President Obama Holds a Town Hall at Benedict College


(applause) The President:
Hello, South Carolina. (applause) It is good to
see everybody. (applause) It’s good to be back
in South Carolina. Take a seat. If you don’t have
a seat, I’m sorry. I want to say thank you
to Benedict College. (applause) I want to thank Tiana for
the great introduction. Give her a big
round of applause. (applause) We have all kinds of luminaries
and dignitaries and big shots here today, but I’m just going
to mention a couple of them. One of the finest gentlemen and
finest legislators we have in the country, your
congressman, Jim Clyburn. (applause) Your outstanding
mayor, Steve Benjamin. The president of this great
institution, Dr. David Swinton. It’s been a while since I’ve
been in South Carolina. In fact, it’s been too long. I’m not going to lie. You know I love you, and
I’ve been loving you; it’s just I had a lot of stuff
to do since I last saw you. But it was wonderful to be
backstage because I got a chance to see so many of the wonderful
people that I worked with back in 2008. If it was not for this great
state, the palmetto state, if it was not for all the people
who had, at a grass-roots level, gone door-to-door
and talked to folks, got everybody fired
up and ready to go, if it hadn’t been for all of
you, I might not be president. And I’m truly grateful for that. (applause) I’m truly
grateful for that. I hope that you don’t mind;
I also brought another good friend, the attorney general of
the United States, Eric Holder. (applause) We decided to take a Friday road
trip together because Eric has not only been a great friend,
but an extraordinary attorney general. As some of you may know, he
is going to go enjoy himself, and he’s going to retire
from public service, but I know he’s still going to
be doing great things around the country. I’m really going to miss him. Now, I am not here to
make a long speech. I’m here to make a short speech
because what I want to do is spend most of my
time interacting, having a conversation. I want to get questions; I
want to hear what you guys are thinking about. This is a good thing for me:
to get out of Washington and talk to normal folk. (laughter) I thought it was appropriate to
come here because tomorrow I’ll be visiting Selma, Alabama
for the 50th anniversary of the march across the
Edmund Pettus Bridge. One of the things I might talk
about — I’m still working on my speech, but it might come up —
is the meaning of Selma for your generation. Because Selma is not just
about commemorating the past; it’s about honoring the legends
who helped change this country through your actions
today in the here and now. Selma is now. Selma is about the courage
of ordinary people doing extraordinary things because
they believe they can change the country. They can shape our
nation’s destiny. Selma is about each of us asking
ourselves what we can do to make America better. And historically, it’s been
young people like you who help lead that march. You think about somebody
like John Lewis, who was one of the key leaders
and will be joining us tomorrow, he was 23 when he helped lead
that march that transformed the country. You think about the children’s
crusade in Birmingham, or the 12-year-old boy who was
elected head of the NAACP youth chapter, who grew up to be Jim
Clyburn, it was young people. It was young people who
stubbornly insisted on justice, stubbornly refused to
accept the world as it is, that transformed not
just the country, but transformed the world. You can see that spirit
reflected on the poster put out by the Student Non- violent
coordinating committee in the 1960s; they had a picture of
a young John Lewis kneeling in protest against an all-white
swimming pool, and it reads, “Come, let us build
a new world together.” Come let us build a new world together. That’s the story of America. That’s why immigrants came here:
the idea of building a new world together. Not just settling on what is,
but imagining what might be, insisting we live up
to our highest ideals, our deepest values. That’s why I wanted to come here
to Columbia and here to Benedict College because we all
know we still have work to do. We’ve got to ensure not just
the absence of formal legal impression, but the essence of a
dynamic opportunity: good jobs that pay good wages, a good
start for every child, healthcare for every family, a
higher education that prepares you for the world without
crippling you with debt, a fair and more just legal
and criminal justice system. (applause) Now, the good news is we’re in
much better shape now than we were six years ago. This morning, we learned our
economy created nearly 300, 000 jobs last month; the
unemployment rate went down. (applause) Unemployment rate ticked
down to 5.5 percent, which is the lowest it’s
been since spring of 2008. (applause) Our businesses have now
added more than 200,000 jobs a month for the past year. We have not seen a streak
like that in 37 years, since Jimmy Carter
was president. (applause) All told, over the
past five years, our businesses have created
nearly 12 million new jobs. And what’s more, the
unemployment rate for African-Americans is actually
falling faster than the overall unemployment rate, which makes
sense because it went up faster too during the recession,
but it’s still too high. The unemployment rate across
the country and here in South Carolina is still
higher than we want, which means we’ve
got more work to do. And we’ve got to make sure those
are good jobs that pay a living wage and have benefits with
them, so we can’t let up now. We’ve got to do everything we
can to keep this progress going. This community, I know, is doing
its part to prepare students for this new economy. Programs like Youth Build are
getting young people who may have gotten off track a chance
to earn a degree and give the skills they need
for the 21st century. City Year AmeriCorps
in the house — — I see their jackets. — they’re working with
the public schools in Columbia to increase graduate rates. The Benedict College community
is doing outstanding work beyond your walls. (applause) We put you on the
higher education community service
honor roll. You earned that honor. (applause) So, as long as I’m president,
we’re going to keep doing everything we can to make sure
young people like you can achieve your dreams. Now, we can’t do it for you;
you’ve got to do it yourselves, but we can give you
the tools you need. We can give you a little bit
of a helping hand and a sense of possibility
and direction. You’ve got to do the work, but
we can make it a little bit easier for you. That’s why one year ago, we
