On Wednesday I went to the 50th Anniversary of the famous March on Washington, during which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Monument. In what was clearly intended to be a tribute and to be reminiscent of the great orator, President Obama, President Bill Clinton, and President Jimmy Carter spoke on the same spot today, in a ceremony during which a bell-ringing event (which also took place worldwide) harkened back to the conclusion of MLK’s speech:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

(For full text, see here.) The speech is pure poetry. Reading it, which I did recently when I wrote a post urging people to attend this historic event, I was surprised at how many phrases and elements of the speech are, today, commonly known. For instance, not only does the speech contain the famous refrains of “Let freedom ring” and “I have a dream,” it contains many other lines that have since become ingrained in American culture, such as, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Fifty years later, justice has not rolled down like waters or righteousness like a stream. Instead, we still have stand your ground laws; stop and frisk laws; mass incarceration (disproportionately of African American youths) at the highest rate of any nation; taxes that overwhelmingly favor the rich and penalize the poor; and school systems that are consistently proven to be failing our youth. What’s wrong?

According to President Obama, in his speech on Wednesday: “the position of all working Americans, regardless of color, has eroded, making the dream Dr. King described even more elusive.” Indeed, the original March on Washington was about social and economic justice. This week, Obama drew attention back to that original focus on economic justice:

In some ways, though, the securing of civil rights, voting rights, the eradication of legalized discrimination – the very significance of these victories may have obscured a second goal of the march, for the men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract idea. They were there seeking jobs as well as justice – not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity. For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal?

Obama is spot on in saying that “the presence of economic opportunity” is central to the pursuit of social justice. African Americans and other minority groups are too often denied work because of discrimination and because the communities in which they grow up have underfunded school systems, police forces, community organizations, and municipalities. Were this not the case, argued the President, we would see an unemployment rate among African Americans more comparable to the unemployment rate among Whites, instead of being twice as high.

In focusing so much on the economy, however, Obama neglected to substantially take on some of the most acute ongoing manifestations of racism today, such as stop and frisk, mass incarceration, or the racism behind the killing of unarmed black men like Trayvon Martin.

For this reason Obama’s speech struck me as politically self-serving rather than reverent of the great Reverend. His platform is about jobs and the economy; these are subjects that unite, rather than divide. But race is a touchy subject that reminds people of their own nasty instincts. Focusing on the economic aspect of the original march is a convenient way to divert attention from a touchy subject. But it’s a subject that should be addressed.

President Obama is perhaps the most look-to, and looked-up-to person alive, and for him to brush race under the rug is to trivialize the effect it has on the lives of millions of Americans and people worldwide. In his speech, he argued:

Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself. All of that history is how progress stalled. That’s how hope was diverted. It’s how our country remained divided.

Basically, this seems to suggest that those who were outraged by police brutality and other racist acts are themselves to blame for the polarization of American politics and the failure of neoliberal finance. Had they worked hard like everyone else, everything would have worked out. Yet for many ordinary people, buffeted by racism and poverty, it’s more difficult than the President makes it sound to get ahead. Of course it can, and should, be done. And it’s even good that Obama, at every opportunity he gets, reminds people of this. But let’s not forget that for many people it is nearly impossible to get out of the poverty they are born into.

Economics is one answer. But it goes hand in hand with social justice.

How can people get ahead when they are simultaneously struggling for economic survival and under attack by a system that judges them on the color of the skin and not “the content of their character”?

For America to change, we need more than the same old tired economic tropes about jobs. We need a leader who will speak out directly against all of the forms of injustice in our society.

Ian Hoffman is a former Tikkun intern. He is also a student at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.


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