As president of the United States, Barack Obama is the highest-profile legacy of the civil-rights movement, and when he took the podium Wednesday afternoon, at a daylong commemoration of the March on Washington, he acknowledged as much. “Because they marched,” he said, punctuating a brief retelling of the civil-rights story, “the voting rights law was signed ... City councils changed, and state legislatures changed, and Congress changed, and, yes, eventually the White House changed.”
African-Americans, however, weren’t the only beneficiaries of the movement. The struggle for civil rights inspired other groups and causes. “Because they marched,” he continued, “America became more free and more fair, not just for African-Americans, but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans, for Catholics, Jews and Muslims, for gays, for Americans with disabilities.” The fight for black freedom, he stressed, was a fight to actualize the promise of the Declaration of Independence, of the Constitution—because of that, its legacy belongs to all of us.
Except that’s only somewhat true. What Obama didn’t say, but what the civil-rights movement recognized, is that the specific experience of African-Americans requires—and required—a specific response. It’s what motivated the Freedman’s Bureau of Reconstruction and Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for an inner-city “Marshall Plan” during the Second Reconstruction of the 1960s.
To his credit, the president voiced an echo of this, emphasizing the extent to which the fight for economic fairness was a key part of the 1963 march. “They were there seeking jobs as well as justice, not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity,” he said, and also noted the continued struggles of African-Americans. This can’t be said enough. In the years before his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr.—while speaking to a group of sanitation workers in Memphis—would call for a guaranteed minimum income, full employment, and a reinvestment of America’s resources away from war and conflict and toward national renewal.
“For over a decade,” said Obama, continuing with the theme, “working Americans of all races have seen their wages and incomes stagnate,” he said, underscoring the interracial reality of inequality. “And so as we mark this anniversary,” he continued, “we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago ... 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.” And to that end, he made calls for new efforts to restore some amount of fairness to our economy.
Which is the classic liberal formulation. If we focus on class barriers to success, we’ll achieve a measure of racial justice. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” and such. But it’s wrong.
Just look at the statistics. Yes, more black families than ever are in the middle class, but the wealth of the median African-American household is $28,500, compared with $265,000 for white families, an almost 10–1 difference. Yes, since the 1960s, when African-Americans were barred from most college campuses, the number of black college graduates has grown by a factor of 10. But African-Americans earn just 66 cents for every dollar earned by whites, an increase of only 11 cents since King announced his dream. Blacks have narrowed the racial gap in high school graduation rates (7 points in 2012 versus 24 points in 1963), life expectancy at birth (a 4-year gap versus a 7-year gap), and voter turnout, with African-Americans surpassing whites last year for the first time in history. But the national unemployment crisis is a black unemployment catastrophe and has been for five years. And the poverty rate among blacks is virtually unchanged from 30 years ago. In 1974 the poverty rate for African-Americans was 30.1 percent; in 2011 it was 27.6 percent.
None of this is an accident. If African-Americans face a massive wealth gap, it’s not because of bad behavior or a lack of personal responsibility, it’s because they were purposefully excluded from a massive federal effort to invest in ordinary people. Discrimination, endorsed by the Federal Housing Administration and sealed with terrible racial violence in cities like Chicago and Detroit, kept blacks out of suburbs, away from good homes and opportunity. Redlining, used liberally in cities like Philadelphia and Milwaukee, segregated blacks in ghettos and made loans or home improvement or a new business impossible to afford. With contract lending, the precursor to subprime mortgages, upwardly mobile African-Americans in cities across the country were offered a usurious path to homeownership, which was yanked away, usually along with their savings, if they missed a payment.
For 100 years after the War of the Rebellion, white Americans worked to build a country where, through law and custom, blacks were kept as an underclass, either excluded from the materials to make the American Dream or, for prosperous blacks in towns like Tulsa, Oklahoma, punished for succeeding. The United States was governed by a white-supremacist consensus during the most productive years of its history, and we’re living with the consequences.
Writ large, however, the American public has convinced itself that these ills are the result of some black cultural pathology, as if African-Americans will fix themselves when they put on some Dockers, crank up some REO Speedwagon, and stick to a diet of casseroles and cucumber sandwiches.
Even Obama dips into this pool, routinely calling on African-Americans to fix their “culture,” even as he acknowledges systemic constraints to racial equality. It’s how he can say this: “Let’s assume that we eliminated all discrimination magically, with a wand, and everybody had goodness in their heart ... You’d still have a situation in which there are a lot of folks who are poor and whose families have become dysfunctional because of a long legacy of poverty.” As well as this, from Wednesday’s speech: “If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us, claiming to push for change, lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots.”
No, Obama. Frustration with discrimination and brutality set off those riots, not some cultural problem. And both linger. It’s not hard to find evidence of continued housing and job discrimination, nor do we have to look long for examples of police brutality. In New York, stop-and-frisk has turned young black men into a presumed criminal class, on top of the trigger-happy cops who—nationwide—routinely send them to the grave.
None of that is to say the United States hasn’t made progress. By leaps and bounds, it has. And as Obama said, “To dismiss the magnitude of this progress ... dishonors the courage and sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years.”
But the economic legacy of white supremacy is still with us, and—outside of half measures and rhetoric—we’ve shown little appetite for dealing with it. Simply put, 350 years of bondage and oppression can’t be ameliorated with 50 years of citizenship rights, tepid liberal programs, and “colorblindness.” That includes the president, who works hard to avoid race and its role in shaping our problems.
Borrowing from King, Obama says that while “the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, it doesn’t bend on its own.” He’s right. And if there’s anything to learn from the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, it’s that to bend it toward genuine racial equality, and not the facsimile we live with, we interested Americans will have to count on ourselves.