launched what we call My Brother’s Keeper. It’s an initiative that
challenges communities to bring together non-profits and
foundations and businesses and government, all focused on
creating more pathways for young people to succeed. This week, we put out a report
showing the progress that’s been made. That progress is thanks to the
nearly 200 local leaders who have accepted what we call
My Brother’s Keeper’s challenge, including Mayor Benjamin and the
mayors of Johnson and Holy Hill. They’re doing great
work, mentoring people, giving them a new
path for success. I’m hugely optimistic about the
progress we can make together this year and in the years
ahead because, ultimately, I’m optimistic about all of you. Young people in this
country make me optimistic, the future we can
build together, this new world that
we can build together. I’m proud of you. But we’ve got a lot
more work to do, starting right now because I’m
about to take your questions. Thank you very
much, everybody. (applause) Thank you. All right. Got to make
sure the mic works. So, here’s how this
is going to work. You raise your hand;
if I call on you, then wait for the mic so
everybody can hear your question. If you could stand up,
introduce yourself, try to keep your question
relatively short, I’ll try to keep my
answer relatively short. That way we can get more
questions and answers in. The only other rule is, we’re
going to go girl, boy, girl, boy, just to make it fair. So, it’s not always
just, you know, the boys thinking
they know everything. (laughter) So, who wants to start? She says it’s her birthday,
so we’ll call on her first. All right. Wait for the microphone. Go ahead and stand up. We’ve got to
be able to see you. Happy birthday. What’s your name? Female Speaker:
My name is (inaudible). I don’t have a question, I just
wanted you to talk to me. The President:
Okay, she doesn’t
have a question. Happy birthday. (laughter) All right, next time
you’ve got to have a question, but it is your birthday,
so we’re going to make an exception. Woman right there
in the back. We’re going to go — I know
I said boy, girl, boy, girl, but that didn’t count because
she didn’t ask a question. Right there, yes,
you had your hand up. Yes. Yes, you. Go ahead. Female Speaker:
Hello? The President:
Hello. Female Speaker:
I’m a native Chicagoan, and I welcome you. The President:
What are you doing out here? Female Speaker:
I love it. The President:
It’s warmer, isn’t it? Female Speaker:
I’m down here
to protect the environment. The President:
Okay. Female Speaker:
And I wanted to
thank you for vetoing the XL Keystone Pipeline. Thank you, thank
you, thank you. You are what we worked for;
you were what we hoped for. The President:
Well, I appreciate that. Do you have
a question for me? Female Speaker:
Yes. Do you think that will stop
the XL Keystone Pipeline? The President:
Well, for those of you who
haven’t been following this, the Keystone Pipeline is a
proposed pipeline that runs from Canada through the
United States down to the Gulf of Mexico. Its proponents argue that it
would be creating jobs in the United States, but the truth is,
it’s Canadian oil that’s then going to go to the world market. It will probably create about
a couple thousand construction jobs for a year or two, but only
create about 300 permanent jobs. The reason that a lot of
environmentalists are concerned about it is the way that you
get the oil out in Canada is an extraordinarily dirty way of
extracting oil, and obviously, there are always risks in piping
a lot of oil through Nebraska farmland and other
parts of the country. What we’ve done is I vetoed it
because the Congress was trying to short-circuit a traditional
process that we go through. I haven’t made a final
determination on it, but what I’ve said is that
we’re not going to authorize a pipeline that benefits largely
a foreign company if it can’t be shown that it is safe and if it
can’t be shown that, overall, it would not contribute
to climate change. Now, a lot of young people here,
you may not be worrying about climate change, although
it is very cold down here. You can’t attribute a couple of
days of cold weather or a couple days of hot weather to
the climate changing, but the pattern overall is that
the planet is getting warmer. That’s undeniable, and it’s
getting warmer at a faster rate than even the scientists expect. And you might think, well,
you know, getting warmer, that’s no big deal. Folks in South Carolina,
we’re used to dealing with hot weather;
we can manage. But understand that when you
start having overall global temperatures go up, even if it
means more snow in some places or more rain in some places,
it’s not going to be hotter every single place, but the
overall temperatures going up, that starts changing weather
patterns across the globe. It starts raising ocean levels. It starts creating more drought
and wildfires in some places. It means that there are entire
countries that may suddenly no longer be able to grow crops,
which means people grow hungry, which then creates conflict. It means diseases that used to
be just in tropical places start creeping up, and suddenly, we’ve
got a whole new set of, say, insect-borne diseases like
malaria that we thought we’d gotten rid of; now they’re
suddenly in places like the United States. We start running out of water. It puts stresses and strains
on our infrastructure. Hurricanes become more powerful
when the water is warmer, which means a lot of our
coastal cities and towns are put at risk. I say all that because it may
not be the thing that you are worried about right now. Right now, you’re worried about
getting a job or right now you’re worried about, you know,
is your girlfriend still mad at you, or right now, you know,
you’re thinking about just getting through
classes and exams. I understand that, but what
you have to appreciate, young people, is
this will affect you more than old people like me. I’ll be gone when the
worst of this hits. And the disruptions,
economic, social, security disruptions that it can
cause can make your life and the lives of your children
much harder and much worse. And if you don’t stop
it at a certain point, you can’t stop it at all,
and it could be catastrophic. I just want you to understand:
what I just described, it’s not science fiction;
it’s not speculation; this is what the
science tells us. So, we’ve got to worry about it,
which is part of the reason why we’ve invested in things
like green energy, trying to increase fuel
efficiency standards on cars, trying to make sure that we
use more solar and wind power, trying to find new energy
