Obama vs. History

To understand why the president has failed to address economic inequity, listen to his strange, ahistorical diagnosis of the problem.

By Imara Jones Aug 29, 2013

On the very site of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the nation’s first black president told America yesterday that African-Americans and other people of color carry a substantial portion of the blame for the persistence of economic inequality. Sadly, his speech employed the very stereotypes that were used to legitimate racial discrimination and economic injustice 50 years ago. But like those caricatures of historically marginalized people, the president’s analysis of where America veered off course in its long walk toward freedom is simply ahistorical and factually inaccurate.

Twenty minutes into his commemorative address, President Obama shockingly declared that the fight for freedom had "lost its way" because historically marginalized Americans had instigated "self-defeating riots" in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. He added that if progressives and communities of color were "honest" they’d be compelled to admit that their "call for equality of opportunity" had devolved into "a mere desire for government support." Obama wrapped up his examination of this period of American history by saying that blacks and Latinos had often acted "as if we had no agency in our liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child."

What makes the president’s remarks so troubling is that it’s impossible to fix problems that are mislabeled and misdiagnosed. Consequently, the president’s erroneous assessment of the continuation of racial and economic inequity may provide insight as to why his administration has not pushed coherent policies to end the racial aspects of economic unfairness. From his talk, Obama indicates that he sees them as character flaws rather than structural ones.

In a sign of begrudging progress however, yesterday’s address was one of the rare occasions–if not the first time–that President Obama has used the words "black" and "unemployment" together in the same sentence.

He also acknowledged, though somewhat tepidly, that the racial wealth gap had expanded. Yet this is a vast understatement. The wealth gap between whites and blacks, as well as whites and Latinos, is the highest on record. And there’s no clear Obama proposal to begin to close it. Nor is there a clear proposal for homeownership in communities of color, which has also plummeted to new historic lows.

The organizers of the original March on Washington, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, didn’t share the president’s reticence in identifying the systemic unfairness that allowed racial and economic injustice to thrive. That’s why the 1963 march called for fundamental structural changes to America’s economic system, such as a program to find work for everyone without a job, equal access to decent housing, and a minimum wage that in today’s dollars would be the equivalent of $15 an hour.

And that’s why after the march, Rustin took the lead in developing a blueprint for economic equity in the country. That plan, called The Freedom Budget, would form the basis for President Lyndon Johnson’s War Against Poverty and Great Society programs, now-familiar initiatives that advanced economic opportunities in communities of color in particular.  These include the dramatic expansion in educational access through Head Start, help for struggling school districts, and financial support to college students; guaranteed health care for the nation’s poor and working poor through Medicaid; food security through food stamps; and an increased minimum wage.

But the War Against Poverty inspired by Rustin’s work never fully got off the ground and it remains unfinished. That’s because funds earmarked for economic justice here at home were eventually diverted to wage war abroad. Though Obama believes that the programs of the 1960s were halted by the bitterness and self-defeating actions of people of color, the Vietnam conflict is what actually drove a stake through the heart of these efforts.

Sergeant Shriver, who led President Johnson’s anti-poverty effort, told PBS’ American Experience, "The War Against Poverty was killed by the war in Vietnam–first of all, because of the lack of money." King in 1967 echoed the same point more dramatically, "We spend approximately $500,000 to kill every enemy soldier in Vietnam, while we spend only $53 per person in the so-called ‘War Against Poverty.’"

Moreover, the electoral backlash by many whites against these programs did not help.

In 1968, Richard Nixon swept to office on a wave of Southern discontent centered on the belief that things had gone too far. Though President Nixon cranked up certain initiatives that would help curb racial and economic injustice, such as affirmative action, the electoral blueprint he laid out set the stage for the next 25 years.

In fact, Ronald Reagan rode white resentment to capture the White House in 1980. Speaking in the exact same Mississippi town where four civil rights workers were murdered in 1964, he launched his campaign by promising to "reorder these priorities" and restore "states’ rights." Once in office, President Reagan worked diligently to fulfill his promise.

Reagan rolled back domestic spending and funneled the money into tax cuts that disproportionately benefitted wealthy whites at the expense of everyone else. It was during Reagan’s presidency that the racial wealth gap took off. More recently, President George W. Bush expanded Reagan’s tax cuts and put them on steroids. The Bush tax cuts and the two unfunded wars began in his presidency piled up debt–a debt that conservatives are using right now to justify underinvesting in black and brown communities.

So in the five decades since the original gathering on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, war and economic policies, fueled by political backlash, have made America’s march towards jobs and freedom more arduous. But instead of telling this truth, President Obama treated his audience to an assessment that declared violence and laziness in communities of color as the actual cause of inequity. The evidence points clearly in a different direction.