When Martin Luther King Jr. declared his “dream” of a postracial United States, even he could hardly have imagined that a black president would preside over the 50th anniversary of that speech. Such was the plight of African-Americans in 1963. Yet in some ways, blacks are actually worse off. Barack Obama and his successors still have much work to do.
Since 1963, state-sanctioned segregation has been eradicated. Blatant racism is no longer tolerated. Southern whites no longer go routinely unpunished for crimes against blacks. And as former president Bill Clinton told thousands gathered this week before the Lincoln Memorial, the site of Dr. King’s momentous speech, “We no longer face beatings, lynching and shootings for our political beliefs.”
But the long tail of slavery continues to hold the country back. The disconnect between white and black America, as shown after the recent acquittal of a black teenager’s killer in Florida, still stands in the way of mutual understanding and reconciliation. Discrimination continues to thwart blacks in the job market. The criminal justice system is rife with racial bias. And though the country has a black president, it does not have a single elected black senator and has only one black governor out of 50.
Fifty years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedoms, the gap between blacks and whites has grown in many ways. In 1960, black men were five times more likely than white men to be incarcerated; today, they are six times more likely to be in prison. Blacks are still three times more likely than whites to live in poverty. The unemployment rate is still twice as high among blacks as among whites. And the income gap between whites and blacks has actually widened.
Though a black middle class has emerged in recent decades, owing partly to good public-sector jobs in teaching, local government and the postal service, it has borne the brunt of recent budget cuts. When the housing bubble burst, blacks lost their homes in far greater proportions than whites. As a result, the median wealth of black families plummeted by 53 per cent between 2005 and 2009, compared with 16 per cent for whites, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center study. The median wealth of white families ballooned to 20 times that of blacks, compared with seven times in 1995.
“What does it profit a man, Mr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal?” Mr. Obama said on Wednesday. When it comes to ensuring economic opportunity for blacks, he noted, “the goals of 50 years ago have fallen most short.”
Mr. Obama himself remains a hero among African-Americans, who twice voted for him almost unanimously. In 2012, voter turnout among blacks surpassed white turnout for the first time, testifying to the heightened sense of political effectiveness African-Americans have felt in the Obama era.
Black leaders had hoped he would pick up the mantle of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and return civil-rights activism to pride of place in the Oval Office. But his reluctance to make black-specific causes the hallmark of his presidency has been a source of friction.
In 2010, Mr. Obama addressed the “grumbling” among black leaders by saying: “I can’t pass laws that say I’m just helping black folks. What I can do is make sure that I am passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need. That in turn is going to help lift up the African-American community.”
Mr. Obama has been true to his words. His efforts to provide health insurance to millions of uninsured Americans and to improve college accessibility, along with his proposals to raise the federal minimum wage and invest in preschool programs, will benefit all Americans. But African-Americans will benefit most. The health-care law, which will subsidize private insurance for low-income earners and enable states to expand Medicaid programs for their poorest citizens, in particular, will give millions of non-elderly blacks access to the preventive and continuing health care they now lack.
Until now, Mr. Obama has been right to avoid being seen as too vocal a champion of black Americans, even if he has somewhat of a historical responsibility to address their legitimate grievances. Any hint of favouritism toward blacks earns him vicious drubbings on Fox News and among conservative opinion-makers. For a leader who instinctively seeks to build bridges, it has been a tough slog.
Well into his second term, Mr. Obama appears to be adopting a more aggressive approach to halting discrimination against blacks. His administration has launched a challenge against Texas voting laws in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling striking down a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. (The law had required states with a history of voting-related racial discrimination to obtain federal “preclearance” before changing their voting laws.) And the Justice Department is accelerating its bid to reform mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, building on a 2010 change that equalized penalties for crack and powder cocaine offences.
When he has spoken out on race, Mr. Obama has always shown tough love toward African-Americans. In May, he delivered the commencement speech to the all-male graduating class at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, Dr. King’s alma mater and one of a handful of “historically black” U.S. colleges. “There are some things as black men that we can only do for ourselves,” he said. “As Morehouse men, you now hold something more powerful than the diploma you’re about to collect – and that’s the power of your example.”
Whether Mr. Obama could do more to make Dr. King’s dream a reality is debatable. But by the example he himself sets for all Americans – as a husband, father and president – he has already done a lot.
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