sources that burn clean instead of dirty. And everybody here needs to be
supportive and thinking about that because you’re the
ones who are going to have to live with it. And I’m very proud of the fact
that we’ve doubled the amount of clean energy produced
since I’ve been president. We’re increasing fuel
efficiency standards on cars, which will save you, by
the way, money at the pump. Don’t think that just because
gas prices are low right now — that’s nice; it puts more
money in your pocket, but that’s not going to last. So, don’t start
going out and say, “I’m going to buy a big
gas guzzler now, right?” Because the trajectory
of the future is that gas — oil is going to get
more expensive; it’s going to get harder to extract. We’re going to have to
transition, over time, to a new economy. And there’s huge opportunity. We can create a lot of jobs in
those areas if we are focused on it and planning for it. But thank you very
much for the question. (applause) All right. It’s a gentleman’s turn. We’ve got any
mics back here? All right. Just wanted
to make sure. Let’s see. This young man right
here in the red tie. Looking sharp. You always wear a tie or
you just wore it today? Brandon Pope:
I wear it often. The President:
Okay, good. I like that. Looking clean. Go ahead. Brandon Pope:
My name is Brandon Pope, graduating senior here at Benedict College, majoring in
Business management. The President:
Excellent. Brandon Pope:
My question is,
tuition is very high in the the United States. The President:
Can I make it lower? (laughter) Is that the question? Brandon Pope:
While in other countries,
it’s free. What are some of your plans to
assist those that are having trouble paying for school? The President:
Okay. (applause) Let me — first of all, let me
just say this is a cause near and dear to my heart
because Michelle and I, we weren’t born into
wealthy families. So, the only way we got our
education was because we got help: loans, grants,
work study programs. If we hadn’t had
that available to us, we could not have pursued the
education we did and couldn’t have achieved what we achieved. And even with all
the help we got, we had so much debt when we got
married that we had net negative liabilities; we just joined
together our net negative liabilities, and it took like
10 years to pay off our debt. The first 10 years
of our marriage, our loans were more
expensive than our mortgage. It was only about two years or
three years before I was elected U.S. senator that
I paid off my loans. Now, the truth is
that historically, the reason America succeeded so
well is we’ve always been ahead of the curve in
educating our population. We were the first
country to say, “Let’s have free
public high schools.” When folks who had fought
in World War II came back, gave them a G.I. Bill; middle
class helped to get built because people got new skills. Through much of the
60s and 70s and 80s, our public university system
was hugely important in giving people a pathway into
the middle class. Now, here’s what happened. Typically, state legislatures
started cutting support for state universities. Those state universities and
colleges then decided, “Well, we’re going to have to jack up
tuition to make up for the money we’ve lost because the state’s
not giving us as much.” And that’s how tuition
started to get higher and higher and higher. Now, what I’ve done
since I became president was a couple things. We significantly expanded the
Pell Grant program with the help of people like Jim Clyburn. (applause) It used to be that the student
loan program was run through the banks and the banks
would take a cut. They were making billions of
dollars on student loans. We said, “Why do we have
to go through the banks? Give it directly to the
students, save that money, and give it to more students,
and increase the size of the Pell Grant. We initiated a program that many
of you can still take advantage of, and that is we capped the
percentage of your income that you have to pay in repaying your
student loans so that if you decide to become a teacher or
you decide to become a social worker, you get a job just
starting off that’s not paying you a lot of money, but is
in the field that you want; you don’t have to say no
because you can’t afford it. It’s only going to be 10
percent of your income. So, it makes your debt
payments manageable. But what we still have to do is
to deal with the question you pointed out, which
is, how do we just keep tuition lower generally? Now, the big proposal that I’ve
put forward this year is let’s make community colleges
free for those who — (applause) Now, it would
be conditioned. You would have to
keep up a certain GPA. You’d have to put in some
sweat equity in the thing, but the point is, those
first two years were free. The advantage of that
is, first of all, a lot of young people start
at community colleges, and they may not want
a four-year degree, but they can get a two-year
degree that gives them the skills they need to get a
job and not have any debt. Even if you want to go
to a four-year college, for a lot of young people, it
may be an option to go to a community college for
the first two years, then transfer your credits, and
you’ve at least saved half of what you would otherwise
spend on your four-year degree. And with — we can do this just
by closing some loopholes in the tax system that gives companies
the ability to avoid paying the taxes that they owe. So far, at least, I haven’t
gotten the kind of support I’d like from some of
my republican friends and the Senate
and House of Representatives. But we’re going to keep on
working on it because it’s a smart idea. Look, I want — ultimately,
want at least the first two years of college to be just like
public high schools are now. And everybody — because it is
very hard nowadays to find a well-paying job without some
form of higher education. Without some form
of higher education, even if you end up working
in a factory these days, you go into a modern factory,
it’s all computerized, and you’ve got to know math,
and you’ve got to be able to function in a
high-tech environment. So, it’s a proposal
whose time has come. We may not be able to convince
republicans to get it done this year, but we’re going to
just keep on going at this. Ultimately, this is what is
going to keep America at the cutting edge, and
if we’re able to do that, then we’re going to be able to
save you a little bit of money, and you won’t have
the same kind of debt that I had to take up
when I got my degree. All right? Thank you
for the question. (applause) All right. It’s a young lady’s turn now. That young lady in the
orange right there. It’s hard to miss. Got the
