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Obama Holds Brief Q&A Before Thousands of Journalists of Color at UNITY Convention

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Senator Barack Obama addressed a crowd of thousands of journalists of color at the UNITY convention in Chicago Sunday. We play highlights of the Q&A session, including Obama responding to questions about affirmative action, African American reparations and whether, if elected, his administration would consider issuing an apology to Native Americans. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Senator Barack Obama addressed a crowd of thousands of journalists of color at the UNITY convention in Chicago on Sunday. It was his first public appearance in the country after returning from his whirlwind trip to the Middle East and Europe.

The presumptive Republican nominee for president, Senator John McCain, declined an invitation to speak at the convention. In 2004, both President Bush and Senator John Kerry addressed the convention and took questions from reporters.

I want to turn now to excerpts from the brief question-and-answer session with Senator Obama. The first question came from a member of the Native American Journalists Association.

    BRIAN BULL: Senator, I am Brian Bull from Wisconsin Public Radio and the Native American Journalists Association. Last February, the Australian prime minister apologized for the past treatment of its indigenous people. Last month, the Canadian prime minister also issued an apology for its treatment of its indigenous population. Would your administration issue an apology to Native Americans for the atrocities they’ve endured for the past 500 years?

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: You know, I personally would want to see our tragic history or the tragic elements of our history acknowledged. And I think that there’s no doubt that when it comes to our treatment of Native Americans, as well as other persons of color in this country, that we’ve got some very sad and difficult things to account for.

    What an official apology would look like, how it would be shaped, that’s something that I would want to consult with Native Americans tribes and councils to talk about. And as a nation, they have a host of other issues to talk about, and — because, obviously, as sovereign nations, they also have a whole host of other issues that they’re concerned about and that they’ve prioritized. One of the things that I said to tribal leaders is, I want to set up an annual meeting with them and make sure that a whole range of these issues are addressed.

    But I’ve consistently believed, when it comes — whether it’s Native American issues, whether it’s African American issues and reparations, that the most important thing for the US government to do is not just to offer words, but offer deeds. And when you look at the situation on tribal lands, the fact that by every socioeconomic indicator Native Americans are doing worse than any other population on health, on education, on substance abuse — their housing situations are deplorable, unemployment is skyrocketing — you know, I have to confess that I’m more concerned about delivering a better life and creating a better relationship with the Native American peoples than anything else. And that’s what I want to engage tribal leaders in making sure happens.

    SUZANNE MALVEAUX: When it comes to reparations, would you take it a step further, in terms of apologizing for slavery or offering reparations to various groups?

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: You know, I have said in the past, and I’ll repeat again, that the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed. And I think that strategies that invest in lifting people out of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, but that have brought applicability and allow us to build coalitions to actually get these things done, that, I think, is the best strategy.

    You know, the fact is, is that dealing with some of the legacy of discrimination is going to cost billions of dollars. And we’re not going to be able to have that kind of resource allocation, unless all Americans feel that they are invested in making this stuff happen. And so, you know, I’m much more interested in talking about how do we get every child to learn, how do we get every person healthcare, how do we make sure that everybody has a job, how do we make sure that every senior citizen can retire with dignity and respect. And if we have a program, for example, of universal healthcare, that will disproportionately affect people of color, because they’re disproportionately uninsured. If we’ve got an agenda that says every child in America should get — should be able to go to college, regardless of income, that will disproportionately affect people of color, because it’s oftentimes our children who can’t afford to go to college.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Senator Obama, responding to questions at the UNITY, Journalists of Color convention in Chicago Sunday. We want to turn to another question, this one about affirmative action from a member of the Asian American Journalists Association.

    JOHN YANG: I’m John Yang, NBC News White House correspondent and a member of the Asian American Journalists Association. I’d like to ask you about affirmative action. Just this morning, Senator McCain endorsed an Arizona ballot initiative that would end preferences based on race and gender in that state. The author of that initiative, Ward Connerly, says your very success undercuts the argument for affirmative action. If the United States were to have a president of color, would there still be a need for affirmative action?

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, look, I am a strong supporter of affirmative action, when properly structured, so that it is not just a quota, but it is acknowledging and taking into account some of the hardships and difficulties that communities of color may have experienced, continue to experience, and it also speaks to the value of diversity in all walks of American life. We are becoming a more diverse culture, and it’s something that has to be acknowledged.

    I’ve also said that affirmative action is not going to be the long-term solution to the problems of race in America, because, frankly, if you’ve got 50 percent of African American or Latino kids dropping out of high school, it doesn’t really matter what you do in terms of affirmative action, those kids are not getting into college. And, you know, there have been times where I think affirmative action has been viewed as a shortcut to solving some of these broader long-term structural problems.

    I also think that we have to think about affirmative action and craft it in such a way where some of our children who are advantaged aren’t getting more favorable treatment than a poor white kid who has struggled more. That has to be taken into account. So, I think that whether it’s in terms — particularly when it comes to college admissions, what I’m interested in is programs that take a wide range of issues into account, based — I think a university or a college should be able to take into account race, but they should also be able to take into account class and hardship and difficulty in making assessments about whether or not a young person is deserving of opportunity.

    I am disappointed, though, that John McCain flipped and changed his position. I think in the past he had been opposed to these kinds of Ward Connerly referenda or initiatives as divisive. And I think he’s right. You know, the truth of the matter is, these are not designed to solve a big problem, but they’re all too often designed to drive a wedge between people.

    And one thing that I’m absolutely convinced about, after having traveled all across the world over the last week, is that one of our greatest strengths is the fact that we come from so many different places, and yet we are all Americans. The Iraqis and the Afghans, when we talked — when they talked to me about our military, not only were they impressed with how effective our military was, but they were also impressed with the fact that we had people from all walks of life, who look different, all joining together as Americans. They were impressed with the fact that our main commanding officer now in Iraq is an African American. That, I think, is what makes America special. And we shouldn’t lose that. We shouldn’t use — either lose that or see that as a source of division. It should be a source of pride. And when properly structured, affirmative action, I think, can be a part of that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Senator Barack Obama, addressing thousands of journalists of color at UNITY convention in Chicago on Sunday. When we come back, we’ll take a look at how Chicago shaped Barack Obama. We’ll speak with Ryan Lizza, the political correspondent for The New Yorker magazine.

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