For Obama, 50 years after historic march, economic equality the path to racial justice


President Obama speaks in White House briefing room on July 19. Obama said black Americans feel pain after the Trayvon Martin verdict because of a "history that doesn't go away." (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

President Obama has only occasionally used his bully pulpit to confront racial inequality in America, even if race inherently has been a backdrop of his tenure as the first black president.

He has, however, made fighting economic inequality a central goal of his presidency, delivering forceful speeches and advocating policies aimed at shrinking the income gap and increasing social mobility.

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.

Obama has often talked about race in response to events, though he occasionally has prompted the discussion, such as at his recent commencement address at historically black Morehouse College. His advisers say that it is more important to look at the policies he has embraced than the number of speeches he has given, from the renewal of tax credits that help the poor to the expansion of Pell Grants and proposals to target the most needy communities for aid.

But critics in the black community have argued that Obama has been excessively cautious and failed to be forceful in pursuing policies that would lift the economic fortunes of African Americans and other racial minorities.

“The president has not been robust enough,” said Peniel E. Joseph, a black-studies scholar at Tufts University. “Just because he’s black and he is in his own way limited about what he can say about race doesn’t mean the entire black community should have to suffer because of that.”

Many civil rights leaders say, however, that the president has been right to carefully calibrate his public statements.

“Those critics of Obama who want him to lead the movement are not studying history,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist. He said Obama, like Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson did in the 1960s, must lend support to a movement run at the grass roots. “If this becomes an Obama-led movement, we’d be caught in bickering and the whole obstruction and gridlock in Washington.”

Still, Sharpton said, Obama is acutely aware of the impact of his policies on African Americans: “When he meets with constituent groups, someone will say they want him to do more for the black agenda. And he’ll say, ‘Look at the Affordable Care Act, for example. It has a disproportionate impact on our community.’ ”

Twenty-one percent of blacks lack health insurance, compared with 13 percent of whites, according to the Kaiser Health Foundation.

Since he was a young community organizer in Chicago, Obama has wrestled with the extent to which racial inequality and economic inequality help explain why an outsize number of African Americans have struggled.

As Obama recounts in his book “Dreams From My Father,” his pastor, a leader in the black community, argued that “it’s not about income.” But Obama was seeing the early impact of globalization and technological advancement on Chicago’s South Side, where steel mills that had once offered a path to middle-class life for many African Americans stood shuttered, and he wondered if “class divisions” mattered more than was recognized.

“This is something he’s been thinking about for a long time,” said Thomas Sugrue, a University of Pennsylvania historian who has written a book about Obama and race. Sugrue noted that as time passed, Obama became more confident in the need for “interracial coalitions” that would work to advance economic opportunity — job training or income support — in the name of broader equality.

As a presidential candidate in 2007, he told civil rights leaders gathered in Selma, Ala., that they formed the Moses generation that “pointed the way,” courageously fighting the most pernicious forms of racism. He said he was part of a new generation of black leaders whose charge was to shrink the economic gaps that persisted even after overt racism had faded as such a formidable force.

“What are we, the Joshua generation, doing to close those gaps?” he asked, saying that government must do more to fund early-childhood education, raise the minimum wage, retrain workers with new skills and make sure people have health insurance and retirement security.

This summer, Obama is still promoting those policies, not under the framework of what black leaders must do for black Americans but what the nation’s leaders must do for all Americans.

“He doesn’t shy from the acknowledgment that there are serious problems of economic inequality that impact the African American community, but he links those problems to broader challenges facing Americans,” said Joshua DuBois, formerly Obama’s head of faith-based and neighborhood partnerships.

After his speech on economic inequality in Galesburg last month, Obama told the New York Times that “when you think about the coalition that brought about civil rights, it wasn’t just folks who believed in racial equality; it was people who believed in working folks having a fair shot.”

While Obama discusses his efforts to help Americans navigate the forces driving economic inequality in broad terms, the implications are greatest for African Americans, according to William Julius Wilson, a Harvard University professor whose writings on race and class have influenced Obama since the 1980s.

“If you don’t have skills or a decent education in this global economy, your chances for mobility are limited,” he said. “The problem is especially acute for low-skilled black males, and many turn to crime and end up in prison, which further marginalizes them and decreases their employment opportunities.”

“It would be great,” Wilson said, “if the president raised such issues when he comments on the March on Washington, because I strongly believe he is fully aware of them.”

Zachary A. Goldfarb is a staff writer covering the White House, focusing on President Obama’s economic, financial and fiscal policy.
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