President Barack Obama delivered the keynote at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual Phoenix Awards dinner Sunday. His speech touched on a number of issues domestic and international. the president touted his administration’s impact in repairing the economy, providing access to affordable healthcare and he created a standing ovation in the packed convention hall when he honored Attorney General Eric Holder, who recently announced his resignation from the Justice Department.
“Tonight, I want to begin by paying special tribute to a man with whom all of you have worked closely with; someone who served his country for nearly 40 years as a prosecutor, as a judge, and as Attorney General of the United States: Mr. Eric Holder,” Obama said. “Throughout his long career in public service, Eric has built a powerful legacy of making sure that equal justice under the law actually means something; that it applies to everybody — regardless of race, or gender, or religion, or color, creed, disability, sexual orientation. He has been a great friend of mine. He has been a faithful servant of the American people. We will miss him badly.”
The audience, comprised mostly of black dignitaries, jumped to its feet in recognition of Holder, who was in attendance. The moment highlighted, not just the president’s affection for Holder but that of the black community. The ovation his name inspired was prolonged and, perhaps, the highest point of the speech.
For the rest of his address, the President Obama repeated a central theme that the work of his administration, the Congressional Black Caucus and the black community at large is still undone. He honed in on issues of access to healthcare, affordable higher education, universal pre-k and immigration reform. And, with the parents of Mike Brown in the audience, Obama drove home a message that the work of racial justice is still undone.
“Too many young men of color feel targeted by law enforcement, guilty of walking while black, or driving while black, judged by stereotypes that fuel fear and resentment and hopelessness,” he said. “We know that, statistically, in everything from enforcing drug policy to applying the death penalty to pulling people over, there are significant racial disparities.” He continued, “And under the leadership of Attorney General Eric Holder, the Justice Department has launched a national effort to do just that. He’s also been working to make the criminal justice system smarter and more effective by addressing unfair sentencing disparities, changing department policies on charging mandatory minimums, promoting stronger reentry programs for those who have paid their debt to society.”
The president closed on a hopeful note that was reminiscent of the language he used around his 2008 presidential campaign. He warned the audience against cynicism.
“Cynicism does not fix anything,” he said. “Cynicism is very popular in America sometimes. It’s propagated in the media. But cynicism didn’t put anybody on the moon. Cynicism didn’t pass the Voting Rights Act. Hope is what packed buses full of freedom riders. Hope is what led thousands of black folks and white folks to march from Selma to Montgomery. Hope is what got John Lewis off his back after being beaten within an inch of his life, and chose to keep on going. Cynicism is a choice, but hope is a better choice.”