yellow and the orange. Did you wear that just
so I’d call on you? Rene Jamison:
Thank you for being here,
President Obama. My name is Rene Jamison. I am a public
relations consultant and a community organizer. I am most proudly the parent
of two young, black males. Sit down for a moment because I
have an 18-year-older and, yes, I have recently
birthed a 1-year-older. My 18-year-old — The President:
It took you that
long to forget what it was like. (laughter) Rene Jamison:
I have a quick question for you. Primarily about
my 18-year-older. He is a scholarship
student athlete at South Carolina State University. I’m very proud of the
fact that he is there, but as I’m sure you are aware,
HBCU’s and, in particular, South Carolina State
University is facing a bit of an uphill battle
at this moment. I have a question for you
for students like him that are there, others across the world
that are facing situations that are insurmountable
and challenging. How do you stay motivated, and
what particular advice do you have for me to take back to
Lenar to tell him to stay encouraged, continue to keep the
hope alive, and do his best? Thank you. The President:
Well, you know, the main
thing you should tell him is listen to your mom. (laughter) I hope you recorded that. So — you did. Look, I’m trying to remember
what it was like being 18 and 19 and 20. It’s been a while. But the one thing that I always
say to young people coming up these days is you should
be wildly optimistic about your possibilities
and your future. So often when we watch the
nightly news or read the paper, all you’re hearing about
is bad stuff going on. It just seems like, man,
there’s war, strife, folks are arguing and
yelling, conflict. But the truth is, is
that today, right now, you are more likely to
be healthier, wealthier, less discriminated against,
have more opportunity, less likely to be caught up in
violence than probably any time in human history. The opportunities for you to
get information and to get an education and expose
yourself to the entire world because of
technology is unmatched. It’s never been
like this before. Your ability to start your own
business or carve your own path has never been greater. So, my first and general point
is do not get cynical about what’s possible. The second thing is you’ve
got to work very hard, and there’s no free lunch,
and you can’t make excuses. In particular, when I’m talking
to young African-American men sometimes, I think the sense is
cards are stacked against us; discrimination is
still out there, and so it’s easy sometimes just
to kind of pull back and say, “Well, you know,
it’s just too hard.” This is part of why it’s so
important for us to remember Selma tomorrow. It’s not as hard as
it was 50 years ago. It’s not as hard as it was when
Jim Clyburn was coming up, and he’s now one of the most
powerful men in the country, growing up right here
in South Carolina. So there are no excuses
not to put in the effort. There are no excuses
not to hit the books. If you want a good
education in this country, you can get a good education,
even if you are in a bad school. And I’ll be honest with you;
we’ve got to do some work to make schools more equal. Right here in South Carolina,
there’s still schools that were built back in the 1800s
that haven’t been repaired, don’t have decent restrooms. (applause) Don’t have the
proper books. So we’ve still got to fight to
make sure that every child, not just some, have
equal opportunity. That’s a worthy fight. But you can still learn
even in that school. Even in the most rundown
school, if you put in effort, you can get a good education. So, you can’t make excuses. Even as you advocate
for justice, you’ve got to make sure that
you’re also taking advantage of the opportunities that
you currently have. But that brings me to one last
piece of advice for young people and that is think about
more than just yourself. Think about how you can have
an impact beyond yourself. The people who I know who are
really happy and successful as they get older, it’s because
they have an impact on something other than just
their own situation. They’re not just thinking
about how do I get mine. They’re thinking about how does
everybody get their fair share. And when they do that, that
gives meaning to your life, that gives purpose to your life
that gives you influence and a sense of purpose. You’ve got to have
a sense of purpose beyond just the
almighty dollar. I mean, look, we live in
a free market society, and one of the things that sets
America apart is business and entrepreneurship and hustle. Some folks are out there just
— they’re trying to make a new product,
create a new service. The profit motive is
strong, and that’s good. That’s important. But if that’s all you’re
thinking about and you’re not thinking about how you can also
have an impact through your church or if you’re not thinking
about how you can treat your employees right when
you do get a business, if you’re not thinking
once you do make it, what am I giving back to make
sure that I’m giving a helping hand to the folks
coming up behind me, if you’re not thinking that way,
you’re not going to be able to get through the tough times. What gets you through the tough
times is that sense of purpose. That sense of purpose can’t
just be about yourself; it’s got to be about
something larger. All right. Oh, we’ve got a
young man right here. He’s standing tall
of — go ahead. Yes, sir. Trace Adams:
My name is Trace Adams. The President:
How old are you, man? Trace Adams:
Ten. The President:
So, you’re in fifth grade? Trace Adams:
I’m in fourth. The President:
Fourth grade? You’re a tall guy. Trace Adams:
Thank you. The President:
So, what’s going on, Trace? Trace Adams:
I was just
wondering — I’m 10. I was just wondering
when you were interested in being a president. The President:
It wasn’t when I was 10. Are you thinking about it? (laughter) Trace Adams:
A little bit. The President:
Okay. All right. (applause) Well, I mean, you’re
definitely ahead of me. Now, just remember, you’ve
got to wait until you’re 35. That’s in the Constitution. So, you’ve got at least
25 years to prepare. You know, I did not think
about — when I was 10, I wasn’t thinking
about being president. When I was 10, I was interested
in being an architect. I was interested in the idea
of like building buildings. And I thought that
was pretty cool. And then I went through a bunch
of stuff, and for a while, I thought I might be
a basketball player, and it turned out I was too
slow, and I couldn’t jump. So, I stopped thinking that. Then I became interested
in being a lawyer, and I did
