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Opinion

Does President Obama fulfill MLK's dream? (+video)

For all the meaning that will be on display when President Obama commemorates a seminal moment in US history today, it will be a largely symbolic moment that does not bring the change that the March on Washington demanded. This may have to be enough.

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The result is that his election and policies have not significantly affected the conditions in black America as advocated for at the March in 1963. The full name of that political demonstration is instructive: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This assembly of Americans of all races, but primarily blacks, was an expression of solidarity for very specific requests of the federal government. The agenda consisted of petitions for fair employment practices, sufficient wages, access to suitable and integrated schools, and nondiscriminatory housing.

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Yet, even as the job market has recovered under Obama, black unemployment remains in a perpetual state of recession-level percentages, and consistently twice the national average. African-American wage disparity as compared to the national average remains an issue today just as it always has. An Economic Policy Institute report, “The Unfinished March,” shows that concentrated, impoverished housing and school segregation today remain very close to the levels they did in 1963. African-American imprisonment rates, particularly for young men, remain appalling.

The president has simply aligned his approach with the adage, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” In other words, by simply helping all Americans, the theory goes, it is inevitable that African-Americans will also benefit. But what the March on Washington, and many members of the black community, argued is that the primary issue was about disparities – that rising tides do not close those gaps. Thus, from a practical perspective, not much has changed about the African-American experience under a black president.

To be sure, there have been some steps the president has taken to specifically help African-Americans. His executive order awarding grants to historically black colleges and universities was a welcome development, though the recent change in some federal loan requirements means fewer students will be there to take advantage. Additionally, the announcement that the Department of Justice would undertake sentencing reform was welcome news to exasperated African-Americans – even if many would have preferred the Obama administration to have tackled the issue much earlier.

For all the meaning that will be on display when President Obama takes the stage to commemorate a seminal moment in American history, it will be a largely symbolic moment that does not bring about the change the March on Washington demanded. This may have to be enough. After all, his contribution as role model has forever changed the nation.

Though most African-Americans wanted him to be the embodiment of the speech and the march, it was probably too much, if not inappropriate, to expect him to be both. The work that remains is now the province of the newly inspired. And this, too, is exactly correct.

Theodore Roosevelt Johnson III is an active-duty Navy officer, writer, and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US government.

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