“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.”