In a speech seniors designed to commemorate the US Supreme Court decision that desegregated schools, First Lady Michelle Obama made a statement against racism to high school students that reminded critics of George Orwell's "1984."
Obama spoke to graduating high school students from five area high schools at the Topeka, Kan. Senior Recognition Day on May 16, the day before their graduation ceremony and on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation in public schools. The court case began in Topeka in 1951.
Obama spoke of the decision by Topeka parents to fight against the notion of "separate but equal" education for their children.
"Now, these were ordinary folks. Most of them were not civil rights activists, and some of them were probably nervous about speaking up, worried they might cause trouble for themselves and their families. And the truth is, while the black schools were far away, the facilities were pretty decent, and the teachers were excellent," she said. "But eventually, these parents went to court to desegregate their children's schools because, as one of the children later explained as an adult, she said, 'We were talking about the principle of the thing'."
But after touching on the historic ruling and the important anniversary, the president's wife quickly moved on to reports that segregation is back in the United States' public schools. "See, many districts in this country have actually pulled back on efforts to integrate their schools, and many communities have become less diverse as folks have moved from cities to suburbs," Obama admonished. "And even in schools that seem integrated according to the numbers, when you look a little closer, you see students from different backgrounds sitting at separate lunch tables, or tracked into different classes, or separated into different clubs or activities."
Obama drew parallels between the fight for integration that was supposed to have ended in 1954 and what students face today.
"So, graduates, the truth is that Brown vs. Board of Ed. isn't just about our history, it's about our future," she said. "Because while that case was handed down 60 years ago, Brown is still being decided every single day –- not just in our courts and schools, but in how we live our lives."
It was then that critics say the first lady veered off into "thoughtcrime," a term from Orwell's dystopian novel "1984," defined as "an instance of unorthodox or controversial thinking, considered as a criminal offense or as socially unacceptable," according to the Oxford Dictionaries.
"There's no court case against believing in stereotypes or thinking that certain kinds of hateful jokes or comments are funny. So the answers to many of our challenges today can't necessarily be found in our laws," Obama said. "As you go forth, when you encounter folks who still hold the old prejudices because they've only been around folks like themselves, when you meet folks who think they know all the answers because they've never heard any other viewpoints, it's up to you to help them see things differently."
"Maybe that starts simply in your own family, when grandpa tells that off-colored joke at Thanksgiving, or you've got an aunt talks about 'those people'. Well, you can politely inform them that they're talking about your friends," Obama continued. "Because this issue is so sensitive, is so complicated, so bound up with a painful history. And we need your generation to help us break through. We need all of you to ask the hard questions and have the honest conversations, because that is the only way we will heal the wounds of the past and move forward to a better future."