Fifty years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, Americans will on Wednesday listen to their first black president put the civil rights era in perspective, while likely addressing a vexing contemporary question: What’s left to do in the epic struggle for racial equality in the United States?
The mere fact of a black president commemorating 50 years of civil rights progress is monumental in and of itself, and a poignant acknowledgement, to paraphrase the Rev. Mr. King, that the black man has come in out of "exile" in America.
Yet for many Americans watching the commemoration, the occasion is hardly a self-congratulatory postscript. Instead, the moment offers an anxious measure of a nation facing unease about race, personal liberty, and economic progress, all underscored by lingering concerns about whether America is ready to enter a post-civil rights era, or whether it must double back to address more deeply the historical legacies of slavery and Jim Crow that still chafe at a black underclass.
“Obama is carrying on his shoulders what really is a legendary marker in our history, the first African-American president in office at the time to give a speech related to MLK’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” says Donald Tibbs, a critical race theorist at Drexel University, in Philadelphia. “But the current reality also shows how hard it is to disconnect the history of what’s happened to where we are today.”
There is little doubt where President Obama stands on the issue of racial justice. A self-described progressive, he has in some ways formalized the civil rights movement in policy, demanding higher taxes on the rich as part of a government wealth transfer to poorer Americans through massive new programs such as Obamacare, all while bailing out urban governments and school districts, which employ huge numbers of African-Americans. He and other administration officials have criticized the rich, and implied both directly and indirectly that America’s original sin, racism, has yet to be truly reckoned.
The very existence of Mr. Obama's presidency appears to have prompted everything from overt disrespect – think back to the "You lie!" interruption of the president's 2009 State of the Union message from Rep. Joe Wilson (R) of South Carolina – to a movement of detractors who have managed to sustain "birther" theories and suspicions that Obama is a radical Muslim operative. Many analysts see in such trends a racially motivated thread of criticism.
“Where we are today [on racial progress] is very good, but one can’t ignore the way Obama has been treated as president – it isn’t racist in the way rhetoric was racist in the 1960s; no one is using the n-word – but it is racial,” says Mr. Tibbs.
While Obama has been circumspect about discussing race, he has addressed it head-on several times, most recently in July after the not-guilty verdict of George Zimmerman, the Florida neighborhood watch captain accused of murdering Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, in February 2012.
Suggesting that he, like Trayvon, could at one point have been a teenager who drew suspicion while simply walking home, Obama echoed one of King’s “Dream” exhortations when he urged Americans “to ask yourself your own questions about … Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?”
To be sure, Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, who oversees the Department of Justice, don’t have to look far to see a country still bearing the burden of slavery and Jim Crow, epitomized in particular by a large black underclass mired in poverty, despair, and lack of opportunity. Obama has singled out young black men, in particular, as needing extra consideration, caught as many of them are in what’s often called a “school-to-prison pipeline” that many consider statistically discriminatory.
By almost all societal indices – incarceration, poverty, out-of-wedlock births, unemployment, home ownership, median wealth – black Americans fare worse than whites. Many of the indices, moreover, have slipped during Obama’s five-year tenure in the White House.
Perhaps as a result, black support for Obama dropped from a high of 88 percent to 78 percent in July, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Obama lost the white vote in both 2008 and 2012, when his 90 percent support from black voters helped propel him to the White House.
With that as a backdrop, the civil rights strain runs deep in an administration that has few Cabinet members from the South. Last week, Mr. Holder’s Justice Department sued the state of Texas to stop a new voter ID law, even though the US Supreme Court ruled earlier this summer that Southern states no longer need to get special clearance from Washington under the Voting Rights Act to change their voting laws, because, as Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has noted, “The South has changed.”
Noting that 7 of the top 10 destinations for black Americans over the past two decades have been Southern states, The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto asked this week, “Now, why would blacks move out of big cities in the Northeast, the Midwest and California and into the South and the suburbs? In part for the same reasons nonblacks do: in search of better economic opportunities and quality of life. But also because the factor that drove blacks in particular to leave the South no longer exists. Jim Crow is now long dead….”
The country that greets Obama’s speech on Wednesday is one that began his presidency with a grand hope of racial reconciliation – but that now grasps it will have to scale back expectations.
At the start of Obama’s first term, 79 percent of whites and 63 percent of blacks reported that they thought race relations were good in America. Today, 52 percent of whites feel that way, according to polling by Hart Research Associations and Public Opinion Strategies. The number of blacks who have a favorable view of race relations has been nearly halved, to 38 percent.
“We have lost ground, especially black people, on the number of people graduating from high school,” conservative commentator Herman Cain, who is black, told The Hill newspaper this week. “We have lost ground, black people, on babies born out of wedlock. We have lost ground, a bit, on racial tension: I don’t think it is as bad as the '50s and '60s, but the flames have been fanned by some of the things in the media.”
There are other divides along the racial front. Liberals, including Obama, believe that racial injustice exists in today’s America. Conservatives suggest that civil rights activists use hyperbole to describe the racial climate, for political or personal gain.
The killing of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman may have helped to exacerbate those divides, as did more recent news stories around racist tweets sent by a black teenager accused of murdering a white Australian baseball player in Duncan, Okla., earlier this month.
For many Americans watching the race debate from the sidelines, one big question has become whether the price of forcing racial justice is too high, and whether the higher moral ideals of a just society have begun to replace the real goal of the civil rights movement: equal, not guaranteed, opportunity for all.
It’s one thing to remove segregation when it comes to access to public places, critics argue. But it’s quite another, they say, to provide directives to employers, as the US Department of Labor did earlier this year, that they could lose federal contracts if they use criminal background checks to justify not hiring workers. The directive mentioned that criminal background checks have a greater impact on employment opportunities for blacks than whites.
The sense that the Obama administration is using such directives to racially configure the workforce may be feeding a growing unease among some white Americans, documented in 2011 by Tufts University psychologist Sam Sommers, that the pursuit of civil rights has become a zero-sum game. In this view, continued attempts to raise up black America – almost 50 years after passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act – mean a whittling away of white America.
Meanwhile, the most vexing issue facing young black Americans is unemployment, which remains stubbornly and staggeringly high at 41 percent for black teenagers (compared with 20 percent for white teenagers).
“[What Obama has] is evangelical fervor and an ability to reach out and establish connections,” says Richard Epstein, Obama’s former dean at the University of Chicago Law School, who is now a scholar at the Hoover Institution. “That wins elections, but it doesn’t solve technical [economic] issues that he flat out doesn’t understand.... They’re winning the little battles, but they keep losing the big wars. And that’s the great tragedy of the civil rights movement.”
For his part, Tibbs, the critical race theorist, suggests that Obama’s speech on Wednesday may mark the end of a cultural and political arc that stretches from King to Obama. It may be replaced, he suggests, with a post-civil rights arc that more deeply addresses contemporary problems in black America.
“It’s sometimes hard to disconnect ourselves from the past, and we want to move along,” he says. “And none of this means we can’t at some point escape race in America. But to turn a blind eye and to say we shouldn’t have this discussion anymore is intellectually dishonest and personally immoral.”