Obama Will Emphasize Class and Race at March on Washington 50th Anniversary

By Brentin Mock Aug 19, 2013

Over the weekend, The Washington Post presented a preview of President Obama’s speech at the upcoming 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which they report will strongly emphasize economic inequality problems, even more so than racial inequality. Obama’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett told Washington Post reporter Zachary Goldfarb that Obama "wants to  create opportunity and to make sure the level playing field is ready for everybody."

Some activists who represent the interests of black communities have accused Obama of not addressing race more forcefully in the public eye — and not enough specifically on how to solve the impacts of racism on African Americans specifically. The Obama administration is pushing for reforms in prison sentencing for drug-related crimes, which overwhelmingly impact young black men and women. But news radio host Tavis Smiley, who reports on African-American issues and has been a sharp critic of Obama, wrote for CNN.com this weekend that those reforms took too long.   

Even in the Obama era, although President Obama initially campaigned on a one-to-one ratio in this area of sentencing, what he signed into law in 2010 was 18-to-1," wrote Smiley. "Better, but not nearly good enough."

Activists like Al Sharpton have been more sympathetic to Obama, in what he can and can’t address as President of the United States. In the Washington Post article, Sharpton told Goldfarb, "Those critics of Obama who want him to lead the movement are not studying history. If this becomes an Obama-led movement, we’d be caught in bickering and the whole obstruction and gridlock in Washington."

The August 28, 1963 march focused on both race and economics. It was coordinated in part by A. Philip Randolph who organized around race and labor discrimination. One of the speakers at that march was Walter Reuther, the president of the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, which was a chapter of the AFL-CIO labor union.  Whitney Young, executive director of the jobs-focused National Urban League, was also a speaker. 

William Julius Wilson, the Harvard scholar on race and class who wrote the book "The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy," said in the Washington Post that he "strongly believes" that Obama is aware of the impact of economic discrimination on race. He told Goldfarb that opportunities for upward mobility in America are "especially acute for low-skilled black males," many of whom "turn to crime and end up in prison, which further marginalizes them and decreases their employment opportunities."