become a lawyer. But what are you
interested in right now? What subjects are you
interested in in school? Trace Adams:
Social studies, actually. The President:
Social studies. So, you’re interested
in public policy. Are you starting to read
the newspapers and things? Is that
your dad behind you? Trace Adams:
Yes, sir. The President:
You discuss the issues with
your dad and stuff? Trace Adams:
Oh, yes, sir, definitely. The President:
Oh, yeah, I can
tell you do. Okay. Well, I think the most important
thing is to just make sure that you work
hard in school. I think it’s really good if
you get involved in like some service projects and help out
people in your community, whether it’s through the scouts
or your church or some other — or school, some other program,
so you get used to trying to help other people; make
sure you graduate from college, and then, who knows? You might end up being — I
might just be warming up the seat for you. And if you become president, I
want you to remind everybody how, when you talked to
President Obama, he said, “Go for it.” All right? Don’t forget me. All right. (applause) That’s Trace,
10 years old. And already thinking —
he’s already thinking about public policy. I just want to — I want all
the — I want all the folks in college to just notice, he’s
reading the papers and talking public policy, so if all you’re
doing is watching the ball game, don’t let 10-year-old
Trace embarrass you now. Okay. All right. It’s a young
lady’s turn. It’s not going to help you —
you’ve got like five people all helping you out. I’ll call on one of
the young ladies there. Who’s part of (inaudible)
— did you do songs? Is that what happened? (laughter) All right. Y’all do that
fast, too. It’s like you guys do
that for everything. Where are we
going for lunch? Female Speaker:
Good afternoon, Mr. President. I am also a native of Illinois,
so it’s good to see you here. I am also proud AmeriCorps
here in Columbia. The President:
So, there’s a Hyde Park here? Female Speaker:
Yes, sir. The President:
There’s one back in Chicago. Female Speaker:
Yes, there is one back in Chicago. My question for you — The President:
Hey — Female Speaker:
My question for you,
Mr. President, how can City Year and other
AmeriCorps programs support the goals of
My Brother’s Keeper? The President:
First of all,
City Year AmeriCorps, for those people thinking about
public service or want to serve before they go on into graduate
school or in some cases want to go before they go to college,
AmeriCorps programs are an outstanding way to
fund your college education. City Year is one of
the great AmeriCorps programs that we have. In addition to giving
these spiffy red jackets, they end up being placed in
communities all across the country working in schools,
working in communities in need, working on housing programs,
all kinds of different stuff, and we’re very proud of them. My Brother’s Keeper, the idea,
the genesis of this came after the Trayvon Martin verdict. Obviously, there was great
controversy about how the case was handled. And Eric Holder, by the way, has
done an outstanding job getting our Justice Department to stay
focused on the equal application of the law at local and state,
as well as federal levels. But what I realized is also part
of the goal of making sure that young African-American
men succeed, young Latino men succeed,
young white men who don’t have opportunities to succeed, is to
make sure that everybody’s got a path that leads in a
positive direction, and you can’t wait until
somebody is in trouble before you start intervening. You’ve got to start when they’re
younger because the statistics show that if a child, by the
time they’re in third grade, is reading at grade level,
they are far more likely to be able
to graduate and succeed. If a child doesn’t get suspended
or disciplined in school, they’re far less
likely to get involved in the criminal justice system. If they get through high school
without being involved in the criminal justice system, they
are far less likely to ever get involved in the
criminal justice system. So, these points where we know
that if you intervene in a timely way,
it will make a difference. So, what we’ve done is to
get pledges from foundations and philanthropies; we’ve
recruited businesses; we’ve gotten the NBA involved;
we’ve gotten every agency in our government involved,
and we’ve got cities, and your mayor is
participating in this, so Columbia is
participating in this, in coming up with local plans
for how are we going to give opportunities, pathways for
mentorship, apprenticeship, after-school
programs, job search, college prep — you name it, and
each community is coming up with its own programs and plans, and
then we are partnering with them and helping match them up with
folks in their area who are also interested in resourcing
these initiatives. And AmeriCorps, I think, is a
key part of this because where a city or a state or a local
community has a good plan, there is an opportunity for City
Year or any other AmeriCorps program
to be plugged in to that plan and become part of that plan. And my hope is that over the
next several years and beyond my presidency, because I’ll
stay involved in this, that in every city
around the country, we start providing the kinds of
help that is needed to make sure our young men are
on the right track. Now, I want to point
out, by the way, I’m not neglecting young women
because as you might expect, Michelle would not let me. So, she is — she’s initiated
programs for mentorships, and we’ve got an entire office
in the White House for women and girls that focused on some
of these same initiatives. But there is a particular
challenge that we face for African-American and Latino
men, young men of color, and we’ve got to be
honest about that. We’re losing a large
portion of our generation, big chunk of this generation
and the previous generation. I was talking to my —
we have something called the Council of Economic Advisors. Even though there’s
been good job growth, really strong job growth, and
unemployment has come down, we’ve gotten through
the recession, the labor participation rate,
the number of people who were actively seeking work, still is
low compared to what it was 10 years ago. And we’re asking ourselves why. Now, part of it is the
population is getting older, so more people are
retiring and not working. But that’s not the only reason. In the African-American
community, a big reason is that you’ve
got young people with criminal records who are finding
themselves unemployable. Now, that’s not just
bad for that individual; that’s bad for their children;
