bullet out.

If we want to create more jobs in our communities, let's stop sending $800 million a day to some of the most hostile nations on the planet and end our dependence on foreign oil. We don't have an energy policy right now. That's why we're funding both sides of the war on terror, melting the polar ice caps, and letting the old style of politics make sure that Detroit doesn't produce more fuel efficient cars. And if we don't do something soon, more Katrina's are going to happen and we know which communities will bear the brunt of those storms.

When it comes to global climate change and developing the fuels for the 21st century, America must lead. I want our farmers to grow the renewable fuels and produce biofuels. I want us to lead the way on low carbon fuels. I want our young people to imagine and build the next great inventions. If we finally have a president who deals with this challenge, we could not only make our country safer, we could save the planet and create jobs throughout all our communities. We must meet this challenge. We must take the bullet out that's stopped our progress for all these years and bring more economic opportunities to every community. We can do this.

But while we're at it, what good is an education and a job, if there are only million dollar mansions and quarter million dollar condos and you can't afford a place to live? When our children are being priced out of the neighborhoods and towns they grew up in and when families cannot find safe places to live near their job, that's a bullet that's got to come out too.

We have to invest in housing again. In too many communities low-income families are priced out of the housing market. In fact, there is not a single metropolitan area in the country where a family earning minimum wage can afford decent housing.

We need to create an Affordable Housing Trust Fund that would create as much as 112,000 new affordable units in mixed income neighborhoods. We need to fully fund the Community Development Block Grant initiative. As a former community organizer on the south side of Chicago, I know how critical those grants are and we have to do more to strengthen the partnership between the federal and local governments when it relates to housing programs like Section 202 for all those seniors who lost their apartments when the hurricane hit. We can do this.

We must also do more to protect homeowners in this country. A recent report found that the housing market experienced its worst sales-month in 18 years and foreclosures are up 47% compared to last year. Right now, too many people are caught in a nightmare caused by mortgage fraud and predatory lending.

That is why my "Stop Fraud" proposals require mortgage professionals to report suspected fraudulent activity and support state and local law enforcement in their efforts to fight fraud. It addresses abuses in the subprime loan market where 2 million homeowners may be at risk of foreclosure. And it provides $25 million for housing counseling to tenants, homeowners, and other consumers so they get the advice and guidance they need before buying a house and support if they get in to trouble down the road.

Even if we succeed in making housing and homeownership affordable for all, if we don't help strengthen the families that live inside those homes, then those bullets will make the American house crumble from the inside out. We have to do more to help families balance work and take care of one another. Let's help 17 million children by extending the child tax credit to low-income workers. Let's stop spending $275 million a day in Iraq and pass some tax cuts that people actually need.

If we want stronger families in America, then we have to confront the tough issues. When too many fathers think that responsibility ends at conception -- when they have not yet realized that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one, we know that our families are in crisis. That's a self-inflicted wound we all have to help heal.

Now there are ways that the government can help. That's why I introduced the Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families Act. It provides fathers with innovative job training services and increases access to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). It calls for an increase in child support enforcement by almost $5 billion over 10 years, resulting in nearly $20 billion in collection. That money will go directly to children and their mothers. But let's be honest, government alone can't solve the breakdown of our families. This is something we have to look to ourselves so that fathers become parents too.

We know what the challenges are in small towns and big cities across this country. We know what those bullets are. We've talked about them for years. What's stopped us from meeting these challenges and taking these bullets out is not the absence of sound policies and sensible plans. What's stopped us is the failure of leadership and absence of urgency and a belief that if we ignore our problems like discrimination and poverty that they will someone how go away.

For the last six years we've been told that our mounting debts don't matter, we've been told that the anxiety Americans feel about rising health care costs and stagnant wages are an illusion, we've been told that climate change is a hoax, and that tough talk and an ill-conceived war can replace diplomacy, and strategy, and foresight. And when all else fails, when Katrina happens, or the death toll in Iraq mounts, we've been told that our crises are somebody else's fault. We're distracted from our real failures, and told to blame the other party, or gay people, or immigrants.

That kind of politics has to stop. That kind of quackery has to stop. We don't need anymore faith healers and snake oil salesmen. We need some doctors to take the bullets out.

Before we can start that work, we need to end this war in Iraq, which has cost our country and our people so much. I opposed it from the very start, back in 2002 when it wasn't popular to be against this war. I opposed it because I believed strongly that it could lead to the disaster we find ourselves in today, with our brave young service men and women mired in the middle of a civil war.

This war never should have been authorized by Congress and it never should have been waged. And it's time, once and for all, to bring our troops home. It's time to recognize that American soldiers can't solve Iraq's political differences or ethnic rivalries.

That's why I introduced a plan in January that would have begun withdrawing our combat forces on May 1st-five days ago-and would have brought them home by March 31st, while forcing the Iraqi government to meet its obligations.

And this is basically the plan the President vetoed this week, defying not just a majority of Congress but the will of the American people. But rest assured, his veto was not the last word. If the President continues to stubbornly ignore the realities of Iraq, we intend to force our colleagues in the Senate and House to take vote after vote until we overcome his veto or he finally understands that we have to change course.

We need 16 Republican votes in the Senate to override a veto. There's a Republican right here in Louisiana who needs to vote to end the war. Tomorrow I'll be in Iowa and there's a senator there whose vote we need. I need the mayors and the students here to call their senators and congressman too. This is the only chance we have to truly end the war. It's not symbolic; this is real. Sixteen votes and we can turn the page on this war. Sixteen votes and we can start bringing our men and women home.

Let me just close by saying this. We can only meet these challenges together. We can only take these bullets out together. We can only strengthen our cities and towns and in turn transform our nation, together.

We know how the doctors do it. We watch some of these TV shows like ER and Gray's Anatomy. The doctors are in the operating room. One's got the scalpel, but others are watching the monitors and administering the IV. The nurses are on the job. The orderlies are on the job. There was a team that got the bullet out of that baby girl 15 years ago. She's got a scar on her arm, always will, but she survived.

America is going to survive. We won't forget where we came from. We won't forget what happened 19 months ago, 15 years ago, 200 years ago. We're going to pull out bullet after bullet. We're going to stitch up arm after arm. We're going to wear those scars for justice. We're going to usher in a new America the way that newborn child was ushered in.

We're never going to forget there is always hope -- there is always light in the midst of desperate days -- that a baby can be born even with a bullet in her arm. And we can come together as one people and transform this nation.

Barack Obama, Remarks to the National Conference of Black Mayors in Baton Rouge, Louisiana Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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