President Obama shows the progress we’ve made. His speech shows how terribly we’ve failed.

August 28, 2013

Want to see how much America has changed since Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington in 1963? Look at the skin color of the President of the United States who took the podium to mark the anniversary.


(Astrid Riecken / For The Washington Post)

Want to see how little America has changed? Listen to what he said.

The men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract ideal. They were there seeking jobs as well as justice. Not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity. For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can't afford the meal?

Here at Wonkblog we wanted to do two sets of posts to mark the anniversary. The first would show, in charts and graphs, how much has gotten better over the last 50 years. The second would show, in charts and graphs, how much hasn't. It proved depressingly easy to find the charts showing how little progress we've made and depressingly hard to find the charts showing how much.

The case for optimism can be found most clearly in political participation. African Americans have entirely closed the voting gap with whites. They've gone from five members of Congress in 1965 to 44 in 2013. Fifty years after African Americans couldn't use public bathrooms, a black man now lives in the White House. This is simply a cheering chart:

The economic data, however, tells an almost completely opposite story. Unemployment among African Americans was more than twice as high as it was among whites in 1965, and that remains true today. In fact, over the last 50 years, the average unemployment rate among blacks has been 11.6 percent -- worse than the national average at the deepest point of any recession. If the unemployment black America has lived with for 50 years afflicted white America for even a month, it would be a national emergency:

Predictably, the income gap hasn't closed and the wealth gap has actually widened. The poverty rate among African Americans fell by 20 points between 1965 and 2000, but it's risen by six points -- to 28 percent -- in the last decade. That is to say, more than one out of four African Americans is poor. The marriage gap has widened sharply, and today, more than half of all African American children live in a single-parent household.

These unhappy facts were threaded through Obama's speech. Economic justice, he said, is "where the goals of 50 years ago have fallen most short." But this section of the speech was careful to emphasize class over race. There are, after all, poor white Americans and rich African Americans:

We must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life. The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran. To win that battle, to answer that call -- this remains our great unfinished business.

The political case for colorblind policies is overwhelming. But the uncomfortable policy question is whether colorblind policy can really narrow these gaps. Equality of opportunity is a lovely idea. But economic advantage doesn't reset itself from one generation to the next. It accumulates. Interest compounds. Wealth builds. Educational dividends accrue. Skills pile up. Professional networks widen. The advantages of the fathers become the head starts of the sons.

This is the great lie of legal equality: The simple fact that the law is no longer explicitly racist does not mean every child is born with the same opportunities. A few decades in which racism is no longer etched directly into law isn't nearly enough to undo the cumulative effect of centuries of slavery and segregation. But it's proven long enough for people to fool themselves into believing otherwise.

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Brad Plumer · August 28, 2013