that’s bad for the community. So, this is part of the reason
why it’s so important for us to re-think how we approach
non-violent drug offenses, which is responsible for a lot
of the churn of young men of color going through the
criminal justice system. We’ve got to re-examine how
sentencing is working and make sure it’s done
equally, by the way, because we know statistically,
it’s been demonstrated that African-American men are more
likely to be arrested than their counterparts, more
likely to be searched, more likely to be prosecuted,
and more likely to get stiffer sentences despite the fact that
they are no more likely to use drugs or deal drugs than
the general population. And that’s a problem. (applause) So, we’re going to have
to look at reforms there, but for those who are
already in the pipeline, we’ve also got to think about,
how do we help them get the kind of help that they need? And this is going to be
something I’m devoting a lot of energy to because
this is not just a black or Hispanic problem. This is an American problem. If you’ve got a big chunk of
your workforce that is not working, and that’s the youngest
part of your workforce, and they’re never
contributing to the economy, and not paying taxes and not
supporting social security, then the whole
economy grows slower. Everybody’s worse off. So, this is not an issue
just for one group. This is an issue for
everybody, all right? (applause) All right. It’s a young
woman’s turn. Okay. It’s a young woman’s turn. I’ll be happy to
sign your book. You’ve been waving a lot, but
that’s not going to help. It’s a young woman’s turn. So, let’s see. This young lady way back
in the back, right there. Yeah. I’m going to make the mic
person get some exercise. Simone Martin:
Thank you, Mr. President. Good afternoon, and
welcome to South Carolina. My name is Simone Martin. I’m an attorney in this area
with the Rutherford law firm. In fact, my boss, Representative
and House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, is sitting
right over there, probably wondering why
I’m not at the office. But nevertheless — The President:
Are you advertising for him? Was this like a whole — Simone Martin:
No, I’m just
trying to keep my job. The President:
Are you going to give
like a number? Simone Martin:
No, I’m just
trying to keep my job. The President:
If you need representation, call Rutherford
and associates. All right. Go ahead. Simone Martin:
I have two questions for you. I hope that you’ll indulge
me by addressing both. They’re quick. Or the second
one is quick. The President:
Go ahead. Simone Martin:
The first one is,
what can criminal defense attorneys like myself and
Mr. Rutherford do to increase the number of federal
pardons that are granted? The second question is, to whom
do I need to speak to improve my chances of being selected
as a White House fellow? Can you help me out? The President:
Oh, okay. (applause) So let me address the
non-self-interested question first. (laughter) I just had a discussion about
the criminal justice system. One of the extraordinary powers
that a president has is the power to commute sentences or
pardon somebody who’s already been sentenced. And when I came into office
for the first couple years, I noticed that I wasn’t really
getting a lot of recommendations for pardons, at least as many
of them as I would expect. Many of them were
for older folks; a lot of them were people just
looking for a pardon so they could restore their gun rights. But sort of the more typical
cases that I would have expected weren’t coming up. So, I asked Inventory General
Holder to work with me to set up a new office, or at
least a new approach inside the Justice Department
because, historically, what happened is the president
would get a big stack of recommendations, and then
he could sign off on them. Obviously, I don’t have time
to go through each request. So, what we’ve done now is open
it up so that people are more aware of the process. And what you can do is contact
the Justice Department, but essentially we’re not
working with the NAACP; we’re working with, you know,
various public defenders’ offices and community
organizations just to make people aware that this is a
process that you can go through. Now, typically we have a pretty
strict set of criteria for whether we would even
consider you for a pardon or a commutation. Eric, I assume that that’s
available somewhere on the Justice Department website. Is that correct? Okay. So, my first suggestion
would be to go to the Justice Department website. If the person doesn’t qualify
because they may have served time, but there were problems
when they served time, or if it was a particularly
violent crime, or you know, they may just not
fit the criteria where we would consider it. A lot of what we’re focused on
is non-violent drug offenses where somebody might
have gotten 25 years, and she was the girlfriend of
somebody and somehow got caught up and since then has
led an exemplary life, but now really wants to be
able to start a new career or something like that;
that’s the kind of person typically that would
get through the process. Now, in terms of White
House fellows program, there’s a whole White
House fellows committee, and it’s complicated, and I
don’t have any pull on it. (laughter) I do not put my thumb on
the scale because if I did, I’d get into trouble because
then people would say, “Oh, he just put his
friends on there.” So, you’ve got to go
through the process, but you seem very well
qualified, so good luck. Simone Martin:
Thank you. The President:
You’re welcome. All right. (applause) How many more
questions have I got? I like to — it
looks like I’m okay. All right. You know what? I’m just going to call
on this gentleman. He’s been like waving, and I’ve
got to make sure he’s not waving because out of his periphery,
I just saw him the whole time. All right. Let’s make sure this
question — go ahead. Male Speaker:
First — I have
two questions. First — firstly,
will you sign my book? The President:
Yes, I will sign your book. Male Speaker:
I’m a student
currently studying at the University of
South Carolina. I see President Pastini is in
the house, so good to see you, Mr. President. The President:
Now, you’re sucking
up to the president. (laughter) Male Speaker:
My question, I guess it relates to the Michael Brown case. I’ve just recently seen a report
that suggested that there’s been grave injustices
going on in Ferguson. I’m trying to figure out why the
Attorney General, Eric Holder, refused to press charges
against the police officer. Why didn’t he face
the federal charges? The President:
Well, I will answer
