Roosevelt had just won reelection, and in this speech, he discussed the country’s current state of race relations and his plan for improving them. In 1905, many white Americans’ attitude of superiority to other races still lingered. Much bitterness still existed between North and South and, in addition, Roosevelt’s tenure in office had seen an influx of Asian immigrants in the West, which contributed to new racial tensions.
In his argument for racial equality, Roosevelt used the rising tide raises all ships metaphor, stating that if morality and thrift among the colored men can be raised then those same virtues among whites, already assumed to be more advanced, would rise to an even higher degree. At the same time, he warned that the debasement of the blacks will in the end carry with it [the] debasement of the whites.
Roosevelt’s solution to the race problem in 1905 was to proceed slowly toward social and economic equality. He cautioned against imposing radical changes in government policy and instead suggested a gradual adjustment in the attitudes of whites toward ethnic minorities. He referred to white Americans as the forward race, whose responsibility it was to raise the status of minorities through training the backward race[s] in industrial efficiency, political capacity and domestic morality. Thus, he claimed whites bore the burden of preserving the high civilization wrought out by its forefathers.
While Roosevelt firmly believed in the words of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, his administration took only a passive, long-term approach to improving civil rights. His successors in the 20th century would take the same route–it was not until Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 that government efforts to correct racial bias would be encoded into law.
READ MORE: 7 Little-Known Legacies of Teddy Roosevelt