First lady Michelle Obama is encouraging students to monitor their older relatives, friends and co-workers for any racially insensitive comments they might make, and to challenge those comments whenever they’re made.
The first lady spoke on Friday to graduating high school students in Topeka, Kansas, and in remarks released over the weekend, Obama said students need to police family and friends because federal laws can only go so far in stopping racism.
“[O]ur laws may no longer separate us based on our skin color, but nothing in the Constitution says we have to eat together in the lunchroom, or live together in the same neighborhoods,” she said. “There’s no court case against believing in stereotypes or thinking that certain kinds of hateful jokes or comments are funny.”
To address these limitations in the law, Obama asked students to take steps to “drag my generation and your grandparents’ generation along with you” in the fight against racism.
“Maybe that starts simply in your own family, when grandpa tells that off-colored joke at Thanksgiving, or you’ve got an aunt [that] talks about ‘those people,’” she said. “Well, you can politely inform them that they’re talking about your friends.
“Or maybe it’s when you go off to college and you decide to join a sorority or fraternity, and you ask the question, how can we get more diversity in our next pledge class?” she added. “Or maybe it’s years from now, when you’re on the job and you’re the one who asks, do we really have all the voices and viewpoints we need at this table?
“But no matter what you do, the point is to never be afraid to talk about these issues, particularly the issue of race,” she said.
Obama’s remarks focused on race because they were meant to highlight the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which said it was unconstitutional for states to establish separate public schools for black and white students.
While Obama praised the student body for being racially diverse, she said segregation is happening again in some parts of the country, as some people are moving away and leaving city schools. She said that is leading to segregation that is as bad as it was decades ago.
“So today, by some measures, our schools are as segregated as they were back when Dr. King gave his final speech,” she said.
Obama originally planned to speak to students on the graduation day, but in late April the White House agreed that she would speak at a “senior recognition day” after students protested her arrival. Many students argued that the first lady’s speech on graduation day would overshadow their graduation and make it harder for students to bring their own families to the ceremony.