that question. Now that’s — that was
two questions right now. Male Speaker:
And I’m — The President:
No, that’s it. Hey, you don’t get
a third question. Sit down. I called on you. Come on. Sit down. This is how folks
will get you. My reporter friends here,
they’re famous for doing that. They’ll be like, “Mr. President,
I’ve got a four-part question.” So, you only get two. I will sign your book. With respect to Ferguson,
keep in mind that there are two separate
issues involved. The first is the specific case,
Officer Wilson and — they don’t retry the whole
thing all over again; they look to see whether
or not at the state level, due process and the
investigation was conducted. The standard for overturning
that or essentially coming in on top of the state’s
decision is very high. The finding that was made was
that it was not unreasonable to determine that there
was not sufficient evidence to charge Officer Wilson. That was an objective,
thorough, independent federal investigation. We may never know exactly what
happened, but Officer Wilson, like anybody else who
is charged with a crime, benefits from due process, and
a reasonable doubt standard, and if there is uncertainty
about what happens, then you can’t just charge him
anyway because what happened was tragic. That was the decision
that was made, and I have complete confidence
and stand fully behind the decision that was made by the
Justice Department on that issue. There is a second
aspect to this, which is how does the Ferguson
Police Department and the government of Ferguson,
the municipality, treat its African-American
citizens when it comes to law enforcement? And there, the finding
was very clear, and it’s available
for everybody to read. What we saw was that the
Ferguson Police Department, in conjunction with the
municipality, saw traffic stops, arrests, tickets, as
a revenue generator, as opposed to serving
the community. And that it systematically was
biased against African-Americans in that city who were stopped,
harassed, mistreated, abused, called names, fined, and then
it was structured so that they would get caught up in paying
more and more fines that they couldn’t afford to pay or were
made difficult for them to pay, which raised the amount of
additional money that they had to pay, and it was an oppressive
and abusive situation. And that is also the conclusion
that the Justice Department arrived at. The steps that now are to be
taken is that the Justice Department has presented
this evidence to the city of Ferguson, and the city of
Ferguson has a choice to make. They’re basically going
to have to decide, do they dispute the findings
of the Justice Department, and I shouldn’t comment
on that aspect of it, although I will say that what’s
striking about the report is a lot of this was just using
emails from the officials themselves. It wasn’t like folks
were just making it up. But the city of Ferguson will
now have to make a decision: are they going to enter in to
some sort of agreement with the Justice Department to fix what
is clearly a broken and racially biased system, or if they don’t,
then the Justice Department has the capacity to sue the city for
violations of the rights of the people of Ferguson. And you know, here’s the lesson
that I would draw from this. I don’t think that what happened
in Ferguson is typical. I think that the overwhelming
majority of law enforcement officers here in South
Carolina, any place else — young man, sit down. I’m in the middle
of talking. All right. Thank you. The overwhelming number of law
enforcement officers have a really hard, dangerous
job, and they do it well, and they do it fairly,
and they do it heroically. (applause) And I strongly
believe that. And the overwhelming majority of
the law — police departments across the country are
really thinking hard about, how do we make sure that we are
protecting and serving everybody equally? And we need to
honor those folks, and we need to respect them and
not just assume that they’ve got ill will,
or they’re doing a bad job. But as is true in any
part of our lives, as is true among politicians, as
is true among business leaders, as is true among anybody, there
are circumstances which folks don’t do a good job, or worse,
are doing things that are really unlawful or unjust or unfair. And what happened in Ferguson
is not a complete aberration. It’s not just a one-time thing. It’s something that happens. And one of the things that I
think frustrated the people of Ferguson, in addition to the
specific case of Michael Brown, was this sense of, you know,
what — we’ve been putting up with this for years, and now
when we start talking about it, everybody’s pretending like
it’s just our imaginations, like we’re just paranoid; we’re
just making this stuff up. And it turns out they
weren’t just making it up. This was happening. So, it’s important for all
of us then to figure out, how do we move
together to fix it? How do people of goodwill in law
enforcement, in the community, everybody, work to fix it and
find concrete solutions and to have accountability and
oversight and transparency as to how law enforcement works? One of the things we did out of
a tragic situation is we were able to form a task force
made up of law enforcement, police chiefs, and community
activists including two of the activists who got the Ferguson
marches and protests started, and they came up with a
consensus document that was presented to me last week that
was very specific in terms of how we can solve some
of these problems. How we can make sure the police
departments provide data about who they’re stopping in traffic,
and data about how many people are killed in confrontations
with the police, and how are those cases handled,
and how are we training our law enforcement to respect the
communities that they’re serving, and how do we make sure
we’ve got a diverse police force and how do we look at new
technologies like body cameras that may be helpful
in this process, and how do we make sure that
when something happens that may be an unjustified shoot, that
people have confidence that the prosecutors are independent,
and there’s a legitimacy to the process they can trust. That’s not just good
for the community; that’s also good for
the police department, so that they feel like they can
get out from under a cloud if, in fact, the officer
did the right thing. And if the officer
did the wrong thing, that department should want to
get rid of that officer because they’re going to undermine
trust for the good cops that are out there
doing a good job. So, the point is that now, our
task is to work together to solve the problem and not get
