The president stressed personal responsibility in his speech at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's 100th anniversary convention, saying that black parents must tell their children that their disadvantages in an unequal society are not an excuse for personal failures.
"No one has written your destiny for you," he said. "Your destiny is in your hands – you cannot forget that. That's what we have to teach all of our children: no excuses. No excuses."
In his first speech directly addressing race since taking office, Mr. Obama said "there probably has never been less discrimination in American than there is today."
"But make no mistake: the pain of discrimination is still felt in America," he said, specifically citing discrimination against African-Americans as well as Latinos, Muslims and gays and lesbians.
The president lauded civil rights leaders W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others who "began the journey" that led to his appearance before the nation's oldest civil rights organization as president. Yet he said "too many barriers still remain" for African-Americans, who face higher unemployment and incarceration rates than "just about anyone else."
He added, however, that it is not discrimination but the "structural inequalities that our nation's legacy of discrimination has left behind" that are today's toughest barriers. The president said the government is working to address those inequalities by creating jobs, extending unemployment insurance, expanding tax credits and making housing more affordable.
He also stressed the importance of his health care, energy, and financial reform efforts and said that "a world-class education is a prerequisite for success."
"There's a reason the story of the civil rights movement was written in our schools," he said. "There's a reason Thurgood Marshall took up the cause of Linda Brown. There's a reason the Little Rock Nine defied a governor and a mob. It's because there is no stronger weapon against inequality and no better path to opportunity than an education that can unlock a child's God-given potential."
Today, he said, "the dream of a world-class education is still being deferred all across this country." He cited a growing achievement gap between African-American and white students and "overcrowded classrooms, crumbling schools, and corridors of shame in America filled with poor children – black, brown, and white alike."
Mr. Obama went on to laud his administration's efforts to strengthen community colleges and early learning programs and create "incentives for states to promote excellent teachers and replace bad ones."
But African-Americans cannot look to the government for all the answers, he said.
"We can't tell our kids to do well in school and fail to support them when they get home," the president said. "You can't just contract out parenting. For our kids to excel, we must accept our own responsibilities to help them learn. That means putting away the Xbox. Putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour. It means attending those parent-teacher conferences, and reading to our children, and helping them with their homework."
"I want them aspiring to be scientists and engineers, doctors and teachers, not just ballers and rappers," he said to cheers from the audience. "I want them aspiring to be a Supreme Court Justice. I want them aspiring to be President of the United States. I want their horizons to be limitless."
He said his life "could have easily taken a turn for the worse," but because of the good parenting of his mother, a white woman from Kansas, and the opportunities afforded him he "had the chance to make the most of life."
The president also talked about his visit to Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, where slaves were imprisoned before they were auctioned. He said the visit reminded him "of all the pain and all the hardships, all the injustices and all the indignities on the voyage from slavery to freedom."
"But I was reminded of something else," he said. "I was reminded that no matter how bitter the rod, how stony the road, we have always persevered. We have not faltered, nor have we grown weary."
"One hundred years from now, on the 200th anniversary of the NAACP, let it be said that this generation did its part," the president concluded, his voice rising. "That we too ran the race; that full of faith that our dark past has taught us, full of the hope that the present has brought us, we faced, in our lives and all across this nation, the rising sun of a new day begun."