When he speaks later this month on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Obama will be at the confluence of efforts to reduce racial and economic divisions.
As the president addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, current and former advisers say, he will want to impress upon listeners how progress toward racial equality will require progress toward economic equality.
Obama, who keeps a framed program from the “March on Washington” in the Oval Office, has said he has often reminded people that the march was as much about what he called economic justice as a demonstration for civil rights.
“He wants to create opportunity and to make sure the level playing field is ready for everybody,” said Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s senior advisers and close friends. “If you look at poverty or unemployment, they disproportionately affect people of color. People who don’t have health insurance are disproportionately of color. There is inevitably an overlap in addressing racial equality at the same time you’re trying to create economic empowerment.”
Advisers say Obama sees his message as building on the themes of Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders a half-century ago. He is likely to discuss the progress that has been made since 1963, they say, as well as the barriers that remain.
Many of the most overt forms of racial discrimination and bias have faded, but yawning economic gaps have persisted since 1963, and there has been essentially no narrowing of the unemployment gap between blacks and whites. The financial crisis and recession scarred minorities more than any one else.
Fifty years ago, the unemployment rate was 5 percent for whites and 10.9 percent for blacks, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Today, it is 6.6 percent for whites and 12.6 percent for blacks. Over the past 30 years, the average white family has gone from having five times as much wealth as the average black family to 61
2 times, according to the Urban Institute.
“If you look at 50 years after the 1960s civil rights movement, the most stubborn and persistent challenge when it comes to the nation’s racial challenge remains in the areas of economics and wealth,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League.
On July 24, launching a series of speeches on expanding economic opportunity, Obama traveled to hard-hit Galesburg, Ill., where he had gone to discuss the same theme as a young senator in 2005. Five days earlier, he had given an emotional and extemporaneous speech on race in the White House briefing room following the verdict in the shooting of Trayvon Martin.