caught up in either the cynicism that says this is never going
to change because everybody’s racist — that’s
not a good solution; that’s not what the
folks in Selma did. They had confidence that they
could change things and change people’s
hearts and minds. So, you’ve got to have the
ability to assume the best in people, including law
enforcement, and work with them. The flip side is the larger
community has to be able to say, “You know what? When a community says
systematically that it’s having some problems with
its law enforcement, you’ve got to listen and
pay attention and engage constructively to build
trust and accountability so that it gets better.” So often, we get caught up in
this and it becomes as political football instead of us
trying to solve the problem. And our goal should be to stop
circumstances such as Ferguson or what happened in New
York from happening again. That should be our
number one goal. And it is achievable, but we’ve
got to be constructive in going forward. (applause) All right. I’ve got one
more question. Now, it’s a
woman’s turn. Men got to put
down the hands now. I’m looking around. Oh, come on, all right, we’ll
call on this young lady right here. Oh. I’m sorry. Go ahead. Female Speaker:
I am also a
native of Chicago. The President:
Oh, well, now I
did not mean to call on three Chicagoans. I guess this is where
everybody in Chicago moves to because it’s it’s
too cold in Chicago. Go ahead. Female Speaker:
I am a senior majoring in psychology. One of my questions
is, as you know, Chicago struggles with gun
violence, so my question is, what organizations and programs
are you guys designing to keep the youth off the streets
and into better — better conditions, and how
as a community can we help you guys execute those programs
and design in organizations? The President:
I already mentioned
My Brother’s Keeper, which is a major focus. Each community then is going
to have its own — this is an example of where you’ve got to
work with the police department effectively and build trust. What we know is things like
community policing really work. Where you’re partnering
with law enforcement, law enforcement gets to know
young people when they’re still in school, before
they’re in trouble. People have confidence that law
enforcement is there for them, not just in tamping down stuff,
but in lifting people up. My Brother’s Keeper and other
initiatives are going to make a big difference in giving
young people an opportunity. Now you mentioned
gun violence. That’s probably the hardest
issue to deal with. We have a long tradition of gun
rights and gun- ownership in this country. The second amendment has been
interpreted by the Supreme Court to say the people have
a right to bear arms. There are a lot of law-abiding,
responsible gun owners who use it for
protection or sport. They handle their
weapons properly; there are traditions of families
passing down from father to son or daughter, hunting,
and that’s important; that’s part of our culture;
that’s part of who we are. But what we also have to
recognize is that our homicide rates are so much higher than
other industrialized countries. I mean, by like a mile. And most of that is attributable
to the easy ready availability of firearms,
particularly handguns. (applause) Now the courts and
state legislatures, and I’m sure this is
true in South Carolina, have greatly restricted the
ability to put in place common sense — some common
sense gun safety laws like background checks. I personally believe that it is
not violating anybody’s rights that if you want
to purchase a gun, it should be at least your
responsibility to get a background check so that we
know you were not a violent felon or you
don’t currently have a restraining order on you because
you committed domestic abuse. Right now, we don’t
know a lot of that. It’s just not available. That doesn’t
make sense to me. And I’ll be honest with you; I
thought after what happened at Sandy Hook that that would
make us think about it. The hardest day
of my presidency, and I’ve had some hard days, but
nothing compares to being with the parents of 20 6-year-old
kids, beautiful little kids, and some heroic teachers and
administrators in that school, just two, three days after they
had been just gunned down in their own classroom. You would have
thought at that point, that’s got to be enough of a
motivator for us to want to do something about this. And we couldn’t
get it done. I mean, at least at the
congressional level. So what we’ve done is we
have tried as much as we can administratively to implement
background checks and to make sure that we’re working with
those states and cities and jurisdictions that are
interested and willing to partner with us to crack down
on the legal use of firearms, particularly handguns heroic —
and courageous stances from our legislators, both at the state
level and the federal level, it is hard to reduce the
easy availability of guns. And as long as you can go on to
some neighborhoods and it is easier for you to buy a firearm
than it is for you to buy a book — there are neighborhoods where
it’s easier to buy a handgun and clip than it is for
you to buy a fresh vegetable — as long as that’s the
case, we’re going to continue to see unnecessary violence. But I guess I’ll end by
saying this: despite those frustrations, despite the
failure of Congress to act, despite the failure of too
many state legislators to act, in fact, in some places, it
goes the opposite direction; people just say, well, we should
have firearms in kindergarten and we should, you know,
have machine guns in bars. You think I’m
exaggerating. You look at some of
these laws that come up. Despite those frustrations, I
would say it is still within our control to reduce the incidence
of handgun violence by making sure that our young people
understand that is not a sign of strength, that violence is
not the answer for whatever frustrations they may have
or conflicts they may have. And work diligently
with our young people and in our communities to try
to put them on a positive path. And the people who are going to
lead that process are the young people who are here today. (applause) You are going to have more
impact on the young people coming up behind you
than anybody else, and the kind of example you set
and the willingness of all of you to get involved
and engaged in a concrete way to re-make our world together,
that’s what’s going to determine the future of America. And looking out at all of you,
you’re what makes me optimistic. Thank you very much,
Benedict College. Appreciate you. (applause)

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